Ferrets have had a very long history beside man, possibly even dating back to 450 BC, although they only became popular as common pets within the last 100 years. The term ‘ferret’ is one we use to describe clearing a hole or rummaging through a space, both of which are attributes to these domesticated polecats. Ferrets have been used as hunters, mousers, vermin control, and companion pets. Brought to the United States on boats in the eighteenth century, ferrets were used by early settlers to hunt rabbits or other small mammals. The USDA recommended the use of ferrets for ‘vermin control’. A farmer could call their local ferretmeister to unleash ferrets on the property, where they would chase the vermin out toward dogs or humans to dispatch. When rodenticides became popular, this practice died out.
Ferrets were also used as transporters. Due to their anatomy and willingness to run through long, dark tunnels, they were ideal in transporting cables through long pipes. Oilmen in the North Sea, telephone companies, camera crews and people working on airline jets have used ferrets for this purpose. The ferret wears a harness where a long thin nylon line is attached. The nylon line is then connected to the cable that needs to be pulled through the conduit. The use of mechanical devices for this purpose has made the ferret obsolete as a transporter.
The black-footed ferret was considered extinct in the wild as of 1987. Due to captive breeding and release programs, as of 2013, over 1,000 ferrets are back in the wild in their original range. They are still considered endangered.