I am unfamiliar with exactly how many of you know about ferrets in general (thanks to our always awesome mythbri and her Monday Mustelid post on Mustela putorius) and/or listen to the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast, but suffice it to say I’m kind of a big deal in regards to both. Yes, the rumors are true. I did in fact successfully get three ferret facts into the last episode of the year for the podcast.
Podcast can be heard here and if you want the ferret specific section jump to 25 minutes in
This in turn led to me sharing some more info and pics on twitter with a few Odeckers which drove interest in reading a post about working ferrets and so here we are.
The history of working ferrets can be traced back to the Roman legions who made use of their innate curiosity and love for tunnels to drive rabbits from burrows to be hunted and used to feed their soldiers. The saying “an army marches on its stomach” held especially true then, more so than it does today.
On the boats... the ferrets are coming to America! You all have no idea of the mental image I have in my head right now. Ferrets dooking to one another on the decks of small ferret ships as they spot America in the distance, all while this song plays.
Seen here is Sir Dookington of Carpetsharkia, he is amused by your simple peasant antics
However, the beginnings of the modern working ferret can be found in the 16th and 17th centuries with their arrival to the New World courtesy of English settlers who made use of them as rodent exterminators aboard ships.
Seen here is a pirate ferret drawing I couldn’t not share with you all
By 1775 the Massachusetts Colonial Navy made use of ferrets on board ships to keep the rat and mice population under control. (The ferret was officially adopted as the official mascot of the Massachusetts Colonial Navy in 1986 and Pokey, so named for the ferret that first held the title of being said mascot, was first launched as one of the earliest line of ferret stuffed toys.)
In point of fact rodent exterminators became the primary occupation for ferrets in America in the 1800s, with tens of thousands being raised and sold for this explicit purpose. “Ferretmeisters”, which let the record officially reflect is a title I one day will bestow upon myself when I become a proud business owner (a group of ferrets is known as a business, FYI), then brought these ferrets to eliminate pests in barns and granaries.
Their popularity and use eventually led to an entire town in Ohio being named Ferretville and almost exclusively raising, selling, and shipping ferrets across the country solely for their use in “rodent abatement”.
In addition, roughly around this same time and shortly after WWI, the U.S. Department of Agriculture regularly published bulletins detailing and encouraging the use of ferrets in rodent abatement.
Of course with the arrival of WWII and the creative of effective rodenticides ferrets inevitably ended up holding up cardboard signs with “will dook for socks” on sidewalks and by streets across the country, their career as excellent rodent exterminators was mostly at an end.
When good ferrets go to war...
Despite this setback a place for working ferrets remained as excellent cable runners for the manufacturing of airplanes in both America and Britain.
B-26 Marauders and B-29 Superfortresses to name but two aircraft were built at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska had their wiring primarily put in place with the help of ferrets raised specifically on the base’s ferret farm for that sole purpose. And therein lies the birth of the modern day primary use for ferrets, cable runners extraordinaire.
The first such instance that I could find being from Time in December of 1948. Although Freddie was clearly not as famous as the ferret that followed him.
The first truly notable modern working day ferret is none other than Felicia, the ferret pipe cleaner who came to the rescue at the Meson Laboratory building being constructed at the National Accelerator Laboratory in 1971.
When confronted with the problem of how to maintain thoroughly clean pipes and tubes where even a speck of dust would interfere with the energy beams going through them scientists, designers, and engineers originally considered a technology based solution. However, it was a British scientists by the name of Robert Sheldon who remembered the use of ferrets for hunting and suggested instead the no tech approach of using one.
Using a specially made collar placed around her neck on which a string was attached and pulled through by Felicia they were then able to fasten a swab which would then be pulled through by her and which would clean as she went.
The innate ferret curiosity and love traveling through tubes and tunnels of any sort made this the perfect job for the young lady, although there were some additional requirements before she was given the job.
She had to be small, which is helped by sexual dimorphism among ferrets, and had to be kept on a mostly inflexible diet to discourage weight gain that could impede her work.
Seen above is but a small amount of a wonderful article written about Felicia and honestly out of all the articles written about her that one is my favorite because of those opening lines
Felicia, it should be noted, was written about extensively at the time. Numerous articles of which can be seen in full via the Fermilab History and Archives Project.
Of course Felicia is not the only famous cable runner.
Which brings me to a fact related the first fact shared on that No Such Thing As A Fish episode.
A ferret was used to by camera crews to help prepare for the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977! Naturally as is all but a given when it comes to working ferrets some kind of motivation was required and in this case “the reward was bacon”. This ferret whose name I am currently unable to determine would hardly be the last one to be motivated by a tasty treat.
And that brings me to the first fact shared on the podcast, the cables put in place for the broadcasting of the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana were done so by a ferret named Nipper!
Also, please, tell me I’m not the only one who laughed imagining a ferret running the cameras and all that as well. I envisioned that as Dan said it and just burst into a serious fit of laughter.
(The second fact of the podcast was of there use in building aircraft, which it should be noted continued on by Boeing at least until the 1960s.)
Which brings me to the third fact, which yours truly was given proper credit for by James Harkin (@eggshaped).
That tongue! Pure blep! Or as mythbri noted, “Those are the eyes, nose and whiskers of a true professional.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Misty the strawberry PopTart loving ferret solely responsible for running the cables for US Space Command’s Y2K Center at Peterson Air Force Base.
She was first photographed and written about in the November 1999 issue of Airman Magazine in the article “No More Working for Peanuts”, which is the cutest possible article given what she did end up working for.
The article itself to the left doesn’t make the full story known though.
The issue lay in the fact that new cabling needed to be run through conduits that already had other cables in them, many people were enlisted in coming up with a solution in running said cables through said conduits but at the end of the day it was seen as a difficult task that would take weeks if not months to complete in full.
It was at this point Lt. Col Randy Blaisdell remembered that ferrets had been used in both America and Britain to run cabling through airplanes and bases, so he volunteered his pet ferret, Misty, to the task of doing the same here.
Sure enough Misty was a natural, which is a given. This is ferrets thing! Well, this and acting like silly goofballs who must routinely be rescued from their own curiosity. She managed to do in an hour what it would’ve taken people significantly longer to accomplish.
Naturally she was given payment/reward for her work, in this case said payment being her favorite type of treat: a strawberry Poptart.
Misty, you freaking earned it!
Fry: Pack of highly. Got it!
Misty, however, was not the only ferret to come to the rescue in 1999. The National Ferret Association, a group which clearly I want to join and work with for obvious reasons, lent this crack team of highly trained “electricians” to help concert organizers who were unable “to use rods to push the cables through the tiny tunnels which snake about underground”.
Although in the case of these hard workers meat was used as encouragement at the other end of the various tunnels to get them to do their thing.
Apparently the BBC got lazy and just kept the previous photo to use as a stock one going forward
Additionally, ferrets are regularly being used to help treat people who suffer from various ailments and mental health conditions. They make wonderful therapy animals due to their general disposition and nature. Or to put it another way, per the doctor quoted in the article, “They [Stonebridge and Robyn] are a pair of comic characters.”
And that, everyone, is but a bit of the history of (modern day) working ferrets!
If you are at all interested in knowing more about ferrets in general I highly recommend checking out mythbri’s post on those lovable, little carpet sharks. And if you have any additional questions, comments, etc. by all means post them below and I’ll do my best to address them all. Because if it’s not obvious I am a huge fan of ferrets and often pass the time drawing them or looking up video after video of them online. Like so.
And if you want some more ferret related pics, GIFs, and videos be sure to visit us over on /r/ferrets.
To end with a quote from the late Graham Chapman, because I’m as much of a fan of those as I am ferrets, “I can’t talk to a man who bears an undeserved animosity towards ferrets.” So calling it now, if you show up here with the intent of spreading misinformation and/or outright lies about ferrets I will flat out dismiss your comments. It’s happened before on io9 and the Odeck and I for one will not tolerate such nonsense. Because ferrets are delightful creatures and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.
Edit. Additional (scientific) ferret fact, which I discovered via the QI page for ferrets, “The ferret was the first animal to be used to cultivate the human flu virus. In 1933, Wilson Smith, having tried guinea pigs, mice, monkeys and all sorts of other animals, injected two ferrets with the virus. A couple of days later a ferret sneezed into his face and he developed a cold, and they realised that they could pass it on.”