I didn't hear about it until 9 pm Friday, February 21, though I found out later others had tried to call me earlier. "Did you see the news?" Rebecca asked. "My phone has been ringing off the hook!" "What news? What's happened?" I asked, my heart in my throat. Such calls from ferret people are rarely happy news. She gave me the very small amount of information that was then available. A ferret savagely bit a Cleveland infant while her parents were asleep nearby. They had been drinking heavily and didn't hear anything. The parents were under arrest and the ferret was taken away for rabies testing.
I saw the report on the late news: 100 stitches for 50 bites. They showed a light silver mitt in a cage. Someone was poking a broom handle at the ferret to keep it at bay while they pointed cameras at it.
I was in a panic. Two ferrets in northeast Ohio had been killed after minor bite incidents last August. Of course that was before the new Rabies Compendium recommendations, which have been adopted at the state level. But what would happen after a major attack like this?
I called Jean Caputo-Lee, who runs the Ferrets Unlimited Ferret Shelter in Cleveland, forgetting she was in Columbus. Her husband told me the phone had been ringing all evening. He would try to get a hold of her and let her know what was happening. It was way past my bedtime by now, but I couldn't get any sleep. I got up at 4 am and wrote a press release to send to the local TV stations and newspapers. I sent a post to the Ferret Mailing List, and alerted ferret friends around the country who might be able to help. I called the Cleveland City Kennel, but the person in charge would not be in until Monday.
Finally, Jean got home from Columbus. She had already contacted friends at local humane societies, one of whom knew John Baird, the head of Cleveland Animal Control. The friend would call him, and urge him to let Jean take care of the ferret. Since Jean had already been working with Animal Control, I left that part in her capable hands. She had been quietly working with them for the last two years, giving them ferret care and rabies information on a regular basis. They had in principal agreed to use a quarantine period for ferrets, though it had not yet been tested.
Monday, Jean was allowed in to see the ferret. He was kept in a small room at the back of the kennel, in a padlocked cage. He was a light silver mitt with Marshall Farms tatooes , about 1 1/2- to 2 years old, very thin and dingy, with untrimmed nails and a bad case of ear mites.
Jean had brought her own cage, complete with hammock, litterbox, toys, soft bedding and food. John Baird watched on in amazement as Jean removed the ferret from his harsh prison and cleaned his ears, gave him a distemper shot and trimmed his nails. The ferret did not bite and did not struggle. In fact, he was very clingy and glad of the human companionship.
Jean went to see him daily, playing and cuddling with him. John told her they could hold him for the 10 days, but the owner had signed a form for his destruction. John said he would do what he could to save the ferret.
I asked Jean if he had a name. She told me the people at the kennel were calling him Frank the Ferret. But he needed something more noble than that, I said, something inspiring. "Phoenix," said Jean. "Perfect!" I said.
Meanwhile, the child's parents (ages 21 and 22) had been charged with 8 counts of child endangerment. They remained in jail, unable to make bail. The four other children in the house all under the age of 7 were placed in the custody of children's services.
Also, reports were coming in from across the country: the story had gone out on the AP wires and CNN was sending out tapes. "Ferret Bites Infant 50 Times" was reported from Alaska to Massachusetts to Texas and Florida. Paul Harvey, the nationally famous radio personality, reported it and referred to the ferret as a rodent. Jean even got calls in the middle of the night from France and Hawaii! (She told them to call back at a decent hour; they didn't bother.) I spent hours every day answering emails, sending out information and updates, doing all I could to counter the bad press we were getting. I urged people to respond to the negative reports with more info on ferrets. Above all, Jean and I said over and over again, be polite and calm.
Ferret lovers around the world responded. Animal Control got hundreds of phone calls, faxes and letters thanking them for their care of Phoenix and the other animals in their charge. They were astounded! They have never been thanked before for doing their jobs!
It was Friday February 27th. On Monday the 10 days for the quarantine would be over, and we still didn't know what would happen after that. Jean got a call from John Baird that evening. All he would say is to watch the 6 pm news on Channel 8. Jean called me and we watched together via phone. They were talking about custody of the children. And, they said, the kill order on the ferret had been rescinded. Jean and I shrieked with joy!
But we still didn't know if Phoenix would be turned over to Jean. She had given Animal Control and the Prosecutor's office copies of a release form, written by our attorney, Lisa Waltz, that would bind the ferret to her for life. But the judge needed to approve.
Monday Jean waited as long as she could hold herself before heading down to the kennel. When she got there, instead of tossing her the keys as usual, they called John out. For a moment he looked somber, and Jean's heart sank. Then he broke into a grin and told her to take the ferret home.
Jean didn't need to be asked twice. She had Phoenix safely home in record time where he dooks and war dances today. That he does so is testament to the calm handling of the situation by Jean and the positive response of the ferret community.
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