Trooper, the ferret with the funny-looking tail, ignored his companion's nips and screeches of protest and snuggled right up to her. He gently licked her ear, calming her. Before long, they were curled up in a peaceful ferret nap.
Pat Cook could not believe her eyes. When her other ferret had died a few weeks earlier, the surviving ferret, Toothy, had gone into a deep depression. She'd stopped eating and was unresponsive to attempts to rouse her. She thought getting another ferret for Toothy to bond with would bring her out of the depression, but Toothy fought with every ferret Cook had introduced her to - until she met Trooper.
A 3-year-old male who bears the scars of an unspeakably abusive past, Trooper isn't like other ferrets. In fact, Randy Horton, founder of Especially Ferrets (in Aurora, Colo.), the country's largest ferret rescue organization, recalls only one other ferret out of the 6,000 or so he's dealt with in the past six years who had Trooper's remarkable ability to comfort other ferrets. That ferret, Harvey, died earlier this year.
Depression Is Serious in Ferrets
Depression can be extremely serious in ferrets. Left untreated, it can kill. Veterinarians can treat a clinically depressed ferret with antibiotics and steroids to stimulate appetite. Drugs, combined with hand-feeding and lots of human attention, can usually bring the depressed ferret around. But not always. "So far medicine has not been able to find a way to mend a broken heart," Horton says.
When other methods fail, Dr. Trooper springs into action. He may be the world's only thera-ferret, plying his musky feel-good medicine to other ferrets in need. A permanent resident of the Especially Ferrets shelter in suburban Denver, Trooper sometimes is loaned out on two- to three-week missions of mercy.
Cook gladly would have taken permanent custody of Trooper once she saw how well he got along with Toothy. But Horton wouldn't hear of it. "I only let her take him with the understanding she had to bring him back in three weeks," Horton says.
Within a few hours of meeting, Trooper and Toothy were playing together. Within a day, they'd begun stealing socks. Within three weeks, Toothy was back to her old healthy self - though she still doesn't like any other ferret besides Trooper.
Trooper came to the ferret shelter last summer, barely clinging to life. A woman had called to report an injured ferret scratching at her back door. "I got there, took one look at it and burst into tears," Horton says.
Trooper Was Tortured
Trooper had been terribly burned - and not accidentally. Horton believes he was tortured. "He was held up by the scruff of his neck and purposely burned," he says. "They burned his genitals. I think he must have had a potty accident, and so they did that to him. To protect himself he put his little hands and feet in front of him. They were horribly burned."
Horton and his volunteers sprang into action and provided Trooper with round-the-clock care, keeping his burns covered with ointment, hand-feeding him and utterly enveloping him in love. Slowly, he was nursed back to health. Horton thinks that's what made Trooper different from most other ferrets. "I think the love he got and the time we spent with him carried over into other parts of his life. He's so patient, so tolerant and focused," Horton says.
Trooper the Peacemaker
Trooper won't tolerate overly aggressive ferrets, and frequently plays peacemaker when some of the free-roaming ferrets at the shelter get into a scuffle. "He'll open a can of whoop-ass on another ferret who's behaving aggressively," Horton says. "But he's tolerant with cranky ferrets, ferrets who are in a bad mood because they don't feel good. He just has a way with them. He'll go over to them, and he'll turn his face away so he won't get injured if they bite him, and he just shoulders his way in. He starts licking them and they start to relax. He keeps them occupied. He's someone to play with and a warm body to sleep next to." Trooper doesn't seem to mind going on his temporary forays into other ferrets' homes, Horton says. "It certainly doesn't disrupt his appetite," he says.
Meantime, Horton warns multiple-ferret owners to keep in mind a ferret's need to grieve for a lost playmate if one ferret dies. He advises letting the surviving ferrets examine the corpse before disposing of it. "Not letting them see the body is like taking your children away and you don't get to see them again," he says. "There's no closure. And ferrets need closure also. If there's no closure, the ferret doesn't complete the grieving process. And then it's an uphill battle."