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May 12, 2021

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How did the ferret weasel into this mess?

Parsing the oft-maligned furry creature’s stormy relationship with politics and pop culture

Jim and Dawn Gibbons

Gov. Jim Gibbons kisses his wife Dawn in August 2003. Launch slideshow »

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“It was once said in another context that being in close quarters with such a volatile person was like being locked in a phone booth with an enraged ferret.”

— Documents filed on behalf of Gov. Jim Gibbons in his divorce from Dawn Gibbons

Enraged ferret. The words became a sensation moments after they appeared in the court filings Monday. They rocketed around the Internet and made their way onto national newscasts. People found the term a hilarious way to convey acrimony.

Was it a nice thing to say about your soon-to-be ex-wife? Who cares? The better question is: Why a ferret? Why not a rattlesnake or a rabid bat?

Ferret lovers everywhere are wondering the same thing. Why does American culture continue to stereotype the cute, weasel-like creatures as, well, weasel-like, with 400 horsepower of mean.

The attorney responsible for “enraged ferret” is Gary Silverman, of Reno-based Silverman, Decaria & Kattelman. We asked him.

We were not the first to do so.

“The day that hit the news, my best friend from Houston called and asked me what I had against ferrets,” Silverman said.

Then he explained it to us. He was paraphrasing a 30- or 40-year old Rolling Stone article that said working for Democratic vice-presidential candidate Ed Muskie was “like being trapped in a boxcar with an enraged ferret.”

We looked up the article, by author Hunter S. Thompson. What we found is not going to please ferret lovers.

Thompson wrote that “working for Big Ed was something like being locked in a rolling boxcar with a vicious 200-pound water rat.”

That’s the kind of esteem a ferret earns. An attorney gets his angry animals confused and comes up with ferret. An enraged ferret.

How fair is that?

Let’s examine the evidence.

Mustela putorius furo is a member of the weasel family and a cousin of polecats. It is also one of the world’s oldest domesticated animals. Mostly, ferrets were used for pest control or for hunting, which is primarily done by releasing ferrets down holes to chase out or kill rabbits. From whence we get the phrase “ferreting out.”

More recently, people have kept ferrets as pets. Ferret fanciers prize the animals for their curiosity and playfulness, as well as their weaselly cuteness.

Detractors complain about their smell, hyperactivity, biting and tendency to climb inside and be killed by recliners. Ferrets are legal as pets in Nevada and most other places, though not California, Hawaii, New York City or Washington, D.C.

Which brings us to ferrets in politics. In 2002, the founder of Ferrets Anonymous ran for lieutenant governor of California as a Libertarian candidate. His entire platform was ferret legalization. He lost.

In 1999, as mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani (whose face is not unlike that of a ferret) laced into a pro-ferret radio caller, saying he was “mentally sick” and had “excessive concern with little weasels.”

Before he was governor of a ferret-banning state, Arnold Schwarzenegger had one as a pet in “Kindergarten Cop.” It was cute.

But what are ferrets like when they get enraged?

Ferret fanciers will tell you that the average ferret is no more inclined to evil than a house cat, which is not exactly high praise. Ferrets, like cats, are carnivores and they will kill for food or sport. They have claws like needles and teeth like tacks. In fighting mode, a ferret leaps and twists and snarls and goes around and around and over and under its target in a blaze of fur.

So, if the question is, “Would you like to be locked in a phone booth with an enraged ferret?” the answer is probably no.

But still, why not an angry wolverine or a swarm of bees or a dyspeptic wombat?

Why a ferret?

Well, we hate to resort to so craven an explanation, but here it goes:

“Ferret” just sounds funny.

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