Capitol Alert

California ferret legalization cleared for signatures

Debby Greatbanks, a ferret rescuer from Sacramento, holds a ferret that was taken by the SPCA.
Debby Greatbanks, a ferret rescuer from Sacramento, holds a ferret that was taken by the SPCA. Bee file, 2011

What’s long, furry and about to be debated at a grocery store near you?

The California ferret fight is back.

The 2016 ballot is increasingly looking like a crowded one. Measures before voters next November could include whether to overturn a plastic bag ban, legalize recreational cannabis, boost the minimum wage, alter pension laws and extend higher taxes.

But it is ferrets, not taxes or cannabis, that motivated Pat Wright to submit his initiative. For years the La Mesa resident has been one of California’s most vocal champions of the domesticated weasel-like critters, which are illegal to keep as pets.

“There’s no argument against ferret legalization,” Wright said. “If you don’t have ferrets, why do you care?”

Such prohibitions exist in other jurisdictions, where officials worry that ferrets carry rabies and could threaten native species. New York City recently declined to lift its own ban – and in California, the closest ferret fans have gotten was a 2004 legalization bill vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Wright has since sought fruitlessly to convince lawmakers to carry another bill.

So instead advocates are going to the ballot box. California Attorney General Kamala Harris has cleared a ferret legalization initiative to advance to the signature-gathering phase (the part involving clipboards in grocery store parking lots). According to the summary issued by Harris’ office, the change would cost local governments a few million dollars annually for animal control, though licensing fees could cover that.

Running a successful ballot campaign also typically costs millions. Wright has been raising money by selling ferret shirts and calendars and said hundreds of volunteers have stepped forward. He acknowledged collecting the 365,880 signatures needed for the ballot would “take a miracle” but noted that a new law requires the Legislature to hold hearings on measures that get 25 percent of the required signature total. Then lawmakers would need to pay attention.

“We have to overcome apathy,” Wright said.

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert