Written by Renata S. Geraldo

Even with 42 ferrets in it, the Lane Area Ferret Shelter and Rescue is as tidy as can be. Nine-foot tall black cages line the 10-by-10 foot room, each with roughly four ferrets and tags with their names. There is also a white sink and toys for ferrets to play with. And the person who has been managing the Lane Area Ferret Shelter and Rescue is longtime ferret lover, Melanee Ellis.

She lets three ferrets loose – Pickle, Cucumber and Bear. They jump around, chase each other, climb on the cages and explore the plastic tubes made for small animals to run through. The ferrets' energy, running and jumping non-stop makes Ellis laugh a genuine but slightly sad laugh.

The ferret shelter is inside Ellis' home, in a well-lit and spacious room suited for them to play. Right outside, there is a large blue plastic tub with ferret food, which Ellis picks carefully. Ferrets are sensitive animals, and the food they eat must have specific and balanced ingredients.

The 42 ferrets are either homeless or are at the shelter temporarily. The homeless ferrets are adoptable. Ellis takes care of the temporary ferrets for their owners until they can be reunited. She says one of the ferrets there belongs to a woman who was the victim of an abusive relationship, and had recently moved to Boston to start a new life. She was waiting to get her landlord's approval to have the pet before coming back to get her ferret, Ellis says.

Ellis has been maintaining the shelter since 1995. But with time, she developed multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, and it has been getting harder to take care of her favorite animals.

Ellis was 15 years old when she first fell in love with ferrets. She found them exciting, happy and silly, like there would be no bad times with them around. She wanted to have one, but her mother would not let her. Ellis' mother would tell her that they were stinky animals – a common argument against ferrets, Ellis says. But she loved them anyways. 

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Ellis holds one of her ferrets for a portrait. Ellis loves and cares for her ferrets but her connection with them goes beyond their cute appearance. Ellis says the pet ferrets she had as a teenager acted as emotional support after her mom passed away. “If it wasn’t for ferrets, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” Ellis says. Photograph by Payton Bruni

She also loved her mother deeply. They were best friends and talked every day, even when Ellis was in college. Ellis says her mom was strong, funny and never showed signs of weakness or sadness, even when she was dying from colon cancer that metastasized to her liver.

"She went from this vital woman and within a year, she had lost a bunch of weight. The chemo was really tough on her, and so within a year she was gone," Ellis says.

Her mother passed away in October of 1993, and Ellis' world fell apart.

The grief was soul-shredding. Ellis had just lost her best friend and there seemed to be no end in sight to the pain she was feeling. Within a month of her mother's passing, Ellis says she attempted suicide. (She had also experienced trauma before her mother's passing. Ellis was severely bullied throughout her school life, and it only ended when she transferred university as a sophomore.)

"It was a half-assed attempt," Ellis says. "I knew my husband wouldn't survive if I also died."

Her counselor at the time told her to get a pet so she could deal with the grief. So within six months of her mother's passing, Ellis got her first ferret; a champagne-colored ferret named Bosley. A week later, she got her second, a silver ferret named Boo Boo. They helped her through her darkest moments, Ellis says. 

"If it wasn't for ferrets, I probably wouldn't be here today," she says. "They are never sad unless they're ill. They are happy and bouncy and playful and crazy and have this joy de vivre that just makes me very happy. You cannot be depressed around ferrets."

Her one and only shelter volunteer, Seth Smith, has also had the therapeutic help of ferrets when going through a break-up. He says that Mochi, his pet ferret who's been with Smith for two weeks, has become his support animal. 

"You're so good with her," Ellis tells Smith while he holds Mochi.

Ellis has two personal ferrets. They stay in tall cages in her living room, across from the television set and behind the couch. The other 42 stay in the shelter room.

In the corridor that connects her living room to the shelter, there are mounted empty cages and the big blue barrel full of ferret food. On the wall of the shelter is a thank-you note from someone who had their ferrets in the shelter temporarily.

But the shelter didn't start as a shelter. It started as a group of people in Eugene who wanted to get together so their ferrets could play with each other. In February of 1994, a month after moving to Eugene from Juneau, Alaska, Ellis advertised a ferret party in the Register-Guard. She says she wanted to meet more ferret people.

"I had 28 people and 35 ferrets, something like that, and it was a really fun party, met a lot of good people. A month later, a number of us got together to start a club," she says. This club is now called Lane Area Ferret Lovers.

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Ellis refills the food dish for two of her ferrets. The food Ellis provides contains ingredients and nutrients specific to the sensitive diet of ferrets. Photograph by Payton Bruni

The Eugenenians who were a part of the Lane Area Ferret Lovers eventually made their way to volunteer for cleaning day at the Oregon Ferret Shelter, which, at the time, was located in Oregon City, near Portland. It is now in Prineville, closer to Bend. Ellis says that the shelter coordinator there acknowledged her skills with the ferrets. 

Then the idea came: a ferret shelter in Eugene, so that people would not have to drive up to Oregon City to drop off or adopt a homeless ferret. Ellis says she was already taking care of three ferrets. By 2003, after a 5-year gap living in Alaska for her husband's job, she was back at managing the Lane Area Ferret Shelter and Rescue. 

On an average day, Ellis wakes up every day and spends two to three hours taking care of the shelter. She cleans the cages and gives food and water to the ferrets. But if a ferret is sick, she focuses her attention on them by taking them to the veterinarian, force-feeding if necessary and giving them medicine.

Ellis has been managing the Lane Area Ferret Shelter and Rescue for 18 years. She has created connections with other Oregon-based ferret shelters, like the one in Coos Bay, managed by Dan Stadleman. He adopted one of her ferrets in 2004, and their relationship started from there. He says that Ellis' shelter provides resources for his, especially when he started. 

"She's been a great resource for me," Stadleman says, not just of information about how to manage his Coos Bay shelter but also medical information, connecting him to veterinarians and teaching him which medicines to use.

Ferrets get easily sick, and the illness can be deadly. They scream when they are experiencing seizures, for example. Ellis knows how to deal with them when that happens, pulling ferrets out of seizures if it's at an early stage or who to call. But she says that these skills are not common among ferret owners.

Since adopting from Lane Area Ferret Shelter and managing his own shelter, Stadleman has participated in the annual Ferret Agility Trials, Olympic-style competitions for ferrets, along with other shelter managers in Oregon. 

Ellis' volunteer Smith says the Lane Area Ferret Shelter and Rescue is better than most because it is humane. It is a no-kill shelter, which means that Ellis takes care of ferrets until they die. This also means that she has to pay, from her very limited budget, when ferrets get sick.

But money is scarce for the shelter. Once a year, Ellis holds a Ferret Agility Trials event. (It was previously called the Ferret Olympics until the International Olympics Committee asked that the "Olympics" name be removed.) At the event, community members get to participate in carnival-style activities and interact with the shelter ferrets by "renting" them for competitions. 

This year, Ellis says she raised $1,200 from the fundraiser. But most of it has already been spent in medical bills for sick ferrets. She also does some of the fundraising on her Facebook page. In November 2019, Ellis started a fundraiser with the goal of $3,000 to cover a medical bill for a sick ferret named Oliver. She was able to raise $280.

The fundraising for Oliver was very individual, Ellis says. Most of the donors were also shelter managers. Other fundraising opportunities for Ellis is sending mailed letters asking for donations in November, around Thanksgiving, to people who attend the Ferret Agility Trials and people who participate in raffles. Ellis is strategic about when to send and to whom. 

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Melanee Ellis reaches to open the cage of one of her many ferrets. Ellis runs a ferret shelter out of her home in Eugene, Oregon, and cares for over 40 ferrets that are rescues or being temporarily housed for their owners. Photograph by Payton Bruni

But her work at the shelter is approaching a due date. Ellis says that she hasn't been able to tend to ferrets as well as she did. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2008 and fibromyalgia in 2016. She has also been suffering from chronic depression since her mother died. 

This makes it difficult to take care of the 44 ferrets in her home. She can't get out of bed some days; her energy is often drained.

"It's a lot of work. And having to try to clean up after and make sure that it's fed and have their water and make sure all the bedding's good is exhausting," she says. "I have some really detrimental things going on with me personally, so it takes a lot out of me."

Ellis says she gets double vision from MS, which makes cutting the fine ferret nails especially difficult. She needs to sit down, hold them in a circle, like a baby, and carefully clip their nails. But that can be difficult with double vision, with a risk of harming the animal.

She has been trying to stop managing the shelter for five years. The main difficulty for that, however, has been finding a successor who is just as thoughtful, patient and good with the animals – a task that has been taking a long time to achieve.

"The people that said they might be interested in taking over the shelter have not been up to my standards of care," Ellis says.

Despite the challenges with finding the right successor in a limited pool of options, Ellis says she does have hope that she'll pass on the custody of the shelter to someone who loves ferrets just as much as she does. But if that doesn't happen, Ellis wants to transport the homeless ferrets from Lane County to the Oregon Ferret Shelter in Prineville instead of keeping them here.

"What I'm planning to do is to become a waystation. So if somebody wants to surrender their ferret, they can give the ferret to me. I will hold it and wait until someone can take it to Prineville, or I'll take it to Prineville, do a weekend trip," she says.

Ellis gets food from the blue bucket with ferret food and puts a little bit inside each food container by the black cages. She then takes a ferret out of its cage and puts Ferret Toner, a liquid that'll keep the ferret steady, on its belly. The ferret licks it viciously at first, then slowing down its pace. While it lays on her lap, licking the Ferret Toner out of its belly, Ellis takes out a nail clipper and cuts each fine nail of the animal, careful not to cut too close to the skin. 

Despite the challenges of running a ferret shelter by herself for years while suffering from MS, fibromyalgia and chronic depression, Ellis says her mom would be proud of her. 

"I'm helping not only my community but I'm also helping other people getting companion animals that will also help them be with their depression," she says. "I think Mom would be proud of me for doing something like this."

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Editor's Note: If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or access suicidepreventionlifeline.org, or please contact the Oregon Youthline at 877-968-8491.

Editor-in-Chief

Renata is a U.S.-based Brazilian journalist and Editor-in-Chief of Ethos Magazine. She writes about business and people. Renata has bylines in the Daily Emerald, Época Negócios and What's New in Publishing.