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Ferret Bonds Are Hard to Break
Some animals do well without the company of members of their own species. For example, our two cats seem to gain super-cat energy and confidence when the other takes an unauthorized nature vacation. When we have no competition for our love, our fluffy house figure seems to radiate zen all in one.
Other pets are a little less Machiavellian. Ferrets are known to bond with a special person at a young age who they will seek companionship with throughout their days. This is well illustrated by their daily frolics on the living room floor together, but in the wake of a narrowly averted tragedy, the bond is especially well illuminated.
For a direct comparison with our cats, we can consider what happened when our young male Yossarian snuck out the front door one evening as I was walking in with a bag of groceries. He was gone for about 45 minutes without anyone noticing and another 2 hours while we frantically searched our perimeter. Yossarian’s significant other Pancake was uncharacteristically glum after about 2 hours of absence. As a scientist, I would normally try to avoid personifying her emotions by calling her “worried or depressed” because it’s just as possible that her mood was due to flatulence or boredom, however this was the first time she let herself be held at length without being impatient to escape. She normally hates being held and petted, but here we were all standing next to the empty cage and almost crying together, she was hanging on my wife’s arm, breathing deeply at intervals, eyes half closed, unresponsive to gentle petting. “Well pancake,” I address her “Is it worry or gas?”
Pancake and Yossarian look content as they sleep together, but you don’t really know if it’s out of something resembling love or if it’s just more practical. You have to separate them to find out. In their second major separation, when Yossarian had to be rushed into surgery, we expected, convinced of their certain undying love for each other, that he would once again fall into something akin to “depression”.
We didn’t really see it this time. He seemed to be doing well: he has a healthy appetite, is active and inquisitive. “Pancake!” we admonished “don’t worry a bit, he’s going to have surgery any second! Come here and let us hold you so we can have a good time together!”
It’s hard to understand how ferrets decide there’s “something wrong with this picture.” They have a different checklist of priorities and process a different set of information than our own. Their eyesight is extremely poor, so they can hear and feel when things change more than they can see. Pancake may have been more distracted by our noisy preparations (setting up a new cage, cleaning and moving furniture) for Yossarian’s return home to notice his absence. Or maybe she’s been together longer and experienced more frequent bouts of solo naps, becoming less sensitive to extended periods of solitude.
Whatever she thought, it’s clear she still has feelings for him. The day after surgery we let her join him in his cage and as if to say “welcome back, I’ve missed you,” she forced him into emergency care and he, with very little strength, had no choice but to willingly comply.
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