Ferreting around Outlawed-pet owners get political at clandestine clinic
Pat Wright is a man who likes ferrets. He likes them so much, in fact, that he is the founder and president of Ferrets Anonymous, a rapidly growing organization that has been rallying against California's ban on domestic ferret ownership since 1993. Two years ago he served a 17-day sentence in a maximum-security jail after telling a judge that he would rather be incarcerated than allow animal control officers to make arbitrary visits to his San Diego home. Now he is running for lieutenant governor, in a bid to get ferret ownership legalized in California, which-together with Hawaii-is one of only two states that prohibits residents from keeping the small furry animals as pets.
Pat Wright likes ferrets so much that last Saturday, along with FA vice-president Alice Kaiser, he hosted the group's first top-secret ferret-grooming clinic at an animal hospital in the UTC area.
“There are a lot of ferret owners out there,” Kaiser declared. “You'd be surprised at how many people come up to me when I'm protesting and whisper, ‘I've got two at home myself.'”
Almost every pet store in California, in fact, carries supplies for ferrets, but to legally purchase one of the forbidden creatures, diehard enthusiasts must first cross state lines. Nevertheless, Kaiser estimates that there are approximately 3 million ferrets in California, and more than 650 thousand owners. And on Saturday, a small gaggle of those owners-the youngest only 3 and the oldest silver-haired-gathered in a small back room to learn, under the instruction of veterinarian Dr. Irene Mary Cùtè, how to spruce up their pets.
Some carry animal boxes emblazoned with bumper stickers that read “Legalize Ferrets; Outlaw Politicians.” Others grip inconspicuous black hold-alls that wiggle mysteriously when they are set down on the floor. Most appear guarded on the short journey from car to building but relax into smiles when they recognize fellow FA members, with whom they mingle at regular monthly meetings.
Wright, a charismatic would-be politician if ever there was one, greeted ferrets and owners alike, stroking and tickling the former while passing out campaign material to the latter. “Vote for the ferrets,” he urged, earnestly.
Like their owners, it seems, ferrets have distinct personalities. “We know who the troublemaker is,” Wright chuckled, as a rather feisty albino scampered away from the group. “It's as bad as having a two-year-old,” said ferret-owner Linda. “You have to childproof your whole house.” Like parents of toddlers at a coffee morning, the members of Ferrets Anonymous compared notes on nail clippers and cotton buds and exchange tips on the best ways to potty-train. When one woman mistook another ferret for her own, Linda gasped mock-incredulously: “You don't know your own children!”
Camaraderie is intrinsic to this underground subculture of ferret ownership. Knowing an accomplished and trustworthy vet is imperative, said Dr. Cùtè, as she clipped the nails and cleaned the ears of the first ferret on the hastily-fashioned assembly line. Although it is not illegal to treat the animals, she explained, some vets may simply refuse to see them. Linda told of a rather serious ferret bite on her finger, and was asked if doctors in the emergency room reprimanded her. She shook her head. “You don't go to the emergency room,” she said darkly.
In the lobby of the animal hospital, Alice Kaiser sold ferret-emblazoned hats and t-shirts to members of the group, who left one by one with their freshly-bathed pets. Jacqueline, who had already purchased a baseball cap, tried on a ferret mask. “Are you selling these, too?” she asked Alice.
Unfortunately, the masks-along with some very realistic ferret ears attached to a headband-were not for sale; they are costumes that will be worn in protest by members of Ferrets Anonymous when they ride atop a float in El Cajon's otherwise tame Mother Goose Parade. The city's policy is one of the most brutally punitive in the state, Alice said, a fact that is largely due to its police department being housed in the same building as its animal-control authorities. A police officer in El Cajon will arrest an owner and confiscate his ferret, even if he is called to the property to investigate a completely unrelated offense.
“Our float is going to be called ‘Pop Goes The Weasel,'” Alice revealed, excitedly, “because ferrets are of the weasel family.” And though the matter requires no further explanation, she added, “We're trying to make a point.”
Both Wright and Kaiser are incredulous at the injustice of the federal government. “We have never been given a real answer as to why our pets are illegal,” Alice fumed. “If they're so concerned about ferrets, why don't they license them like guns? We'd be more than happy to be regulated.”
As the last members of Ferrets Anonymous trickle out of the door, their president and founder offers a final “Vote for Pat!” When asked how confident he is that he will be elected lieutenant governor, Wright smiled wryly. “Oh, I'm not going to win,” he acknowledged, “but that's not the point.” Raising awareness, it seems, is far more important. “The goal is to get half a million votes,” he said. “There is a segment of people out there who are for the legalization of ferrets in California, and everyone will finally know about it.”
Statistics Dept. Latino education advocates know the numbers
At first, the Oct. 19 morning's school board candidates' forum, sponsored by the Latino Coalition on Education, seemed like an scheduling mess. Two hours in length, it allowed only five minutes for opening statements by all four candidates (including time for each candidate to get to the podium), a paltry 40 minutes for 10 in-depth questions from the four-person panel, and, to top it off, no intermission for attendees, who were treated to free juice and coffee beforehand.
And it started late. Twenty minutes late.
After tentative opening remarks by Deputy District Attorney Hector Jimenez (during which he accidentally described District C candidate Katherine Nakamura as having “funded” rather than “founded” a parent group at her child's school-an ironic slip considering her not-too-shabby financial status), Jerome Torres, a former advisor to the Board of Education, took the podium for a presentation that was slated, according to a schedule handed out to attendees, to take no more than 10 minutes.
“I have a loud voice,” Torres announced as he took the podium, “it may sound like I'm angry, but I'm not.” And indeed, midway through his talk, Torres abandoned the mic, his voice filling the coliseum-style theatre as he narrated through 40 or so PowerPoint slides detailing how the school district is failing Latino students. Given what those slides had to say, it's surprising he remained so calm:
* Eighty-two percent of Latino students-as compared to 57 percent of all district students-qualify for free lunch, a known poverty indicator.
* Thirteen of 188 district elementary schools hold 34 percent of the district's Latino kids. Ten of the 13 are Academic Performance Index (API) 1 or 2 (low performing) schools.
* Six of the district's 46 secondary schools hold more than one-third of the district's Latino high school students. Four of those six schools are API 1 or 2.
* Under the Bersin administration, while Latino elementary school students have made gains in reading and math test scores, Latino high school students' scores have fallen or remained stagnant.
* Of Latino high school students, only 18 percent passed the math portion of the high school exit exam; 32 percent passed the English portion.
* Fifty-one percent of district high school dropouts are Latino. An equal number comprise all expulsions.
The Latino Coalition tracked cohorts of second, fourth, sixth and eighth grade students from Spring of 1999 until Spring of 2002. Here's what they found:
* Second graders' reading scores improved by .1 percent.
* Fourth graders' reading scores improved by 6.2 percent.
* Sixth graders' reading test scores fell 5 percent.
* Eighth graders' scores fell 6.2 percent.
Perhaps even more disappointing, Torres noted, is the lack of Latino leadership in the schools.
* Out of 187 district principals, only 12 percent are Latino; out of 175 vice-principals, 23 percent are Latino.
* Fourteen percent of the district's teachers and 17 percent of district administrators are Latino.
* There are no Latino “instructional leaders”-school site administrators charged with overseeing principals and teachers.
Pre-election debates are, by necessity, reciprocal gestures: publicity for the candidates and, for the forum's host, a way to let the former know, gently, who they'll be beholden to if elected. On Saturday, thanks in large part to Torres' presentation, the Latino Coalition asserted itself as perhaps the most influential community-based voice amid the chaos that's consumed the upcoming board election.
With a number of San Diego State University educators among its members, the coalition recently founded the Congress of Latino Parents and this month published the first edition of The San Diego Parent Times newsletter.
This display of grassroots activism has become necessity since 1998 when Superintendent Alan Bersin disbanded racial and ethnic community-based advisory boards in favor of the more comprehensive Academic Achievement Council, which, although it includes representatives from ethnic groups, looks at student achievement as a whole rather than separating out students by race or socioeconomic status. It's a concept that might work if there was a more level playing field-Torres' said that for the district's 56,000-plus Latino students, there's most certainly not.