It’s generally believed that humans domesticated cats to help us with pest control and dogs to provide protection and help with hunting and herding. One of our patrons has two pet ferrets, and he wanted to know when people began bringing ferrets into their homes, and what purpose they originally served.
We found some information in Ferrets for Dummies by Kim Schilling and Susan A. Brown’s article “History of the Ferret” on weaselwords.com. Today’s pet ferret is assumed to be a domesticated form of either the Western or Eastern European polecat, and they have been in our lives for about 2,500 years. It’s not certain who first tamed them. While some sources say Egypt, citing hieroglyphs depicting weasel-like creatures, Schilling believes that the hieroglyphs were probably depicting native mongooses, which were kept as pets to kill snakes and small rodents. While mongooses look similar to ferrets and weasels, they are not part of the same family. Ferrets, weasels, otters, wolverines, badgers, martens, stoats, and minks are all Mustelids.
Ferrets seem to have been first domesticated for hunting and pest control. Between 63 BC and 24 AD, Caesar Augustus was requested to sail ferrets out to the Balearic Islands where an overpopulation of rabbits was causing a famine. They assisted hunters in catching the rabbits. (The practice of hunting with ferrets, called “ferreting,” involves releasing the ferrets near a burrow. The ferret is not meant to catch the game, just drive it out of its burrow to where the hunter is waiting. The ferrets would often have bells on their collars so that the hunters could keep track of them, and sometimes they would also be tethered.)
Like cats, ferrets were considered very useful on ships for the ability to keep the rodent population down. The Colonial Navy of Massachusetts named the ferret their official mascot in 1986, saying that, in the days of wooden ships, ferrets were even better than cats, as they could fit into all the tiny nooks and crannies where mice tried to hide.
Ferrets were once even used to transport wires and cables through narrow pipes. According to Brown and Schilling, oilmen, telephone companies, camera crews, and sailors have used them in this way. People would tie the wire or cable to the ferret or its harness and the ferret would run through the pipe on its own.
They are still raised for their fur, although this is less common than it once was, and they’re often used in biomedical research. However, most people today know them as companion animals.