Well this is weird. For some mysterious reason, there's a rash of ferret thefts in southern England these days, with dozens if not hundreds of the weasels disappearing over the past two years. Many breeders have reported losing numerous ferrets at a time, forcing them to put in cameras and other security measures.

The ferrets, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal, aren't pets. They're so-called "working ferrets" – animals kept in rural England for the purpose of routing out destructive rabbits and other critters, a practice that dates back to Roman times. They are often brought into the fields where they can easily kill rabbits or chase them out of their burrows for capture and removal.

Professional ferreter Ken Jenkins, who brings his animals to farms in need of rabbit removal, told the Journal that nobody knows why the ferrets are being stolen, although "there are lots of theories." Among the theories: the ferrets could be headed into the pet trade, illegal dog or badger fights, or pharmaceutical testing.

James Bradley, Jenkins' business partner, says the thieves are specifically targeting the animals. "They leave everything of value and just take the ferrets," he said.

Jenkins' ferrets wear radio collars when they are hunting rabbits so they can be easily located, but that might not be enough. The Wessex Ferret Club recently recommended that its members start microchipping their animals. An announcement on the club's web site says it has "ferret theft is on the increase" and "it is often the case that identification is difficult as many ferrets look alike." The club now has "people trained for inserting the chips into the ferrets. The chips are the size of a small grain of rice and will be inserted under the skin between the shoulder blades. Each chip has its own individual number which can be read by scanners held the Police, RSPCA and other similar bodies, who can then trace it back to the Wessex Ferret Club by the computerized register." The process costs a little less than $6 per ferret. The club also has a page about providing security for working ferrets.

The thefts have precedent. Dog thefts are on the rise in England, according to a recent report from The Telegraph. A few years ago the UK experienced a wave of pet tortoise thefts, often targeting now-endangered species that had lived with families for generations.

The biggest irony about the ferret thefts? The animals breed so prodigiously that many ferret breeders either have to give their male animals vasectomies or give away their litters. Why steal what you could get for free?

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