03/10/2015 01:40 EDT | Updated 05/09/2015 05:59 EDT

No weaseling out of this one: NYC ban on keeping ferrets as pets remains, health board rules

NEW YORK, N.Y. - After gaining ground as pets in much of the U.S., ferrets still can't legally be at home in its biggest city.

New York City's Board of Health narrowly decided Tuesday to maintain a long-standing ban on keeping the animals. Ferrets are legal in much of the country, but some board members said the slinky weasel relatives don't belong in dense, largely apartment-dwelling New York.

Crestfallen ferret fans said the city was acting on overinflated, unfair fears of animals that owners praise as playful, inquisitive pets suitable for apartment life: small, quiet, litter-trainable and able to be caged when no one's home.

"Why are we prohibiting an animal that has been domesticated?" asked Ariel Jasper, a New York ferret enthusiast. "New Yorkers are afraid of 2-pound ferrets."

Related to weasels, ferrets are believed to have been domesticated about 2,000 years ago. They have gained popularity as pets in recent decades, spotlighted by such celebrity fans as Paris Hilton. The American Veterinary Medicine Association estimated in 2012 that some 334,000 households nationwide have ferrets, a minute fraction of those with dogs or cats.

Many states have lifted ferret bans over the past 25 years. California and Hawaii still have them, as does Washington, D.C.

Ferrets are legal in the rest of New York state, but they've been a furry flashpoint in the city. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani once told an ardent ferret aficionado, "This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness."

The city has long defined ferrets as wild animals and generally prohibited them. The ban became specific in 1999. Yet city pet stores stock ferret food, and Health Department staffers said four ferret bites have been reported in New York City from 2008 to 2014.

"We are responsible pet owners, and we are begging to be able to take our pets to the vet without fear" that the animals will be seen and ultimately confiscated, ferret advocate Veronica Nizama said at a hearing in January. "Or even just go outside and let them feel the sun or the grass between their paws."

The proposal to nix the ferret ban would have required the animals to be vaccinated for rabies, sterilized and restrained when outdoors.

But some health board members noted that ferret bites elsewhere have caused serious injuries to small children. Opponents also suggested the agile creatures could slip through apartment building crevices and conduits and get loose, though Health Department staffers said they hadn't heard of that happening.

"I have to say that, at this point, I'm not at all convinced that it wouldn't be a substantial health risk to allow ferret ownership in New York City," said board member Dr. Lynn Richardson.

But other members suggested it wasn't fair to single out ferrets for potential problems that other, legal animals also can cause. Dr. Joel Forman said he was struck by "the idea of equity."

Tuesday's vote was 3-2 to lift the ban, but the measure needed six votes to pass. There were four abstentions; board members didn't have to give a reason for not voting.

Mayor Bill de Blasio later told reporters the decision was up to the board and he was comfortable with its judgment.


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