Ferret Owners Are Weirdos, and I’m One of Them

Aaron Gilbreath
8 min readJan 3, 2020
Author with the Ferret named Ping. Photo by Jeni Clarke, Oregon Ferret Shelter

People think of ferrets as giant rats that smell like musk and pee, but any ferret owner will tell you that ferrets aren’t rats. They’re mustelids, which, without getting into the biology of anal glands and incisors, makes ferrets as different from rats as humans are from donkeys. And you get used to the smell. I should know — I owned a ferret named Wiggy, and he made me laugh for his entire seven-year life. Despite his strange, slithery body, we were close friends, and I’ve long questioned why ferret owners get labeled as weirdos.

My girlfriend broke it down for me: “You equate rats with filth, and ferrets are rat-like. They smell, shred things, and steal your stuff to stash it in their nests. Because of that, they seem like a hoarder’s pet, the kind a dirty person would have.” She said all of this while petting her neurotic bony greyhound. So, I said, if it’s true that owners often resemble their pets, then ferrets are naturally linked to people who sit around their apartments in piss-stained sweatpants, smoking cigarettes with all the windows closed and eating pizzas just to collect the boxes? “Exactly,” she replied. Her greyhound stared unblinking.

To meet the Ferret People in person and prove the stereotype wrong, I attended the September meeting of the Friends of Ferrets Club meeting at the Oregon Ferret Shelter, the West Coast’s largest all-ferret, no-kill sanctuary. A married couple runs the nonprofit organization in their semi-rural home near Portland, rescuing ferrets and putting them up for adoption.

When I walked in, the musk scent hit me like a broom handle. Fifteen people sat in the living room eating dinner around a large circular playpen filled with tubes and prancing ferrets. The group was mixed: young and old, heavy and skinny, tattooed and not. Mostly white. I greeted them with a wave. They said hello and waved back.

Dave Mathis, who runs the Oregon Ferret Shelter, holds up a rare breed. Photo by author

A short-haired woman extended her hand. “I’m Chris.” She and her husband Dave Mathis have run the shelter since 1993. I grabbed some food, and before long Dave was describing how pine martens crush the skulls of their pray and eat the brains first. “That’s where the fat…

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Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.