Aug. 30, 2001
Two signs in a front window of her home provide big clues to the preoccupation that dominates the life of Jean Caputo-Lee.
One sign reads "Welcome to the Zoo."
The other states: "This property is maintained for the security of our animals. If you don't like that, please go away."
Caputo-Lee shares her home with her husband, one mink, several snakes, two fish tanks, a dog and three cats. But the list of occupants isn't complete if one leaves out the 51 ferrets.
About nine years ago Caputo-Lee began rescuing pet ferrets from owners who, for whatever reason, no longer wanted them. Such animals usually had little more than destruction awaiting them. Caputo-Lee soon found the need for a ferret shelter was far greater than she anticipated.
Nowadays, Caputo-Lee's efforts are nearly a full-time job. Her Ferrets Unlimited is a certified charity. Ferret cages, ferret tunnels, ferret toys, ferret food and, of course, ferrets, fill two upper-story rooms and a hallway in her Cleveland home.
The most obvious question to ask Caputo-Lee is why she does what she does. The answer is really just as obvious: She loves animals, ferrets in particular.
"They're clowns, they make me laugh," Caputo-Lee explained. When out of its cage, a well-cared-for ferret will "run around, play, dance and jump."
"They enjoy life," she said. "I can feel depressed for whatever reason, I go in there, and they make me feel better."
How do so many ferrets end up unwanted and neglected?
"People don't research the pets before they buy them," Caputo-Lee said. Pet stores aren't much help, she added.
"They're nothing but a commodity in the pet stores," Caputo-Lee said.
Some new pet owners find out quickly that a ferret is not for them. Caputo-Lee has picked up baby animals who were in homes for a matter of days. Just after Christmas, she noted, is usually a busy time for her shelter.
Ferrets, Caputo-Lee said, need a lot of attention, a lot of handling. "If you don't pay attention to them, they do whatever they want," she said. She added that neglected ferrets turn mean and antisocial toward their owners and other animals. Still, she said most can be rehabilitated with a little care and some socialization with her and her other animals.
Caputo-Lee's ultimate goal is to place the unwanted ferrets in worthy homes. She hands prospective owners a 100-plus page book on ferret care and asks them to come back after they've had time to read it. In some cases, Caputo-Lee simply refuses a potential owner's request. She said she can sometimes just sense that the person would not make a good owner.
"Most of the time, I tell them my reasons, and they end up agreeing with me," Caputo-Lee said.
Caputo-Lee spends about seven hours a day cleaning the two rooms that house her charges. She gets help from her husband, a husband so publicity shy he doesn't even want his name in the paper. Jean Schweitzer, a volunteer with about seven ferrets of her own, also helps Caputo-Lee at least once a week.
The activities of Ferrets Unlimited aren't cheap. Caputo-Lee recovers some of her costs through adoption fees. She's also thankful for any donations.
Ferrets, according to Caputo-Lee, aren't the only exotic pets that sometimes need rescuing from neglectful owners. She shows off a 23-page booklet of rescue shelters that take in everything from various breeds of dogs and cats to snakes, skunks and horses.
"I think it's a bigger problem than most people realize," Caputo-Lee said.
Caputo-Lee recently set up her own Web site, learning Web site design, she said, as she went along. Interested visitors can go to www.ferretsunlimited.org. The site contains or will contain links to shelters for other types of animals.
Those with questions on ferrets also can visit one of Caputo-Lee's favorite organizations, the Northern Ohio Ferret Association, at www.ohioferret.org. The group has regular meetings and events, to which ferrets are invited.
NOFA will meet 7-9 p.m. Sept. 11 at Broadview Heights Rec Center, 9543 Broadview Road (just south of state Route 82). The meeting is free and open to everyone, with or without ferrets.
The topic will be training your ferret and there will be tips on getting candid photos as well as a chance to vote in the group's cutest ferret contest.