Learn More About Ferrets
What's in a name?
The Domesticated Pet Ferret and the Black Footed Ferret: Similar names but entirely different animals.
Q: Don't ferrets exist in the wild: the Black Footed Ferret, for example?
A: Although the "Black Footed Ferret" (an endangered species which is 100% illegal to own as a pet anywhere in the US) has the word "ferret" in its name, it is actually an entirely different animal from the Domesticated pet Ferret and is not even considered to be an ancestor of the Domesticated Ferret. They're even classified differently (Mustela Nigripes and Mustela Furo respectively) If you were to see the two side by side you'd be able to tell that despite some similarities they're actually very different animals. Other distant relatives to the Domesticated Ferret in the Mustelidae family such as otter, mink, and ermine also live in the wild, but also are not the same animal.
Q: What is the ancestor of the Domesticated Ferret and why is it no longer in existence in the wild?
A: There is not now, nor to the best of anyone's knowledge has there ever been, a biologically identical "wild" species counterpart to the Domesticated Ferret.
The exact origin of the Domesticated Ferret has been debated for years. The Domesticated Ferret either descended from an animal that is now extinct, or it is a descendant of one of several ancestors common to other animals in the Mustelidae family (most commonly thought to be the Steppe Polecat (Mustela Eversmanni), or the European Polecat (Mustela Putorius).) Regardless of whether the ancestor of the Domesticated Ferret is the Steppe Polecat, the European Polecat, or an animal that is now extinct, the Domesticated Ferret itself evolved through selective breeding by man. It is an a sense a "man made" animal.
Many breeds of dogs have evolved through selective breeding by man and also have never had a wild counterpart. For example, wolves (which are wild) are related to Poodles and Lhasa Apsos and have a common ancestry, but Poodles and Lhasa Apsos did not come from previously roaming packs of "wild Poodles" or "wild Lhasa Apsos." Man created those breeds through selective breeding and mutations over thousands of years. The same is true of man's "creation" of the Domesticated Ferret through selective breeding and mutations over thousands of years.
It is certain that the Domesticated Ferret did not evolve from the Black Footed Ferret though some believe the two may have had a common ancestor thousands of years ago. Darwin's theory suggests that Man and the various species of "Apes" evolved from a common ancestor, but man did not descend or evolve from apes, nor did apes evolve from man. Just as man and chimpanzees and gorillas are in the same family but are very different animals, the Domesticated Ferret and the Black Footed Ferret (and weasels, and mink, and otter etc.) are in the same Mustelidae family but are not the same animal.
Q: Are you saying that if the Domesticated Ferret were suddenly wiped out there would be no ferrets?
A: Yes. There are other animals in the same family, like weasels, otter and mink, but they are not the same animal as the Domesticated Ferret (just as if Poodles were suddenly "wiped out", the fact that wolves and Chihuahuas still existed would not negate the fact that Poodles no longer existed.). Again, there is no wild equivalent to the domesticated pet ferret.
Q: What about the European fitch; where does it fit in the ferret family tree?
A: Fitch is actually a kind of slang term used to describe a type of fur. When people refer to "fitch" they're often referring to European Polecats or Polecat/Ferret hybrids that have been raised specifically for fur production. The Domesticated Ferret is not used for fur production. Apparently the fur from Domesticated Ferrets makes poor quality coats.
Q: Isn't the ferret in actuality a polecat?
A: That depends on how you're using the term "polecat." The term polecat is often used to describe all members of the mustelidae family. (Just as "cat" is often used to describe housecats as well as lions and tigers) If your definition of the word "polecat" is in that general sense then yes, the Domesticated Ferret is a polecat. In England "polecat" is also used to specifically describe both the European Polecat (a wild animal) and sometimes the Domesticated Ferret as well which can be confusing to some since they are not the same animal (similar in many ways but still different animals). In the USA, the term polecat is used to describe skunks -which are certainly not the same animals as ferrets. So whether or not the Domesticated Ferret is a "polecat" depends on your definition of that word.
Some believe that the domesticated pet ferret may be a mutation of the European Polecat (though this too is uncertain), but even these two animals have very specific differences. However, the European Polecat can be bred with the Domesticated Ferret much in the way wolves can be bred with dogs. But again, there's no mistaking that a wolf and a Poodle or a Chihuahua are different animals even if they share a similar origin.
Q: Isn't the Black Footed Ferret a ferret albeit not a domesticated one?
A: No. If you were to actually domesticate a Black Footed Ferret over thousands of years, the result would not be the same as "the Domesticated Ferret" (more below.)
Q: Isn't the claim that there are no ferrets in the wild somewhat disingenuous? Just because The Black Footed Ferret is not a Domesticated Ferret, isn't it still a ferret?
A: No. The name is confusing. When discussing "ferrets" in the wild, what is usually referred to and considered "a ferret" is the Domesticated Ferret (particularly in the context of discussing the legalization of the Domesticated pet Ferret) The Black Footed Ferret is no more a "ferret" than a mink or an otter are "ferrets" (or than a "ferret" is an otter!). The presence of mink and otter in the wild doesn't change the fact that there are no "ferrets" in the wild. They are not the same animal.
The fact that the Black Footed Ferret has the word "ferret" in its name is confusing to some and has probably added to the misconception that Domesticated Ferrets are, or were once, wild animals, but again, they are actually quite different animals. It's almost the same (though not quite the same thing) as having someone say "we don't eat dogs in the USA" and having someone point out that we eat "hot dogs" -which are not in actuality dogs even though they have "dog" in their name. Or maybe more similarly, to say that cats make great pets and having someone say that Lions and Pumas are "cats" and they don't make great pets! It's semantics. But again, when discussing the existence of "ferrets in the wild" though some may be confused by the fact that the Black Footed Ferret has the word "ferret" in its name, the understanding is that the term refers to the Domesticated Ferret (just as there may be some confusion about eating hot dogs, and about having "cats" as pets, but there is a common understanding of what's being referred to in those instances as well regardless of semantics.)