Ferret Domestication History – How & When It All Happened?

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Have you ever asked yourself how come ferrets are domesticated?

They are very popular today as pets, but what about the ferret history?

I wondered the same thing and that is why I made a research about that. I have found answers to many questions that include: Where are they from? How long are they among us? For what were they bred? I can really say that their history is actually extremely interesting and somewhat mysterious.

Who Are Ferret Ancestors?

The moment you dive into ferret history, you will be amazed. It is a pretty mysterious history and we can’t even say with 100% certainty their real origin. There are three main theories, every theory is located on one continent. There is one that is more probable than the other two. Now, I don’t want to keep you waiting, let’s check out those theories!

European Polecat Theory

The first theory and the most probable one is that ferret’s ancestors are European polecats. There are two types of polecats, the Western or European polecat, and the Steppe or Siberian polecat. As you can see by their names, they are located in (western) Europe and (eastern) Europe to China. Their Latin names are Mustela putorious and Mustela eversmannii. A ferret’s Latin name is Mustela putorious furo so we can see that this is the theory accepted all over the world. Ferrets belong in the genus Mustela, in the family Mustelidae. There are over 60 species of weasels, stoats, badgers, skunks, minks, and otters in that family.

ferret ancestor european polecatPhoto Source: Earlham Institute

Northern African Theory

The second theory is actually connected to the first one. This means that European polecat actually descends from a North African lineage of the species. Thanks to many DNA analysis, we learned that ferrets were domesticated around 2,500 years ago. What is interesting is that there is a possibility that ancient Egyptians were the ones who made the first contact with wild animals. They probably used them for hunting other smaller animals. But, this remains a theory because there isn’t any evidence that ferret was around at that time. There aren’t any drawings, any remains, or any knowledge of wild polecat in that area.

black footed ferretPhoto Source: Britannica – Ryan Hagerty—NCTC Image Library /U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

North American Theory

The last theory of ferret domestication is located in North America. That theory says that ferrets’ ancestors are connected to Black-footed ferrets. This is the weakest theory because after extensive research it was proven that those animals don’t have that much in common. The biggest difference is in their physical structure. Our pet ferrets have a similar structure to European polecats, not to Black-footed ferrets. Besides physical differences, there are also different genetic characteristics so we can scratch the North American theory. But, if you want to learn more about Black-footed ferrets, read my post about them!

Why Would Someone Domesticate Ferrets?

The main reason to domesticate ferrets was to prevent expanding rats, mice, and rabbits. Throughout history, they were considered pests and most wild ones are considered that today too. Those pests chewed and damaged crops so people needed something to stop them and prevent them from doing it in the future. Now, you probably think what about cats or dogs? Well, they were too big to follow rats and mice in narrow spaces so humans needed to find other solutions – this is where ferret history among us begins. It all started around 2500 years ago.

First Documented Ferret

One of the first documents in ferret history that mentioned some ferret-like animal was in Ancient Greece in 450 BC. There are a few documents Aristophanes and Aristotle wrote in 350 BC too, but most of them were destroyed so it is unclear. The important person who mentioned ferrets is Strabo. He wrote about rabbit overpopulation on the Balearic Islands that caused famine.

Strabo mentioned ferretsPhoto Source: Wikipedia

People had to get rid of rabbits and they used a “Libyan animal” for hunting. Those ferret-like animals were wild so people didn’t have interaction with them, they muzzled the animals and released them in rabbit holes. Rabbit frightened by that small but furious animal would run out of the tunnel and people with dogs did the rest. Sounds familiar? The same method is using today in some countries to hunt rabbits.

Agile Little Hunters

Since then, ferrets were mentioned a few more times in ancient documentation. As time passed, they were mentioned more and more as people realized they can use them for hunting, but in households too. You could say that ferrets were working animals made for the lower or middle class to keep the pests away. With that in mind, their popularity grew every day.

women hunting with ferrets in Britain 1316-1321Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Europe Many Years Later

In 1200 ferrets spread to Germany and to England. In England, church officials held ferrets because of their high price. You couldn’t own a ferret if you didn’t have an annual income of 40 shillings. You can say that ferrets moved from a lower class to high class. But, their purpose stayed the same. People used ferrets for… Well, hunting rats and rabbits.

First Albino Ferret

The interesting fact is that in the first albino ferret was documented also in Europe, to be more exact, in Zürich. In 1551, Gerner wrote a document that says that the color of albino ferret looks like ”the color of wool stained with urine”. Since that vivid description, we can find more and more ferrets in history books.

Ferret History Travels On Ships

People realized that ferrets are extremely useful so they started to carry them around with them. On ships, ferrets eventually replaced cats and dogs (for the same reason as earlier in the paragraph above – they can fit in narrow spaces). Dogs weren’t good because they were barking and cats decided to catch mice when they felt like it. Due to ferret’s crazy personality and fast body, people kept them as rodent protection, but also as pets. Who wouldn’t want to have a crazy little furbaby in the cabin? With spreading on ships, ferrets conquered every part of the world.

Ferret History In America

This is the part where we can see that ferret domestication wasn’t in America. Domesticated ferret came to America by ship in the 18th century, which was much later than their actual domestication. They were our little helpers on the ships and they continue doing their job on the land too. Americans realized that ferrets are extremely useful so they imported as many ferrets as they could during the next few decades. They used them to hunt rats and rabbits, but also raccoons. They loved their distinctive smell, because the moment one rodent smelled ferret, it ran away.

Professional Ferret Handlers

You didn’t have to own a ferret if you didn’t want one. Due to their popularity, there were professional “ferretmeisters” who would come to your farm with ferrets if you had a pest problem. They traveled from one farm to the other and providing service for a certain price. Ferrets chased pests out of their shelter and dogs and men caught them, just like in ancient times. But, with the development of industry, chemicals against rodents were invented and there was no need for ferret terminator teams, so they eventually stopped working.

Professional Ferret Handlers ferretmeistersPhoto Source: Library Of Congress

Ferret History in New Zealand

New Zealand is the place in ferret history where they directly influenced nature among us. But, it all started a few years before the ferret’s arrival. In 1860 rabbits came to New Zealand and everything turned upside down. Rabbits took over the wildlife in New Zealand because they didn’t have any natural enemies. People needed to find a solution. About 20 years later they released thousands of ferrets and weasels to hunt down rabbits.

Wild Ferret Colony Appeared

New Zealand’s climate is perfect for ferrets so that is the only place there is a wild colony of ferrets. The same reason why rabbits took over New Zealand, ferrets took it over too around 1900. Ferrets didn’t have a natural enemy, except humans. Those ferrets did hunt rabbits, but they also hunted birds of New Zealand and most of them can’t fly. Unfortunately, ferrets and weasels contributed to many birds’ decline, even extinction due to overhunting. Interestingly enough, New Zealand is the only place in the world where there are wild ferrets.

Ferret History In New Zealand And Austraila

Ferret History in Australia

The same story in the history of ferrets is in Australia at a similar time. Rabbits came to Australia, made a mess and ferrets came a few years later to control their number. But, since Australia’s climate is more unfavorable for ferrets and they have predators who would eat ferrets like foxes, feral cats, and dingos, they didn’t establish wild colonies there.

Ferrets As Working Animals

With the development of chemical repellents and other means of reducing pests, we didn’t need ferrets anymore. But, their specific body type, their speed, and love for small and tight spaces gave them other jobs.

Transporting Cables

Ferrets were a perfect candidate for cable transport in long pipes. They worked alongside humans in telephone companies, covering many events on television, they were even companions to oilmen in the North Sea. All you had to do was attach a cable to a ferret’s harness and release it in the pipe. A ferret will run through the pipe and end up on the other end in a short time. But, with the mechanization, machines replaced ferrets and they were once more unemployed.

Ferret Transporting CablesPhoto Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ferret Legging

I am not sure I can call this a job, but it was a rather odd activity you could do with a ferret in England. Only the bravest and the most stubborn men played it in English pubs. The game is pretty simple, but I don’t think anyone would want to play it again. For that game, they needed ferrets and few strings. A competitor tied strings on the end of his pants (both legs) and then someone would release ferrets down his pants. The man who can stay the longest with ferrets down his pants is the winner. The record holder is from Yorkshire and he had ferrets in his pants for more than 5 hours.

Ferret LeggingPhoto Source: Yorkunion

Fur Production

Unfortunately, ferrets were popular for centuries in the fur industry in Europe. For a short period of time, this practice was popular in the USA around the beginning of the 20th century. Their dark color was attractive which lead to extensive breeding too. But, with time, the fur industry in the USA eventually died out.

Conclusion:

Ferret’s history is extremely interesting and extremely rich. You can see that in those 2,500 years since ferret domestication many things happened. I am particularly amazed by their progression from basic hunters to cable transporters and eventually, our beloved pets.

Sources:
Ferret History by Susan Brown, DVM
The Vincent Wildlife Trust
The domestication of the ferret by Clifford Owen in The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals by Peter J. Ucko and G.W. Dimblebyeds

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Anja Delic
Anja is a Friendly Ferret owner and a ferret parent who is involved in the ferret world for more than 10 years. She started her Friendly Ferret blog when she got her first ferret Frida 8 years ago. In 2013, Friendly Ferret was recognized as a great source of information and it has become a good ferret brand for education, products, and fun. Since then, Anja was a part in many ferrets shows as a sponsor and as a judge, and she met many great and interesting people who share the same passion as her - ferrets. Anja is always opened for suggestions and advice, so if you have something to ask or say about ferrets, feel free to contact her on Instagram, Facebook Fan Page, Twitter or support@friendlyferret.com