It is extremely difficult — not to mention somewhat unfair — to try and select a single person or couple from the United Kingdom to represent that great country. Should I pick Roy and Chris, who are unique as well as admirable, or should it be Jackie, who is hard working and sweet? Should it be Shelia, who has helped me so much, or George, who took time out of his schedule to drive me from place to place? It could be any one of several dozen people who took the time and effort to insure my research was successful and intellectually profitable. I can’t pick one without slighting all the others. [Bob Church was recently in the United Kingdom for several weeks to gather data for his research on ferrets. — Eds.]
Such a decision is gut-wrenching, but I finally persuaded myself to talk about Jane and Harry Ruutel, who live in a small town in southern England. I didn’t choose them for any one particular quality, nor for their helpfulness and hospitality toward their 46+ ferrets (and me). And, I didn’t choose them because of their selfless work running West Sussex Ferret Welfare, a ferret sanctuary and rescue. Rather, I chose them because of their enrichment program; in a country where people are concerned about enrichment enough to initiate their own programs, the Ruutels stand out. They literally stand out; their enrichment program is largely an outdoor event.
The Ruutels have 46 ferrets. They have them upstairs. They have them in their living room. They have them in outdoor hutches. They want to convince a neighbor to make land available so they can house even more. I half expected to see ferrets taking up quarters in the family refrigerator. Yet, with all these ferrets and only two caregivers, I never noticed a single animal performing stereotypic behavior. Although housed in cages, some of the typical small size seen in many shelters, the ferrets under the Ruutels’ care were happy, curious, confident and remarkably unstressed.
The Ferret Garden
A paramount reason, other than the loving nature of Jane and Harry toward their ferrets, is the large enrichment area they refer to as their ferret garden. A number of British backyards would hardly qualify for the term by North American standards. The Ruutels’ garden is hardly larger in square feet than my two-car garage, but they have maximized space, opened areas for play, and encouraged “normal ferret behavior” with a mixture of plants, tubes, water features, tents and toys. It is obviously not the size of the space that counts, but rather the complexity and ability to catch the interest of the ferrets.
A typical day begins with the Ruutels checking up on all the ferrets, changing newspaper latrines, checking water and food, and releasing groups into the ferret garden. The ferrets run through the living room and out the back door, literally bouncing into the garden area. Two circles of clover are carefully preserved to allow the ferrets an area for stalking, rolling and digging for worms. The clover form islands on a sea of clipped grass, which is surrounded by dirt beds planted with various ferret-friendly plants.
Spread out on the clover are an array of tubes and tents, each pegged in place with a tent stake to prevent movement, while allowing easy removal for garden chores. At one end of the garden is the “annex,” a screened outdoor playroom that ferrets can use in poor weather. At the rear of the garden are several ferret sheds that house the “outdoor groups.” The Ruutels have a small deck with tables and chairs so they can watch their ferrets frolic in the sun, as well as monitor their activities for signs of health problems, or to keep them out of trouble. Near the house is a concrete pad that has several trays filled with varying amounts of water to allow the ferrets an opportunity to dip their feet, or even snorkel a bit.
The proof of the pudding is in the results, and the Ruutels’ pudding seems to be well done. Ferrets can make the decision to go outside or stay indoors, a type of decision-making that is extremely enriching and stress relieving. They can choose what activities they wish to pursue, from digging in the soil, to rolling in the clover, to playing in water, and even to playing with the Ruutels or another ferret. They can bask in the sunshine, dig for worms and even roll in the soft dirt as they see fit.
A visit to the Ferret Garden is quite entertaining for people as well. Jane quipped, “I think we could sell tickets to watch their antics,” as she teased a ferret with a toy on a stick. Harry was simply content to sip at his tea and watch a pair of ferrets play tag, chasing each other through the tube network pegged in place on the grass. As a guest, I was allowed to crawl in the clover with the ferrets, as well as duck under a hedge or two for a quick photo. The ferrets were not impressed with my quadruped performances, and I was the victim of a sneak attack or two.
Part of my research is to carefully check the ferrets for signs of stress, and the ferrets in the Ruutels’ care were remarkable free from the external signs of such trouble. Part of this is because the Ruutels do not force ferrets to cohabitate if they choose not to do so, which clearly reduces stress. Another part is because the Ruutels are very tactile and are always touching and interacting with the ferrets, another good way of stress reduction. But it is obvious that the “Ferret Garden” plays an important role in the Ruutels’ enrichment program and, from what I’ve seen, a very good one. It simply allows ferrets to act like ferrets. What could be better? From my perspective, not much! Excuse me while I go out in the garden and dig for ferrets.
You can contact the Ruutels for advice on outdoor enclosures, to sponsor a ferret, or to make contributions to their shelter by visiting their website.
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Bob Church is a former photojournalist and current zooarcheologist with degrees in biology (zoology) and anthropology (archaeology). He resides in Missouri with 19 ferrets that keep his chicken blender overheated and his heart overfull.