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News Story – Beachcomber

581002_455311797854969_70264647_nA Vashon Couple Gives it All for Ferrets

By NATALIE JOHNSON – Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber – Oct 24 2012

Two years ago, Michael and Miriam FitzPatrick decided they shouldn’t take in any more ferrets for a while. The couple, who run a small nonprofit ferret shelter, were in debt from veterinary bills and needed to hold off until they were out of the red.

That was nine ferrets ago.

“We’re kind of suckers for them,” Michael FitzPatrick said.

A couple weeks ago Michael, a tall and slender 61-year-old, stood with his wife in a room full of cages at the couple’s small cabin, which doubles as Ferret Shelter Northwest, and nuzzled a brown and gray ferret named Jack. The small, sleek animal seemed to return his love, giving what Michael calls kisses to his silver, trimmed beard.

“He’s wild and crazy, but when you pick him up he’s a cuddler and a kisser,” Michael said.

Another ferret scurried around on the carpet and tried to crawl up Michael’s pant leg. A couple others stood alert in their cages, waiting for their turn to run around, and still others lay content in old sweaters or brightly colored ferret hammocks slung in their large, multi-level cages.

“Every one of them has his own personality and quirks,” said Miriam, a petite, soft-spoken woman who also held a ferret. “We’ve had different groups of them, and they’re always so much fun.”

The FitzPatricks have taken in about 60 ferrets over the years, mostly pets given away by owners who couldn’t care for them. More than 20 of the ferrets have been from Vashon, where the FitzPatricks, who have lived on the Island a dozen years, have become known for their fierce love of the animals.

“They say they’re not taking any more, and they always end up doing it because they’re so soft-hearted,” said Shelley Calabrese, a friend of the couple as well as their landlord.

The cabin near Sunrise Ridge, where the couple now keeps eight ferrets, is modest compared to the shelter they once ran out of a larger home on Vashon, where they had up to 20 animals at a time. In fact, the couple says their operation is now more like a hospice — they take in ferrets that are unadoptable due to medical or behavioral problems and care for them the rest of their lives.

“I would love to rescue more, but at least we’re making a small dent,” Michael said.

The FitzPatricks, who are also known for twisting balloons at the Strawberry Festival each year, say not everyone understands their interest in the small, weasel-like animals. It’s been tough to raise funds for the nonprofit, and the couple has been accused at times of collecting the pets.

But the FitzPatricks point out that operating the shelter is truly a labor of love — caring for the animals is time consuming and expensive, and providing hospice for them takes an emotional toll.

“We treat them like pets and love them like pets, but we’re not taking them in just to have more pets,” Michael said. “We pay a price to keep them healthy, and we pay an emotional price to care for them in their waning days.”

Ferrets, Michael explained, are extremely prone to health problems, most of which stem from harmful breeding and neutering practices. Most ferrets eventually need care for heart issues, cancer or adrenal disease, which Michael said is like ferret diabetes.

Fair Isle Animal Clinic has given the shelter discounts, but still the FitzPatricks have racked up thousands of dollars in personal credit card debt for the animals’ expensive care, bills they’re working to slowly pay off.

The couple lives on a shoestring budget, making money from balloon-twisting at festivals, publishing a free guide to Pike Place Market and selling memorabilia online. About half their income goes to the shelter — they’ve never been able to raise enough to cover its operations.

“If we had puppies or kittens it would be easier,” said Michael, adding that they do have Vashon supporters and are also grateful to stores that have donated supplies.

Last winter the couple’s financial situation got even tighter when a ladder Michael was on collapsed. He broke both wrists in the fall, an injury that required two surgeries and months of healing.

“I couldn’t even lift a spoon,” he said.

Suddenly Miriam had to single-handedly care for the ferrets as well as Michael and had little time to work.

Michael got choked up when he recalled how musician friends from off-Island held a benefit concert to help cover his medical bills. Friends and family also chipped in, and the Calebreses gave them a break on their rent for a while.

“If it weren’t for people helping us personally and helping the shelter during that period, we’d be on the street,” he said.

Michael’s love for ferrets began about 25 years ago, when his first wife, who was allergic to cats, thought a ferret would be a good alternative. When word got out that the couple liked their new pet, others began to hand off their own ferrets, and Michael had the beginnings of his informal shelter.

“The more we got to know them, the more we felt like we had to do it,” he said.

Decades later, Ferret Shelter Northwest is a registered nonprofit, and Michael, who has been married to Miriam for nearly 20 years, has become something of a ferret expert.

“He’s like a ferret whisperer or something,” Calabrese said.

Calabrese once gave the couple two ferrets after there was a fire at her home.

“(Michael) somehow bonds almost instantly with them and builds relationships with them, which is really unusual,” she said.

Other ferrets, the FitzPatricks say, come to the shelter with sadder stories — they were neglected and flea-ridden, were found running down the street or were played with too roughly by kids.

Many families get ferrets because they’re cute, Michael said, but find that the high-energy pets are a lot to handle. Ferret shelters, though not common, are full of pets that people couldn’t keep. Last time he checked, Michael said, a shelter in Burien had nearly 150 ferrets.

Back at the cabin, Michael went to a cage where a pink, hairless head stuck out from under a blanket. He took out Eddie, a ferret that was mishandled by a 2-year-old child. The stress caused Eddie to develop adrenal disease and permanently lose his hair. But even ferrets that are treated well usually die at just 5 to 7 years old

Michael’s eyes teared up as he described caring for a dying ferret. He or Miriam will hold the ferret for hours, he said, sometimes carrying them around in a special sling. “We try to give them comfort in their later days,” he said.

The couple keeps a memory book with names and pictures of all the ferrets they’ve rescued, lives they’re proud to have helped. One of Michael’s proudest accomplishments, however, came just a year ago, when he says he helped change the future for a countless number of ferrets.

Last fall, opposition grew to the University of Washington Medical Center’s use of ferrets as infant simulators for medical students practicing intubation.

Michael, who had long been opposed to the use of ferrets for medical practice, signed petitions and joined a protest at the UW sponsored by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. He brought along a ferret named Kelly — the only ferret at the event — garnering air time on local news channels.

“It put a ferret’s face on it,” he said. “It really was huge in terms of showing the ferret as a pet and not this nebulous animal they use for research.”

In May, the UW ended its use of ferrets at its medical school.

“You feel like you’re up against a lot of opposition … to try to take on the UW by bringing a ferret down,” Michael said. “But sometimes you win. Sometimes you win.”