The ferret is a member of the Mustelidae family, this including the Mink, Ermine, Weasel, (sea)Otter, Black-Footed Ferret, Skunk, Fisher, Marten, Badger, Wolverine and the European polecat.
The scientific name for this domestic animal is Mustela Putorius Furo and no one is quite sure who his ancestors were. Scientific evidence by blood tests of the ferret has shown traces coming from the European polecat (Mustela Putorius). If the ferret has recently been bred with a European polecat, his bloodline will have much more European polecat blood than a normal ferret has and ferrets bred with the European polecat are not trustworthy pets. Where the ferret originally comes from is still a mystery. Unlike our domestic cats and dogs, the ferret is not, and has never been a wild animal. Although he is closely related to the European polecat, the ferret cannot survive in the wild.
In English it is Ferret, Swedish Tam-iller, Dutch Fret, German Frettchen, French Furet, Italian Furetto, Spanish Hurón Finnish Fretti, Russian Domashni Horek, Czech, Fretek.
Some people say they have seen ferrets that live in the wild, but these wild 'ferrets' are another Mustelidae family or a recently mixed breed with the European polecat, so their bloodline is more polecat than ferret. Mostly they were born in the wild and learnt to hunt from their polecat mother and this seems to have happened in New Zealand.
In 1882-1883 the Agent-General in London made thirty-two shipments of ferrets from London, totalling 1217 animals. They landed only 678 of these, subsequently 198 were landed from Melbourne. In 1884 nearly 4000 ferrets were turned loose; most animals originated from Britain and the Continent. However such large numbers of ferrets wouldn't be available for export in Britain and the Continent at one time and it was questionable whether they would have survived in the wild state. People already knew then that the domestic ferrets did not have the stamina to survive an independent existence. So, before the ferret was imported and while he was being transported by ship from England to New Zealand, it was allowed to mate the ferret with the European polecat. When the ship arrived in New Zealand, they let the crossbred ferrets loose to fend for themselves, having few enemies and a lot of rabbits for food. These ferrets/European polecats were able to survive in the wild and people in New Zealand still denominate this animal as a ferret.
Telling the difference between a ferret and a European polecat is difficult. If you haven't seen both together, there are several ways to tell them apart. First, the ferret has a smaller, more fragile bone structure. A ferret is usually lighter in colour, and the mask does not reach the tinted neck band like it does with the European polecat. The back of the ears of a European polecat is dark, whereas it is light in the ferret. The jaws of the European polecat are much stronger than those of the ferret and the polecat is more muscular. The European polecat is a solitary animal and only meets in the mating season, while the ferret loves company.
The ferret has been domestic for so long that he no longer has the natural instinct to survive and hunt in the wild. However, a ferret crossed with a polecat may survive in the wild.
Ferrets that are used for hunting are not supposed to catch rabbits. It is curiosity that drives them into the rabbit hole and it's their smell that drives the rabbit out; the hunter and the nets do the rest.
In 1758 Linnaeus named the ferret Mustela Furo. His name prior to that had been, in Latin, first viverra, later furectus, furetus and furo.
- The famous Greek playwright Aristophanes mentioned ferrets in his satire 'The Acheans' around the year 450 B.C. He compared these people with ferrets, who had already established a reputation for themselves as thieves. The Greeks knew about ferrets, but they were not kept by them.
- Recent diggings in the southwest of Europe have uncovered skeletons of ferrets dating back to 1600 years B.C. But at that time there were no rabbits, so they must have used them for mice control.
- Aristotle wrote about 'iktis', which means domesticated ferrets, around the year 350 B.C.
- Caesar Augustus sent ferrets (named 'viverrae' by Plinius) to the Balearic Islands to control the rabbit plagues in 6 B.C.
- Pliny (23-79 A.D.) mentions the rabbit and the ferret, as does Isidore of Seville in 600 A.D.
- Medieval manuscripts mostly recited Aristotle, until the great hunting manuscripts appear. There is a reference to the use of ferrets by the Emperor Frederick II of Germany in 1245. It is said that Genghis Khan used them in a hunting circle at Termed in 1221 A.D.
- The Normans introduced the rabbit into Britain at the end of the 11th or in the beginning of the 12th century and the first entry of the ferret in Britain is in 1223 A.D.
- The best manuscript is the Livre de Chasse (the book of the hunt) of Gaston Phebus, Comte de Foix, who reigned for more than two principalities in southern France and northern Spain, 1390 A.D.
- In the Middle Ages in England they restricted the ownership of ferrets to those earning 40 shillings (about $300 today) or more a year.
- The time of the appearance of the white, pink-eyed ferret is unknown, the first drawing of a white, pink-eyed ferret is in the Sherborne Missal ± 1300 A.D. and the first reference is by implication in 1421 A.D. in a translation of a French poem into English as 'The Siege of Thebes' by John of Lydgate (Owen 1969).
- The ferret is described in 1551 as being of the colour of wool stained by urine (Gesner 1551).
- They have been in America for more than 300 years. European polecats mated with ferrets were later imported into New Zealand for rabbit control.
Now people finally realize what a lovely pet this domestic animal really is. We of the W.F.U and W.F.I.C.support the care for this pet including their medical needs and we hope to dispose of misunderstandings about the history and circumstances of the ferret.