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Ferret Fan Undeterred by Jail

TIMES STAFF WRITER

History has shown repeatedly that incarceration does little to dim the zeal of the true revolutionary.

So there should be no surprise that Prisoner 00109469 at the George F. Bailey Detention Facility on this barren and wind-swept hilltop south of San Diego remains unrepentant.

Patrick Wright, 41, is incarcerated here for an incident that began with his illegal possession of a Mustela putorius furo, a common ferret.

After being convicted of possessing a wild animal, and threatening a police officer who came to his door to seize the ferret, Wright was sentenced to 45 days in jail, which he began serving Feb. 8.

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Wright said the only scary moment came when he was comparing notes with other recent arrivals about the crimes that led to their imprisonment.

Burglary, said one.

Drunk driving, said another.

Drugs, said several.

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Owning a ferret, said Wright.

One of the other inmates took offense at this remark, accusing Wright of making a bad joke and showing disrespect. Dissing people, especially those larger than yourself, is not a smart thing to do behind bars.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and his fellow prisoners decided that the slightly built, graying-at-the-temples computer software technician probably was telling the truth.

“At that point they all started laughing,” Wright said in a jailhouse interview.

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Wright could have gotten a lighter sentence by agreeing to permit animal control officers to make unannounced searches of his home in the future to look for ferrets. He declined.

“The judge said the law [against keeping ferrets] wasn’t going to change until people were willing to go to jail,” he said. “That made my decision.”

His latest joust with the state’s anti-ferret law has cost Wright a good job and left him with a $4,000 legal bill.

“I’ll never stop working on this, never,” said Wright. “I owe it to Rocky.”

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Rocky, one of Wright’s favorite ferrets, was euthanized by county health officials in 1998 after biting a television cameraman’s finger at a pro-ferret rally. Wright received probation and community service for that incident.

Ferrets, pint-sized cousins to the weasel, are legal in 48 states. But not in California and Hawaii.

Wright has been trying to change that--through politicking (he ran for the Assembly on a free-the-ferrets platform), activism (he founded the nationwide Ferrets Anonymous), and civil disobedience (he has organized several protests).

The incident that led to Wright’s jail term started at a July 4 rally at Balboa Park in San Diego. The mother of a 4-year-old girl who was not part of the rally claimed the girl had been bitten on the arm by a ferret.

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A San Diego police officer went to Wright’s apartment with a search warrant. Wright had a kitchen knife in his hand and refused several commands to drop it.

“I panicked,” he said. “I kept remembering Rocky.”

The officer testified that he had his gun drawn and his finger on the trigger when Wright finally dropped his knife.

Wright was convicted of possessing a ferret and brandishing a knife, but the jury deadlocked on whether the ferret bit the girl.

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“I don’t have any personal feelings against these animals, but the law is the law,” said Deputy City Atty. Tim Campen. “Mr. Wright feels passionately about his ferrets, but that does not allow him to brandish a knife at an officer.”

The knife conviction has lost Wright some sympathy among his fellow ferret activists.

“We understand that Pat’s action was born of frustration, but that is not representative of most ferret people,” said Jeanne Carley, an official with the Northern California-based Californians for Ferret Legalization.

When a young man was jailed in Riverside County in 1995 for smuggling two ferrets into California from Arizona, a political outcry got him sprung in a single day. Except for a news release from a Libertarian candidate for the Assembly in San Diego, Wright’s plight has engendered no such reaction.

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Still, constancy is the hallmark of the rebel, and Wright is undiscouraged that there has not been a general uprising.

Wright is in jail but his ferrets--Daisy, Raleigh, Simba and Jasper--are at a safe house in Mexico where they were taken under escort by San Diego County animal control officers.

If one is looking for an example of a disconnection between law and reality, the issue of ferrets is a good one.

Large pet supply stores have aisles of ferret products: ferret food, ferret toys, ferret combs, ferret books. The number of ferrets kept as household pets in California is thought to number in the tens of thousands, maybe more.

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Yet since 1935, California has branded ferrets as wild animals and thus illegal to possess. The state’s agricultural lobby fears that ferrets could break the bonds of domesticity and form feral packs that would endanger crops and livestock.

A bill taking ferrets off the wild-animal list has twice passed the Assembly in recent years, only to die in committee in the Senate.

As he marks time and considers future ferret strategies, Wright is developing jail smarts. Lest there be another misunderstanding, he gave a different answer recently when a new prisoner asked him why he’s in jail.

“I told him I’d knocked off a Circle-K,” Wright said.

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