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Rocky and His Fate Inspire Ferret Lovers’ Determination

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If all social protest movements need a martyr, the free-the-ferrets campaign in California may finally have found one: Rocky.

The 2 1/2-year-old pet and boon companion of Pat Wright, chairman and founder of San Diego-based Ferrets Anonymous, was put to death by order of county health officials here after biting a television cameraman at a pro-ferrets rally last month.

Now, a protest in Rocky’s memory is scheduled for Valentine’s Day in front of the animal control shelter in San Diego where the animal was given his lethal injection.

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The lead story in the Ferrets Anonymous newsletter to be mailed to the ferret faithful statewide Saturday will be about Rocky and his fate. And the group’s Web site has been dedicated to him.

Ferret lovers hope that his story will jump-start the stalled drive to overturn the 1935 California law making it illegal to own the animals. Only this state and Hawaii insist that ferrets are wild animals and thus not suitable for domestication.

Wright, a Libertarian who ran for the Assembly in 1992 in San Diego on a pro-ferrets platform (he got 3% of the vote), said he may file a federal lawsuit alleging that health officials violated his civil rights by not holding a hearing before deciding that Rocky had to die.

“This has been the worst experience of my life,” Wright said. “I’ve lost 10 pounds. I have nightmares. Rocky was family.”

The pet’s trouble began when he bit a cameraman for the NBC-TV affiliate in San Diego who had been sent to cover a “Ferret Freedom” walk in Balboa Park on New Year’s Day. The incident, with Rocky’s tiny jaws wrapped around the cameraman’s finger, was caught on tape and splashed on the evening news.

One thing led to another, and soon Wright was ordered to submit Rocky to quarantine so that he could be watched for rabies. The cameraman declined an invitation to undergo anti-rabies injections.

Invoking county policy about wild animals that bite humans, the county health director, the chief epidemiologist for the county and the county counsel--after seeking advice from the state veterinarian’s office--ordered animal control officials to end Rocky’s life last month.

Wright’s protestations that ferrets do not spread rabies--bolstered by conclusions of a national organization of veterinarians--proved futile. Rocky was put to death as Wright frantically tried to phone his attorney to get a court-ordered stay of execution.

“It’s a health issue,” said Hector Cazares, director of the animal control department. “Everybody had to do what they had to do. It’s unfortunate. We’d rather save animals’ lives than euthanize them, but that’s not always a choice.”

A necropsy on the bristly haired animal found that it did not have rabies--increasing both Wright’s distress and his determination to have the state law changed.

He also is convinced that Rocky was put to death in retaliation for his activism and his defiance of the law. He was convicted last year of a misdemeanor for possessing ferrets and sentenced to 160 hours of community service (creating Web sites for schools) and a $100 fine.

Officials deny his accusation. “We feel very badly that we had to do this,” Cazares said.

Wright, whose newsletter reaches 5,600 people statewide, has been a leader in petitioning the Legislature and the state Fish and Game Commission to drop the designation of ferrets as wild animals.


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