Darling, these clothes are to kill for

The only trouser-legs these ferrets seem interested in are the ones designed to fit their own four paws. Fancy that.
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The Independent Culture
"HE KILLS on sight," warns Barbara Bloomer, scooping up her dog and carrying it upstairs out of harm's way. She is not, however, referring to her lhasa apso, but to a foot-and-a-half of wriggling white fur called Merlin, one of five pet ferrets which dart around her two-up, two-down like hairy draft-excluders on amphetamines.

Barbara's home is one of the few places in Britain where it is prudent, rather than risible, to sport bicycle clips indoors. Her ferrets, she insists, are "super-duper" with humans - never bitten anyone - but Merlin will go for a dog's throat as soon as look at one.

Barbara and husband Steve, who share their bed with their "special" ferret, Friday, are by no means alone. The nation's ferret count currently stands at about 1.5 million. Their popularity in the home - many use litter trays and come when called - is such that a line of specially designed clothes for the fashion-conscious ferret is about to go on sale for the first time in Britain.

Gone are the days when fanciers took their ferret out for a walk - or to the pub - just in its collar and lead. Today's ferret can now cruise the high street in a black, mock leather biker's jacket, complete with chain. Or else, for that more sporty weekend look, there's the brown flying jacket with fake fur trim.

Also coming to a pet shop near you is a natty line in headwear including a baseball cap (worn back-to-front of course), and a lace number for the ladies. The outfits, many of which fasten with Velcro - ferrets don't hang around long - will cost between pounds 5 and pounds 7.

Bob Towner, UK importer and distributor of the ferret wear, which is made by New York State-based Marshall Pet Products, is convinced the ferret's days of negative press are over - not helped, it has to be said by the Duchess of York who likened her wobbly buttocks to "live ferrets jumping around in a bag"; a slur, some might say, bordering on the defamatory.

"It's a very loveable animal, and it's something different," says Bob. "It's a talking point, when people come round instead of saying: `Meet the cat' or `Meet the dog', they can say: `Meet the ferret'."

Owner of R&L Pet Products in Shoreham-by-sea, West Sussex, Bob spotted the clothing range at an Atlanta trade fair last June. (America boasts a ferret population of more than five million.) He initially thought that the British would not dress up their ferrets, but changed his mind after speaking to club members.

Maxine Quill, editor of Go Ferret, a bi-monthly glossy launched in October (circulation, 3,000) says the current interest in ferrets is "phenomenal". She should know - Maxine has 45 of the creatures in her bedroom. She and her accountant husband, Desmond, have since had to decamp downstairs.

Barbara and Steve have not been able to resist buying ferrets, which cost from a few pounds to around pounds 25, since they were captivated by Merlin four years ago at a country fair. Already the owners of five cats and two dogs, the couple from Manchester knew nothing about how to keep one. However, they soon had to learn - the Latin name for ferret, mustela putorius furo, does not translate as "thieving, stinking weasel" for nothing.

Now Barbara and Steve can not imagine life without them. They are, the couple say, the best all-round pet: clean, cuddly, intelligent (a scientist is currently carrying out research to see if the ferret is psychic). They happily snooze in their cage during the day and are ready to play when you get back in from work.

So, too, it would seem, are they blessed with dress sense. Taken out of their cages to try on the new range of clothes, Barbara's lot display a petulance strikingly similar to that of supermodels.

Whether it is because she knows the biker-chick look went out with Suzi Quatro, or she doesn't want to be seen dead in faux black leather, Sapphire is walking backwards on the kitchen table trying to wriggle out of one of the coats.

Sapphire also snubs the flying jacket, utterly demode, trying to hide her embarrassment behind the fake-fur trimming.

"Get your paw in there, chuck," Barbara says to Merlin, who, just like a difficult teenager, is reluctant to wear a jumper that his "mum" has chosen for him.

Meanwhile Sapphire, more happy sporting a cowboy hat and bandanna, falls asleep in the arms of Steve, a 42-year-old technical assistant.

What ferrets could really do with, however, is a luminous body suit with flashing lights to stop them being accidentally trodden on - or worse. The couple's fourth ferret, Daisy May, came a cropper when she sneaked inside what Barbara will initially only describe as "some machinery".

"I would rather not say - I've never got over it," she says. Pushed, however, she wistfully recounts the tale as a warning to future ferret fanciers.

"Daisy May was always round at your feet, or asleep in front of the fire, or on your knee. But we were so busy doing tea we didn't notice she wasn't there - until I came to unload the dishwasher. She was in one piece... very clean... but dead.

"Now we never turn it on until we have counted heads."