03/27/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
POOKA, GONZO AND DAISY DON'T LOOK like desperadoes. But even as the trio blithely polishes off a pint of Haagen-Dazs vanilla, they are in danger of deportation or even death. Terrorists? Illegal aliens? Well, sort of. They're ferrets, and California law forbids keeping ferrets as pets. A fact that has Pooka, Gonzo and Daisy's owner, Pat Wright, fighting mad. "This is supposed to be a free country," fumes Wright, 36, a San Diego technical book publisher. "But if you can't own a ferret, it isn't really free."
For the past five years, he has been lobbying to repeal the 62-year-old ban on the sinuous, weasel-like animals. (Only Hawaii, Massachusetts, South Carolina and the District of Columbia have similar laws, enacted on the fear that ferrets will interfere with the local eco-systems.) In 1992 he ran, unsuccessfully, for the California State Assembly as a Libertarian on a Fair Play for Ferrets platform. And in 1993 he founded Ferrets Anonymous, a 1,030-member animal rights group that helps ferry captured ferrets to freedom and to new owners in other states via what it calls FUR—the Ferret Underground Railroad. "Animal shelters call us if a ferret turns up," says Wright. "We'll get it out, either by air or by car."
Wright became a friend of ferrets in 1988, when he read about a Yucaipa, Calif., woman arrested for owning one as a pet. Outraged by what he saw as government meddling, Wright invited the woman to speak at a meeting of the local Libertarian party. Soon after, he smuggled one in by car from Arizona and was smitten. "They're so inquisitive," says Wright. "They are the funniest animals in the world."
A bill that would repeal the ferret ban is being considered in the current session of the legislature. It is opposed by state wildlife officials, who fear that if ferrets are abandoned, they would attack small wildlife. Bill Philips, a Sonoma County lawyer and ally of Wright's calls that argument "a crock. Why don't they look at the states where ferrets have been legal for the past 200 years?"
The ferret bill—which requires spaying or neutering the animals—seems likely to pass this session. That will be good news to the owners of the estimated more than 100,000 ferrets now in hiding in the Golden State. "Ferret owners live in fear," says Wright. "The ban is ridiculous."