The history of one of our favorite domestic pets is still awhirl in controversy. Some points are generally agreed on, but much is still shrouded in mystery.
References to ferrets, or at least very similar animals, goes back many centuries. Though not identified exactly, something very like ferrets is mentioned in a play by Aristophanes and essays by Aristotle over 2,500 years ago. More certain are the many pieces of evidence to ferrets, both in writing and paintings, in the late Middle Ages.
There are references in the 13th century to ferreters who were part of the ‘staff’ of the Royal Court in England. Between 1200AD and 1400AD ferrets were a favorite pet of royalty. But, ‘pet’ has a slightly different meaning when applied to an animal many centuries past.
Animals were expected to ‘earn their keep’ in times past. They were probably bred for that very purpose. With the growth of rabbit and mice populations, and the increase in grain stores and agriculture, an animal that would hunt down those who fed on them was helpful. Ferrets were very adept at sliding into burrows and flushing out rabbits. They could also easily chase out a mouse to waiting cats.
Which type of ancestor is difficult to pinpoint precisely. Because their tiny bones decay so thoroughly, it’s hard to find fossil evidence to trace their exact history. The leading theory is they were descendant from Western European polecats.
Scientists have numerous clues to work with in trying to verify that. They can examine general body characteristics (so called ‘morphology’), and compare with other species. They can look at teeth and make good guesses about diet, which helps them narrow down location and type. They can examine fat distribution within the body and compare to genetic cousins. And, they can examine actual DNA and make careful comparisons and distinctions with known species.
Scientists have assigned ferrets, like most animals, a Latin name as well. They’re part of a family called ‘mustelids’, which derives from the Latin ‘mus’ (for ‘mouse’). But they are not rodents. The full name is Mustela Putorius Furo. Putor refers to their odor and furo is derived from the word for thief. The last suggests that even centuries ago ferrets had been commonly observed to snatch items and hide them.
Gradually, through the 19th century, they evolved more and more as working companions. They have even been trained to string cables through pipes in the North Sea and to run wires through small conduits in jets. By the time of the 1970s and later, they became purely pets for millions of people. That is, animals were kept around solely for the joy of their company.
And, that may be the best answer of all to ‘Where Do Ferrets Come From?’. They come from our desire to interact with these funny, friendly and fantastic creatures.