The ferret is a small pet, usually weighing from 1 to 3 pounds and measuring 13 to 20 inches long, but that doesn’t mean it can’t inspire great loyalty and passion in people. A case in point is the Ferret Mailing List (FML), which began on December 21, 1987. This week marks its 25th anniversary, and it’s still going strong, with a digest being sent out daily to more than 2,300 subscribers.
This silver anniversary means that the Ferret Mailing List is older than Yahoo (founded in 1994) and Google (founded in 1998). So what exactly is the Ferret Mailing List and how did it all begin?
Chris Lewis and Patricia Paley term their family as membership number “O,” because they originated the list. Paley said it came about because when they moved to a house and were finally able to have a pet, they researched which would be the most responsible choice for their lifestyle. Ferrets fit, and they both liked them. But their research revealed that information about ferrets was difficult to find.
“Twenty-five years ago, [there were] no web pages, no social networking applications, all that was available for reaching out for information was email and Usenet news groups,” Paley said. “There was a serious lack of information and means to making contact with others. Once we had become a ferret parent, we realized that ferret owners, vets and breeders had no serious way of sharing information.” She added that spam and bullies disrupted many news groups and made it a chore to find trustworthy information on them.
“Chris suggested that as with several of the newsgroups that he required to do his day job, the moderated mailing list would allow us to filter out the spam and trolls and make sure that the members received only information that would be useful and concise so the professional members such as veterinarians would not be put off by excessive unrelated material.”
Paley said that Chris put together the material to start the first Ferret Mailing List at the start of Christmas break in 1987. An announcement on the rec.pets.ferret Usenet news group got it going. Leonard Bottleman and Sukie Crandall were among the first 10 who responded to the announcement and became charter members, and The Ferret Mailing List grew from there. “Suddenly, the world was much smaller and the need to connect and share had a viable forum to use,” Paley said.
Bottleman, who has owned ferrets since 1982, appreciated what the Ferret Mailing List did. “The FML was moderated and had active members who posted accurate and up-to-date information about ferret care, and it was a good place to share stories with other ferret enthusiasts.”
Crandall said ferrets have been in her family for more than 30 years. “The FML is how I finish my night or begin my morning,” she said.
At the end of November 1994, with issue 1027, Lewis handed over all moderating to Bill Gruber, also known as BIG, who had joined the Ferret Mailing List on issue 138 and been filling in as moderator on occasion when Lewis was away or busy.
“I also was handling the technical end of the email distribution of the FML as well as housing the archives through my employer for a couple of years by then,” Gruber said. “I even was able to supply an email address to allow people to post anonymously if they lived in areas where ferrets were not allowed. This technical assistance all came about because I worked for a university computer center that had good Internet connectivity; at the time they were open to hosting mailing lists so it just made sense for me to step in — Internet access was neither cheap nor plentiful back then! But Chris was the person in charge until issue 1027.”
Milestones, Memories And More
The thirst for ferret-knowledge continued through the years, as shown by the subscription numbers for the Ferret Mailing List.
“On April 17, 1995 the FML hit 1,003 subscribers, from 999 the day before,” Gruber said. “Not even 11 months later, on March 6, daily recipients numbered over 2,000. The mid 90s were a very, very busy time for the FML!”
Rebecca Stout has owned ferrets for about 35 years, and she was thrilled to find the Ferret Mailing List in 1998. “When I found the FML on the Internet, I was bouncing off the walls to find an enormous society of ferret lovers right at my virtual back door,” she said. “I was over the moon when I realized that the FML was much more than a club and what a powerful role it played in ferret legalization, rescue work, adoptions, breeding, health care and so much more. The list contains rich resources and has a vast international membership of significant individuals and that often leads to saving ferrets’ lives.”
Crandall pointed out that some members of other ferret organizations were first members of the Ferret Mailing List, including Support Our Shelters, the Ferret Health List and the International Ferret Congress.
The Ferret Mailing List has also expanded people’s vocabularies. “The word ‘dook’ began on the FML and is now in a dictionary!” Crandall said. “Pam Greene suggested it as the word for the ferret noise. I was just thrilled when it made it into a dictionary.” [also see Urban Dictionary entry.]
Crandall’s husband, Steve, added to the vocabulary memories. “The list was the first place I encountered the term ‘carpet shark.’”
Memories through the years are varied.
Paley recalls all the stories people shared about their ferrets. “We felt like family to so many ferrets and their human parents.”
Gruber fondly recalls a 10th anniversary party that was held at a villa in Walt Disney World. “We had dozens of FMLers drop in, and it was great to put the faces to the email addresses,” he said. “I still meet a lot of FMLers at other functions, like the International Ferret Congress’ symposia (not an FML function) or ferret shows. Other memorable occasions are trying to save [a ferret] from being needlessly euthanized for scratching someone and FMLers banding together to help, even just a little, the legalization ferrets in Massachusetts.”
Stout particularly enjoys the silliness, mentioning ferret stories created when a member of the List writes a few lines and then passes it off to another member to add a few lines. “Every day when you read the FML, the story grew,” she said. “It was memorable because the participation was so extreme and the storytelling was so clever. People who never spoke up contributed to the silly adventure story.”
She also recalls challenging List members to make her laugh, with the person who made her laugh the most being sent a prize. It started out silly, she said, but it was a huge morale booster and helped them bond. “People I’ve never heard from or met contacted me with prizes to donate just so I’d keep the contest going.”
How The Ferret Mailing List Changed
Paley said that the motivation for Chris and her to start the Ferret Mailing List was for it to be a supportive, nurturing community of mature ferret people who would seek and receive advice and share the medical and scientific information from the vets and university researchers who had extensive experience with ferrets. Although she’s sad to see that through the years more ferrets are being abandoned, ferrets are suffering from chronic diseases and have shorter life spans, one thing hasn’t changed. “Even after 25 years, the FML under Bill’s care has stayed true to our original mandate and been the social support community that is still necessary,” she said.
Bottleman noted that over the years the Ferret Mailing List became more of a social hub where ferret owners chatted about their ferrets. “Fictional short stories began to appear, and the often poignant Rainbow Bridge greetings appeared,” he said. “As with any social medium, strong opinions led to often intense discussions, but mostly the FML remained a friendly place.”
Stout said that the core of what the FML started out to be is exactly the same today as it was, which she attributes to Gruber’s dedication and regular contributors who remain steadfast for the List’s sake. But she has noted some differences, mainly related to communication and e-list etiquette.
“How do you keep a public place safe and welcoming to people but also allow free speech within a forum?” she asked. “It’s nearly impossible. You can’t make everyone happy. But our moderator, BIG, did it and still continues to do it as well as it can possibly be done. The Net is still young and people misbehave more than ever now. The FML is still not a perfect place, but it sure is compared to so many out there.”
As technology has advanced, so have changes to the Ferret Mailing List. Gruber said that the mechanics of putting together the List have changed dramatically. When he traveled, finding Internet access was a major concern in the 1990s. “Now that’s all different — I can even get an FML sitting in an airplane at 30,000 feet — or on a park bench.”
Gruber also pointed out that when the Internet was in its infancy, online ferret information was more difficult to find. He said the mid to late 1990s were the Ferret Mailing List’s heyday.
‘It’s quite different now,” Gruber said. “You can Google ferrets and find almost everything you need, including over 20 years worth of FML archives. You can go to websites about ferrets, to Facebook pages about ferrets, to Wiki entries and YouTube videos. There’s still something to be said for mailing lists, which are pushed to you every day and are definitely spam- and virus-free. And there’s continuity and camaraderie too, but it’s less of a discussion list now. People come and go, asking some questions, learning a bit, then moving on. That’s really fine, it means people still are learning and the FML is still doing what was intended.”
Celebrating 25 Years
So what do people plan to do to celebrate the silver anniversary of the Ferret Mailing List? Several mentioned thanking Gruber, the current moderator, and/or Chris Lewis and Patricia Paley for starting the List. Bottleman said he plans to write a long-overdue account of 30 years of ferret ownership.
Stout is one who plans to send thank-yous. The Ferret Mailing List means a lot to her. “It’s everything ferret and ferret people to me from A to Z. It’s the Adam and Eve of what the ferret community is today.”
Gruber sums it up. “The FML is its *subscribers*. Without them, the FML wouldn’t exist. The thousands of people who have ever contributed and/or learned from the FML should be the ones celebrating and their ferrets should be the ones dancing.”
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