BOB GARFIELD: I picked up the Washington Post earlier this week and I saw a story about Modern Ferret Magazine, and I said to myself golly, I remember hearing a magnificent piece about Modern Ferret Magazine on the radio!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I remember hearing a piece about Modern Ferret Magazine on our program.
BOB GARFIELD: Um-- oh! You know what? That was on our show. I did that piece.
WOMAN:My name is Shelton Crout [sp?] and I address you today not as an animal professional or a ferret expert but as a citizen whom your decision today will greatly affect. About three years ago I decided to introduce pets into my life; however I'm allergic to cats--
BOB GARFIELD:The venue, a late December hearing of the New York City Council. The subject, legislation that would reverse city health regulations currently prohibiting pet ferrets within city limits. The inescapable lesson: ferret owners care deeply about their pets, which somewhat resemble elongated hamsters but really -- well, think Ronco's Pocket Otter.
MARY SHEFFERMAN: Let's see -- we have Nux and Trixie and Vasco da Gama; Balthasar; Cauliflower, Coushe and Gabrielle. They're not rodents. Their ancestors are polecats. They're in the weasel family. Basically the, the animals that have that kind of wiggly kind of look. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD:Mary Shefferman knows just how deeply ferret owners care. From a four-bedroom house in Lake Grove, Long Island a home office crammed with ferret cages, ferret tunnels, ferret toys, bags of Totally Ferret ferret food and 7 slender, wriggling little vermin-with-names, she and her husband Eric publish Modern Ferret magazine. Since 1995 they have combined Puckish wit and service journalism to explore everything from ferret heart disease to ferret-owning Playboy playmates to reviews of indispensable ferret products. Eric, the publisher, reads from the tag attached to one of them -- a furry mechanical -- ferret.
ERIC SHEFFERMAN: I'm a little poop pal. I'll tell you what I mean. Squeeze my little tummy; You'll get a jelly bean.
MARY SHEFFERMAN: They poop jelly beans. Some people find it--offensive-- [LAUGHS] [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: Revolting?
MARY SHEFFERMAN: Yes!
BOB GARFIELD: The key is, though, that some people find anything at all to do with ferrets absolutely irresistible. Which is why the Sheffermans had no trouble rallying witnesses for the City Council hearings and why for three years they could do no wrong with Modern Ferret. They had the ferret lifestyle magazine niche locked up for themselves, and in 1999, right alongside The Economist and The New Yorker, Modern Ferret was judged by the influential media magazine min to be one of the 12 best titles published in America. Credit genuine devotion, an offbeat editorial sensibility, and of course, special issues.
MARY SHEFFERMAN: On the right here we have the, the Ferret of the Century which was the Budweiser Ferret. This is a very exciting issue for us.
ANNOUNCER: [DECLAIMING] And now Budweiser's replacement for Louie the Lizard-- [DRUM ROLL] [DOOR SWINGS OPEN]
BUDWEISER FERRET: No.
ANNOUNCER: [STILL DECLAIMING] --the ferret!
BUDWEISER FERRET: Ehr!
LOUIE THE LIZARD: That's who they picked?!
BUDWEISER FERRET: Ehr! Ehr! Ehr!
BOB GARFIELD: Real ferrets don't actually say very much, although Mary tries her hardest to loosen Cauliflower's lips.
MARY SHEFFERMAN: [TALKING TO PET FERRET] Will you come out and make a noise? Would you think about it?
BOB GARFIELD: When the ferret fails to cooperate, she of course jumps to his defense.
MARY SHEFFERMAN: They have itch breaks. They get little itches, and then they have to stop everything, and you have to just-- wait for them, so he's got his little -- he's having a little itch break.
BOB GARFIELD: Also it's a weasel and it doesn't understand what you're saying.
MARY SHEFFERMAN:[LAUGHS] Well, I'm motioning to him to come out, and they do understand that, and he does actually know his name. [SPEAKING TO PET FERRET] Right?
BOB GARFIELD:Mary and Eric -- blissfully happy, if only marginally profitable -- lived their dream. Then began the nightmare. Fancy Publications, the Time Warner of the pet magazine business, began to publish a competing title! The juggernaut behind Dog Fancy, Cat Fancy and Horse Illustrated hit the newsstands with--: Ferrets.
ERIC SHEFFERMAN: This is typical marketing stuff from them, but they describe about Ferrets: [READING] "Ferrets is a bi-monthly publication devoted to helping you care for your ferret. It is the only magazine where ferret lovers can find in depth, accurate, current information; seek advice and interact with other ferret owners." Having launched several years after we had been out there, it's, it's a little tough for them to say that they're the "only" magazine. This is our whole life's work here, and I'd like my life's work to not be treated as if it doesn't exist.
BOB GARFIELD:There is of course a limited audience and even more limited number of advertisers in the polecat journalism category. Eric and Mary found themselves living nothing less than the bruising consequences of media concentration. Fancy Publications, according to the Sheffermans, quickly used its distribution muscle to squeeze Modern Ferret out of pet stores, costing them half of their paid circulation. And they say that Fancy's owner, Los Angeles entrepreneur Norman Ridker, has tried to intimidate them into folding.
ERIC SHEFFERMAN: Before they launched the Ferrets magazine he actually took me and Mary out to dinner, and he went through this whole explanation of how he's run everyone else out of business in all the other categories that he's done. He told us stories about how he's, you know, sat across the table and, you know, bought someone's whole life's work for pennies on the dollar and watched them cry and-- you know, he really gave us the we're-gonna-crush-you.
BOB GARFIELD: Ridker declined comment on the Sheffermans' charges--
BOB GARFIELD:... as did Ferrets magazine's editorial staff. Putting aside right and wrong, however, clearly in the long run there is no room for two sheriff's in Ferret Town. Complicating matters, Eric has a chronic digestive disorder that has sickened him for weeks at a time, and last year the Sheffermans were able to publish only two issues of Modern Ferret. Still, they pledged to press on.
MARY SHEFFERMAN: I don't think we have a choice. Eric and I are very much committed to, to continuing with Modern Ferret, even if it comes to, you know, I have to go get a job outside the house and we do this as a part time endeavor. There's so many things about ferrets that-- if you don't care enough and it's not part of your life-- That kind of intimacy with the ferrets makes you care very much about what you're publishing.
BOB GARFIELD: Would it be overstating the case to say that ferrets have actually given you a purpose in life?
MARY SHEFFERMAN:That would not be overstating a fact at all. I know a lot of people that-- they don't need that - they don't need that kind of intense purpose. But I'm one of the people who does need that, and-- I think it's made me a better person. If I can say that. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD:But that may not be enough, because self-actualization doesn't pay the printing bills. In the end it's a dog-eat-dog world out there. [BUDWEISER COMMERCIAL PLAYS: BUD - WEIS - ER] Among other species.
LOUIE THE LIZARD: Enjoy it while you can, hot shots. Your days are numbered!
BUDWEISER COHORT: Louie--
LOUIE THE LIZARD: I know a lot of predators! And I know several very large ferrets!