I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Britain has more than its fair share of crazy exploits masquerading as sport: in Gloucestershire spectators can watch contestants chase a wheel of cheese down a steep hill (fractures, sprains, and concussions add to the fun); in Cumbria men and women stick their heads through a horse collar and pull grotesque faces (applause determines the winner); in Leicestershire people from neighbouring villages battle in mud over a small keg (the rules are simple, there aren’t any).
But, a gold medal contender for sheer masochistic barmyness has to go to the folks who drop ferrets down their trousers, an activity dear to the hearts of Yorkshiremen, although some Scots make a claim to owning the copyright.
The Rules of Ferret Legging
The essence of the event was described by Donald Katz in his 2001 book King of the Ferret Leggers (The story first appeared under Mr. Katz’s byline in Outdoor magazine in 1987).
Competitors tie up the ankles of their trousers and drop a couple of ferrets in at the top end: “The brave contestant’s belt is then pulled tight, and he proceeds to stand there in front of the judges as long as he can, while animals with claws like hypodermic needles and teeth like number 16 carpet tacks try their damnedest to get out.”
As a further refinement no undergarments are allowed so certain vital and dangly parts are within easy reach of the irritated critters.
The winner is the one who is last to release the voracious little animals.
Contestants are required to be sober, presumably to ensure that they are fully in possession of their faculties before making the decision to compete. However, it is not clear why anyone not under the influence of intoxicants would even think for more than a second about joining in. So, the being-of-sound-mind requirement seems moot.
The same goes for the ferrets. No sedation or filing of teeth is allowed.
Also, any man of an age to be likely to start or add to a family has to have a note of approval from his significant other.
A Word About Ferrets
To those unfamiliar with the wee beasties, ferrets are basically a set of teeth at the front end of a foot-long furry body; think small dachshund with much sharper teeth.
They have been called piranhas on legs and the shark of the land.
Their main function was to scare the bejesus out of rabbits. In the days when protein was hard to come by for working people in Britain, ferrets were popped into rabbit warrens. The terrified bunnies scampered out of their bolt holes only to get entangled in the nets that poachers had placed over them. A whack with a stick and pie followed.
Poaching was and is illegal, so men often carried their ferrets concealed in their trousers. This may or may not have been the origin of ferret legging; authorities seem a bit reluctant to put much faith in the connection.
There is a strong ferret lobby group that protests the little guys are as cute as all get out. Some folk keep them as pets and say they never so much as think of seeing their owners as a lunch item.
A Very Wobbly Clip on YouTube Suggests the Pastime Has Crossed the Atlantic to Richmond, Virginia.
World Champion Ferret Legger
Donald Katz wove his story around the legendary Reg Mellor, a retired coal miner. The 72-year-old Mellor at the time held the world record of five hours and 26 minutes.
To give that context it took several years for anyone to break the one-minute barrier. Reg did not reveal the secret of his success, but they do breed them tough in the Yorkshire coalfields, and remember, ferrets nap a lot.
The record stood for 29 years until May 2010; that’s when 67-year-old Frank Bartlett, according to The Morning Star “managed to keep his ferret in his pantaloons for five hours and 30 minutes!”
Mr. Bartlett, a retired school teacher, pulled off his feat as a fund-raiser but still it’s reasonable to wonder, given his level of education, why he didn’t choose some less potentially painful way of helping out a charity – pushing a garbanzo bean around a race track by means of a peashooter perhaps, or setting a record for continuous watching of reality TV, (scratch that last suggestion, the ferrets would be a better option).
Decline of Ferret Legging
Frank Bartlett’s exploit has attracted a fair bit of criticism. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have stepped in to demand the practice be halted because of its cruelty. Although strangely, it seems it’s the ferrets PETA wants to protect from harm.
The National Ferret School also got into a high dudgeon over ferret legging; James McKay, the director of that august body says the event places the animals under “extreme stress.”
He told the BBC “It just beggars belief that in the 21st century, anyone could even dream of doing such a stupid event.” No argument there Mr. McKay.
Whether because of the pressure from animal rights groups or because British people have concluded that ferret legging is about as daft an activity as can be imagined the sport is said to be in decline. And, it has to be said that watching a man with ferrets in his trousers for five plus hours lacks the heart-stopping excitement of, say, a five-day cricket match.
No doubt sanctioning by the International Olympic Committee as an official sport would revive interest and then everybody could once again enjoy the agony of defeat and the agony of victory.
Ferret-Legging Sells Beer
An attempt was made to expand the contest to include women by popping ferrets into a blouse. Called “ferret busting” it was a total failure, proof, if any was needed, that women are smarter than men.
The word ferret comes from the Latin “fur,” which means “little thief.” Most appropriate because ferrets love to steal small objects and hide them.
Those in the know say the animal in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Lady with an Ermine is, in fact, a ferret.
- “The King of Ferret Leggers.” Donald Katz, Outdoor Magazine, 1987.
- “Headmaster sets New World Record for Keeping Ferrets Down his Trousers.” The Morning Star, May 16, 2010.
- “Animal Welfare Groups Hopping Mad over Ferret Trouser Contest.” Jonathan Wynne-Jones, The Telegraph, May 15, 2010.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 01, 2018:
My thanks Jared for pointing out the error. I have made the necessary corrections.
Jared on May 31, 2018:
All these facts about Ferrets yet you keep calling them rodents.
Ferrets are in the weasel family. They eat rodents...
Malia Dean on January 16, 2017:
Malia Dean on January 16, 2017:
That ferrets cute
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on January 16, 2017:
I've never heard of Ferret Legging before! How interesting! Their teeth certainly do look very sharp.