In the last few weeks you may have read about Felicia the Fermilab Ferret. This small mustelid cleaned 300-foot (91.44-meter) pipes in particle accelerators at the National Accelerator Laboratory. Specifically, Felicia pulled a string through 12-inch (30-centimeter) wide tubes to clean out any steel particles that might interfere with the accelerator's process. After Felicia made her runs, workers attached a cleaning swab to her string, pulling it through to finish the job.
Multiple media channels covered Felicia's story, including our own sister podcast Stuff You Missed In History Class. Felicia, however, isn't the only ferret to assist humans with difficult projects.
Historically, ferrets have been used for rabbit control, beginning in 6 B.C.E. with the rule of Emperor Caesar Augustus. It's thought that Augustus used ferrets to deal with the overpopulation of rabbits in the Balearic Islands, rather than send in the Roman Legion as settlers had requested. English poachers also used ferrets to flush out rabbits in the 14th century. They even bred these ferrets to be albino, so they could see their animal assistants at night.
In 2010, The Telegraph played an April Fool's joke on its readers by reporting on ferrets laying broadband cables for Virgin Media in Britain. The paper claimed they wore microchipped jackets that could detect breaks in Virgin's underground network.
Now I like a good goof, but why fabricate such a story when there have been multiple documented instances of ferrets helping humans lay wires or cables?
In 1948, a ferret named Freddie assisted electricians by dragging electrical wiring through piping, enticed by the scent of a dead rabbit his human colleagues wafted at the end. Another ferret named Misty ambled through 40-foot (12-meter) conduits at Peterson Air Force Base in 1999. Misty helped position the wiring used to connect the base's computers. That same year a trio of Spice Girl themed ferrets named Beckham, Posh and Baby laid TV, lighting and sound cables in Greenwich Park for the Millennium Pop Concert. At the time this was reported, the director of the National Ferret School even claimed that ferrets had similarly laid TV cable for the broadcast of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding in 1981.
Ferret assistance isn't all crawling through tubes and trailing wires. The military have made use of mustelid companions as well. In 2006, several ferrets were celebrated at the Imperial War Museum for their contributions to the British military as part of an exhibition called "The Animal's War." One ferret named Buster had uncovered an explosives cache in Iraq. Another, named Jake, scouted for secondary explosive devices after the Tavistock Place bombing in London. Finally, a ferret named Endal assisted an injured naval officer by operating cash machines for him.
Ferrets have a long history of assisting humans with everything from animal control to bomb disposal. These clever, persistent little risk takers make perfect companions for their industrious owners.