When you call David Guthartz, the outspoken executive president of New York Ferret’s Rights Advocacy famous for his dramatic 1999 radio battle with then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, and he can’t get to the phone, his ferret Kit Katastrophe delivers the answering-machine message. It’s not actually Kit — in fact, he passed away years ago, and also there’s that whole “ferrets don’t speak English” business — but instead it’s Guthartz channeling him, inviting you to leave a message, which he’ll relay to Guthartz as soon as he gets out of his cage.
This is pretty much Guthartz in a nutshell: obsessed with ferrets (he designs accessories for “the discerning ferret”) and prone to the theatrical, despite the fact that he says he’s an introvert. But when I called him up yesterday to see if he was upset about the New York Board of Health upholding its citywide ban on ferrets, he was surprisingly upbeat.
Guthartz learned about the news from a television in the dentist’s office, where he had taken his dad to have oral surgery. He called the board’s decision “not surprising,” but said he wasn’t upset the ban wasn’t lifted.
“In one aspect, it’s bad that it’s put down,” Guthartz told me via phone from his home in Long Island. “But in another way, it’s very good for a simple reason: The bill called ferrets ‘vicious’ — we cannot have that out there.”
Another reason he didn’t support the bill that would have ended the ban: It required ferret owners to keep papers that prove their pets were vaccinated against rabies.
“They’re demanding that every single ferret that is within the city limits be vaccinated for rabies, which means that any official from the city — if they see you walking around with a ferret — can demand your papers, which gives the connotation and the imagery of the Gestapo and KGB in Soviet Russia,” Guthartz argued. “Your papers aren’t in order, if you don’t have proof of vaccination on you, you’re automatically a criminal.”
Now that this attempt to strike down the ban has failed, Guthartz and other ferret supports are shifting focus to getting the attention of Mayor de Blasio himself. “Here’s a situation where he could not look like a fool and be a grand slam and really boost his reputation, and the people will then go and forget about the stupid things he’s done and go, ‘Oh, he finally did the right thing,’” Guthartz said. “Here’s his opportunity, and he’s just sitting back, waiting to see what the idiots at the Health Department have to say.” Yesterday, when the Health Department’s ruling came down, de Blasio said he was “comfortable” with the board’s decision.
De Blasio, of course, is not the first mayor Guthartz has tangled with over ferrets’ rights. His 1999 radio interview with Giuliani, in which Giuliani called him “sick,” made him a folk hero of sorts, and even inspired a compelling piece of animation from Slate. Guthartz clearly still has issues with the ex-mayor — he took time to explain in detail to me why Giuliani has a Napoleon complex, calling him “deranged” — but that interview also made him the face of ferret advocacy in New York. When he got home from the dentist on Tuesday, he said a reporter and photographer from the New York Post were waiting on his doorstep.
“I don’t consider myself a celebrity,” Guthartz said. “I’ve got some notoriety. Big deal. I’ve got no ego. I’m able to fit my head through a standard-size door.”
Though the city upheld its ban, New York State still allows ferrets as pets, so Guthartz, who lives in Long Island, can at least legally keep them. “My current little girl is No. 13,” he said. “And we’re talking about 29 years of ferrets.”