COUNTRY & GARDEN: Una Stubbs, your number's up

He was a foul-tempered ferret who wanted to be free. It was in his blood, says Harry Pearson

FERRETS WERE first brought into the home by the ancient Egyptians as a means of rodent control, their status as a household pet predating that of the cat. In Renaissance Europe the sharp-toothed little animal was regarded as something of a fashion accessory.

Leonardo Da Vinci painted Cecilia Gallerani fondling a white ferret, while a similar, if smaller, specimen is seen crawling up Elizabeth I's dress in the famous Ermine Portrait" which hangs in the Courtauld.

Later the ferret started to keep company that was rather more suited to its Latin name, "the little fur thief", turning up amongst the Wild Wooders in The Wind In The Willows, as companion to the archetypal "smelly Herbert" Compo in Last of the Summer Wine, and dangling by its incisors from the fingers of Richard Whiteley on a local TV news programme.

The only ferret I have ever known belonged firmly in this less reputable category. He was an albino male or hob (female ferrets are jills; the young, kits) owned by a schoolfriend of mine and known as Bites Yer Legs Norman. Bites Yer Legs was named in honour of Leeds United's robustly uncompromising defender, Norman Hunter, but in terms of pure psychotic violence far surpassed even the Yorkshire club's legendary number six.

Bites Yer Legs was enraged by many things. In fact, it is hard to think of anything that didn't test his patience to breaking point. Even a glimpse of Una Stubbs on Give Us A Clue was likely to end with him sinking his fangs into the nearest achilles tendon. What really got Norman's goat, though, was flapping material. During the mid-Seventies it seemed the ferret was the only creature on earth who was actively campaigning for the return of straight-leg jeans.

And then there was the smell. Ferrets secrete a pungent odour from their anal glands when they are frightened or aggressive. Since Norman spent nearly all his waking hours in a state of extreme belligerence, this meant he lived most of his life enveloped in a poisonous mist. In an enclosed space the stink was so palpable you instinctively swatted at it as at a cloud of midges.

It is said that Britain and the US are countries separated by a common language. It might also be said that the two nations are divided by a common animal, the ferret, or at least by their attitudes to the only domesticated member of the weasel family.

It is hard to imagine anybody in Britain looking upon a member of the same species as Bites Yer Legs Norman as cute or adorable, or feeling the overwhelming urge to pamper it with presents. But such is the case in the US, where ferrets are regarded as just the sweetest little things.

Shops such as The Ferret Store offer the transatlantic ferret-owner the opportunity to purchase all kinds of gifts, from a plush hammock known as The Marshall Designer Fleece Leisure Lounge, to an extensive range of deodorant sprays. There even exists a range of ferret-size hats, including a little straw stetson.

There is a darker side to the US ferret scene. Sadly, while their fellow American ferrets cavort around in a Sheppard & Greene Ferret Freeway ("Can this be the ferret toy of the century?"), others live as fugitives from justice. It is entirely illegal to own a ferret in the state of California. An organisation called Californians For Ferret Legalization (CFL) has been campaigning vigorously to have the ban lifted. According to CFL, there could be as many as 500,000 ferrets living underground, as it were, in the Sunshine State.

Twelve months ago another group of Californian ferret fans, Ferrets Anonymous, held a rally in San Diego. Fifty of them marched through a local park, defiantly displaying their pets. Sadly, the day ended in tragedy for one outlaw ferret, Rocky, who took exception to media intrusion and bit a cameraman. Rocky was immediately seized by law officers and terminated by lethal injection. "California Executes Freedom-March Ferret" read the headline on the Independent Ferret News Service website.

Some readers may find it ironic that, in a country where you can walk into a shop and buy a Smith & Wesson magnum, it is against the law to own a polecat. But then you never knew Bites Yer Legs Norman.

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