What I Learned From Burying My Pet Ferret
For Eric, his ferret Max was more than a pet, he was a cherished companion during Eric’s younger years. Letting go of Max when he passed away took time — over ten years. But when he finally buried Max’s ashes, he realized just how necessary that ritual was for him, and how essential rituals are to our lives.
Let me set the scene: It’s a fall day in Pennsylvania, cool enough for a light jacket but not so cold that the ground is hard — which is good, because we’re digging a very shallow grave. I stand over this small hole, my boots crunching in colored leaves, with my wife, my parents, and my young daughter. In my hands I hold a small wooden box.
In that box rest the ashes of a ferret.
My pet ferret who died more than a decade earlier.
And that peculiar scene, a bunch of folks looming over a hole in the backyard with the remnants of a small animal in-hand, is the culmination of our shared belief in the power of ritual — and my mother’s belief that I should have cleaned out my childhood room a long time ago.
But first, here are a few facts you might not know about ferrets:
- Ferrets are not rodents. They’re in the Mustelidae family, which means they’d invite otters, badgers, and wolverines to family reunions rather than rats or mice.
- Ferrets, when startled, can spray you much like a skunk might. If you’re in the market for a pet ferret, you’ll want to make sure that feature is removed — in addition to ensuring you live in a part of the country where ferrets are legal pets.
- Ferrets don’t typically live a long life and are prone to all sorts of unpleasant diseases. My ferret, Max, at seven years old, was the longest living ferret our veterinarian had ever encountered. He beat back one bout of ferret cancer before eventually succumbing to a second.
But first you might be wondering: Which of these facts convinced me that a short-lived, skunk-adjacent, mini-wolverine was the pet of choice?
Before we even visited the pet store, my parents mandated a research project. (The first thing I learned was don’t buy your ferret at a pet store.) As a ten-year-old, I’d wanted a raccoon, but those are even less common pets than ferrets. My parents were pleased when I found an alternative.
“You’ll have to learn about it,” my parents had said. “It’ll be your pet to take care of.” We’d had a brief stint with a dog that had gone quite poorly.
So, I read and wrote and eventually did something akin to a child’s PowerPoint presentation, and after successfully convincing my parents, I acquired a ferret (from a breeder).
I was so proud of myself, so excited to finally have a pet that wasn’t a goldfish or a hermit crab, so determined to be the best ferret owner anyone ever met — or, in most cases, the only ferret owner anyone had ever met. But mostly, I was excited to have this little critter who was all mine, tucked away in my room, just as happy to skitter about on my floor in pursuit of a squeaky toy as he was to cuddle under my arm or in a miniature hammock. He was my friend.
This was a time of failed tween crushes and beguiling math projects and the transition from middle school to high school. It was a time of change and challenge and growing up and hitting walls and seeing friendships come and go.
And through it all: Max the ferret. He was a destination ferret; people came to my house just to see him. People asked me about him at school, at church, anywhere and everywhere. He was a companion but also a deep source of pride.
I had a ferret. I couldn’t play basketball or guitar, wasn’t invited to most of the parties and really hated math, but ask me about my ferret. There, I would shine. Max the ferret, I realized, was integral to my identity in those all-important tweenage years.
The last days of Max the ferret were difficult ones. He was prone to paralysis — something in his little body was shutting down and eventually convinced us it was time to let him go. But for a short time, I could coax some life back into him by injecting corn syrup into his mouth via syringe. And then, if only briefly, I’d have my buddy back: blinking black eyes, wet nose, cuddly fur. But only for so long.
I didn’t know what to do with all that ferret stuff when he died. We put his cage in storage, his toys in the garage. The little box of ashes I put in my closet — where he loved to burrow and get lost. It felt appropriate. I couldn’t quite part with him yet, not entirely.
For years, I’d have dreams that he was still alive and had escaped his cage, was roaming about my room. Or, dreams that he was still alive but I’d forgotten him; he was hungry and lonely and trapped by himself.
I wonder if somewhere in my mind — as I moved from home to college to Bolivia to Baltimore — a ferret-shaped memory was calling out: “You never fully let go!”
My mom found that box as she cleaned out my room all those years later and insisted we have a burial. I’m glad she did. Our funeral service wasn’t fancy or even very long. But it was a moment — brief, crisp, poignant — to remember that outsized influence this mini-wolverine had on my life, to be grateful for it and then to step beyond.
Isn’t that the purpose of ritual in any moment of any life? To pause, take stock, give thanks and keep going? To anchor us in a moment so that our footing is firmer for the next step?
A ritual is a threshold, a space between moments in which we take a deep breath and glimpse how both past and future can affect our present. It’s what we do at weddings and funerals; it’s what we do at Mass. It’s what we do at countless other rituals big and small throughout our lives–and it’s why we ritualize significant moments.
What from your past do you need to understand, to integrate into your present or to let go of as you step into the future? What ritual is necessary for you today, this month, this year?
Burying that ferret wasn’t just about putting ashes in the ground; it was about remembering who I’d been, who I am as a result. How formative the smallest, most peculiar things can be — if we pay attention, if we let them be.
And now, perhaps, it’s time to figure out what to do with the box of hedgehog ashes on my bookshelf.