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The Independent Culture
NO LIVING creature better illustrates the cultural gulf dividing Britain from the US than the ferret. Over here, ferrets are rough, mean, earthy creatures, to be mentioned in the same breath as whippets and trouser legs. Over there, they are the exact opposite: fluffy, cuddly, immaculately groomed - and, increasingly, dressed to kill.

The ferret-fanciers shown here are just a few among at least 200 Americans who "show" ferrets for glory and gain - and among anything up to 1 million Americans for whom the ferret has replaced the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig as the most fashionable pet of the moment. Whether or not this is good news for ferrets is open to question. Americans - inventors of the dog psychiatrist and the cat hairdresser - have long had a reputation for smothering their pets in sentimental anthropomorphism; with ferrets, they pull out all the stops.

The ferrets in our pictures are rehearsing for the annual highlight of their year: the Philadelphia ferret show. Now in its third year, this is, for those who participate, more or less as prestigious as a Paris couture show - and at least as competitive. Cameras click and spectators coo with appreciation as the ferrets are paraded on their owners' arms in various themed costumes. Entrants are judged on the quality of their figure, fur, build, deportment, overall condition and sartorial elegance, and on audience enthusiasm. Unlike their counterparts on the Paris catwalks, they are also judged on behaviour, and points are deducted for biting.

At last year's show, hit costumes included a "Miss America", dressed in red, white and blue satin; a "doctor", complete with white coat and stethoscope; and - the winner - "Miss Springtime", in diaphanous peach chiffon, flowers, fruit and a butterfly-motif hat. "It's cute to see them in outfits," says Linda Wilson, who entered three ferrets in this year's show. "These guys are part of the family - dressing them up is an extension of that." According to Rose Smith, 47-year-old organiser of the show, "Ferrets actually enjoy being dressed up. They're like little kids who want to show off." Her own ferret, she adds, "spins himself round into a freeze-frame as soon as he sees a photographer."

English ferret-lovers are not convinced. "I think we'd be too sensible for it to catch on here," says Sue Atkinson of the RSPCA. "Apart from the sheer stupidity of wanting to dress up a ferret, they're not exactly placid, and dressing them up would be fairly stressful for them."

"I think it's ridiculous," adds Chris Tyler, organiser of International Ferret Welfare Of Great Britain. "It's just allowing humans to have great fun at the expense of the animal."

The American response is that this position is itself ridiculous, arising from prejudice against the concept of ferrets as pets. In fact, enthusiasts claim, ferrets have been domesticated for at least as long as cats, while in the US it is illegal to use them for other purposes (such as ferreting). It is thus perfectly natural for ferrets to be treated as pets rather than as hardy rat-catchers. "They're not wild animals," says Rose Smith. "They're domestic pets. In the US, they're bred by man so often you could call them a man-made product."

They are certainly a successful product. Sales of ferrets, ferret food and ferret toys are booming in America, and there are at least 75 sites devoted to ferrets on the Internet. "I guess you could say," says Rose Smith, "that the Nineties have seen the ferret come out of the closet." !