Skip to main content

Freedom at last for New York ferrets?

By Errol Louis
May 30, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT