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Freedom at last for New York ferrets?

By Errol Louis
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Errol Louis: New York City is considering an end to a 55-year-old ban on owning ferrets
  • Louis: City's owners of undocumented ferrets have submitted petition to lift the ban
  • Louis: What's next? Beavers, hedgehogs, elephants, wolverines, numbats, stoats?
  • Ex-Mayor Giuliani hated ferrets, or "weasels," famously berated activist. (It's online)

Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has opened the door to Noah's ark by considering an end to the ban on owning ferrets, which dates to 1959.

New York City's ferret owners -- a shadowy underground that smuggles and coddles the beasts in defiance of the law -- say that their pets, which are legal to own everywhere in America except Hawaii and California, should not be banned from the city.

If only things were that simple.

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

Having voluntarily chosen to live locked up in brick and steel towers, the 8 million homo sapiens who dwell in New York tend to get antsy about the idea of sharing our fancy concrete cage with other animals.

Our wariness is codified in law, leaving no room for confusion: Section 161.01 of the New York City Health Code describes and classifies the species that cannot be kept as pets, with mind-numbing taxonomic precision.

Barring professional exceptions like running a licensed zoo, circus or laboratory, says the code, it is illegal to own a polar, grizzly, or brown bear. New Yorkers cannot own bats, beavers, wolves, lemurs, hedgehogs, porcupines, elephants or dolphins.

A priest in Madrid blesses a ferret at the blessing of the animals ceremony on St. Anthony\'s Day.
A priest in Madrid blesses a ferret at the blessing of the animals ceremony on St. Anthony's Day.

You might consider these prohibitions to be common sense. Who needs a law? You'd be wrong. In 2003, a New Yorker named Antoine Yates was discovered to be living in a Harlem public housing project with an alligator and a 400-pound Bengal tiger. The situation came to light after Yates showed up at the emergency room with a suspiciously large bite wound.

So the code is a guide to help people avoid getting hurt. It prohibits hooved animals, "including, but not limited to, deer, antelope, sheep, giraffe and hippopotamus."

Sounds good to me. It's hard enough to find parking on my block. Who needs to worry about hippopotamuses taking up spaces?

But unlike most of the beasts on the forbidden list, the wily ferrets have developed a political constituency.
Errol Louis

New Yorkers cannot legally own members of the Procyonidae family, including "kinkajou, cacomistle, cat-bear, panda and coatimundi." Again, no problem. To tell the truth, I never heard of any of those creatures except the panda -- although a cat-bear reminds me of a popular science fiction series I read as a kid, featuring 500-pound feline aliens that nearly wipe out the human race.

Marsupials are prohibited in New York: No Tasmanian devils, no kangaroos, and none of those other odd-sounding Down Under critters like dasyure, bandicoot, cuscus and numbat.

You also cannot own any "nonhuman" primate.

And no ferrets.

But unlike most of the beasts on the forbidden list, the wily ferrets have developed a political constituency.

"They have an odd half-monkey, half-dog kind of intelligence that bonds them to their people and makes them always very interesting and often very funny" is how one owner described her pet to the City Council at a hearing in 1999. When pressed on the subject of ferret attacks on humans, one council member noted that New York probably has more spouse bites than ferret bites.

Rudy Giuliani, the mayor at the time, was having none of it. He famously berated a ferret advocate on a radio program, telling him, "There is something really, really, very sad about you," and "This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness." Giuliani's rant remains posted online to this day, as does an official statement denouncing the creatures.

Fast-forward to 2014, and a new mayor already embroiled in a high-profile battle over whether to ban horse-drawn carriages from the city. The Department of Health announced it has received a petition from the pro-ferret forces, and will duly consider lifting the ban.

A word of advice to de Blasio: Tread carefully. If the ferrets get traction, it's hard to say where the revolution will end. People may want to have zorilles, wolverines or stoats. Advocates for binturongs, fossa, linsangs and suricates -- whatever those are -- may follow the ferret freedom fighters.

And the scene down at City Hall, where one protest or another already takes place on any given day, could start to get truly wild.

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