These cheeky chaps are looking for new homes. Alison Goulding meets the North East Ferret Rescue’s friendly, furry family.
THEY’ll steal your lipstick – and your heart if you let them – ferrets are no ordinary pet, according to Gill Betts.
Gill and husband Andy have been rescuing the mischievous mammals for more than a decade and often have a living room full of exploring ferrets.
They run the North East Ferret Rescue and at present have 45 ferrets in residence, with many in desperate need of a new home.
Gill said: “Sometimes we’ve got 20 ferrets running around and it’s fantastic. They’re so fast that it’s nearly impossible to take a photo of them.
“They love to play and investigate. They stole all my lipsticks the other day and stashed them away in their beds.”
Gill works full-time as a nurse practitioner for a GP’s surgery in Ryton, and cares for the ferrets with Andy and a band of volunteers.
The rescue started 11 years ago and they have re-homed more than 1,000 ferrets since they started.
Gill said: “People heard about us through word of mouth and then the website started and now we re-home about 200 a year.
“It’s nearly breeding season and that’s when we get the pregnant mums coming in – they have up to 15 kits.
“In all the years we’ve been running the rescue, we’ve only ever taken in one neutered ferret. They’re pretty much all un-neutered, so it’s a big issue.”
Gill and Andy started with two of their own but quickly ended up with more.
Gill said: “I’d always liked them and we got a couple from Denise and Dave Owens in Cramlington.
“When people heard we had ferrets they started coming to us with strays.
“Now we have two friends over in Cramlington with an amazing set-up who take ferrets in.
“We work with the RSPCA too as they don’t have specific ferret facilities.”
Gill and the team take in stray ferrets that have been abandoned, though they are currently bursting at the seams and can only take desperate cases.
She said: “I have an idea people think they’ll survive in the wild but they’ve been domesticated since Roman times and they won’t.
“They rely on humans to provide. Ferrets will often approach people when they’ve been abandoned.
“We know one that wandered into someone’s house and curled up on the sofa. They love people and they look for somewhere they’ll be looked after.
“It’s very hard work, especially when you get one in that’s been neglected. But the first time they start dooking (see side panel) you know they’re going to be ok and it makes you want to cry.
“We’ve got a good network of foster homes and supporters who will take on ferrets that need special attention.”
The ferrets bring with them a cracking social scene too, as Gill explains.
She said: “There’s no stereotypical owner and that’s what makes it interesting. We’ve re-homed to a policeman, a vicar, hospital consultants, chefs and social workers.
“You discover this underground of ferret fanatics. There’s a resurgence of interest in them as pets.”
Like their owners, the ferrets come in all varieties too.
Gill said: “We get some really great characters. One man found a ferret and christened it Burger and brought it to us at our annual show. We took him home and he stole everything. He pinched the satellite connector so my husband couldn’t watch Sky.
“He stole all the different parts of the fireside set. He’s just hysterical and now he’s in one of our foster homes causing mayhem.
“They’re not elegant and dainty, they’re really inquisitive. Our whole house is ferret-proof. They can get out of the tiniest gap so we make sure they can’t get into harm.”
To raise awareness, the group holds two friendly shows a year and travels to other country shows so the public can meet the ferrets and learn more about them.
Volunteers Elissa Fletcher and her partner John Simpson help with the rescue and are keen for the public to understand more about ferrets.
John said: “Most people think they bite but it’s very rare. They generally only bite if they’re hungry or frightened. We just chat with people and show how playful and fun they are.”
The couple have eight ferrets of their own – Twinkle, Brooke, Po, Nuggsy, Katy, Sherlock, Molly and Poppy.
Elissa said: “They’re just one of those animals. You cannot help but feel happy around them.
“Twinkle was found living near Asda. They kept catching her then setting her free. She arrived in two bread trays propped together. She was very thin and covered in fleas.”
Ferrets are very sociable animals and Gill re-homes many of the strays to families who want one more to add to their clan.
She said: “If people have ferrets and want to add to their group they come over to the house with theirs and we try out some different combinations. It doesn’t really matter what the owner has in mind, the ferrets pick their own friends! The dynamic changes when you add a new ferret and they have to gel. It can take a few tries.”
But the rescue is also happy to re-home to first-timers. Gill said: “It doesn’t matter if it’s indoors or outdoors, really. Time is the most important thing. Ferrets need time to come out and play. They need interaction every day. You can’t just leave them. They live for eight years so they’re a commitment.
“We don’t re-home with very young children and if the ferret is for an older child the parents have to love them too because they’ll end up looking after it. Once you’ve bought the basic set-up they’re not very expensive.
“They eat meat, chicken wings, heart, liver, rabbit and things like that so it helps to get friendly with your butcher. When we re-home a ferret there’s always after-care. We’re here if people need us.”
But not all the ferrets they rescue will find new homes. Some, like Flipper, are permanent residents.
Gill said: “Flipper broke her back. She manages fine and she has a great life but we’ll keep her. She bounces up and down which is a habit she picked up when she couldn’t see what was going on. We left her with the ferret babies one year and when we came back she’d taught them all how to bounce. She’s great.”
The NEFR team now organises ferret walks where people can bring along their ferrets for a stroll.
Gill said: “It’s a lovely way to meet people and raise a bit of awareness. We can help owners who want to walk their ferrets but aren’t sure how to do it. We had 15 ferrets and 12 owners at our first walk at Newburn.”
Gill also has two ferrets, Bai and Bruno, who are blood donors at the local vets.
The website also has a busy ‘lost and found’ section where the team record the ferrets that have been picked up and where they appeared.
•To find out more, search for North East Ferret Rescue on Facebook or go to www.northeastferretrescue.co.uk