DUBUQUE, Iowa — Carol Bemis beamed as she cuddled the cream-colored ferret Whitey on her lap.
“I wish I could have animals in my apartment, but I can’t,” she said, petting Whitey’s soft fur while he licked her hand. “His tongue tickles,” she said giggling. Bemis is one of the ferret’s fans at Area Residential Care who wait patiently for a chance to sit with Whitey for a few minutes every other week.
Whitey is a therapy ferret, trained to interact with many strangers and to tolerate various forms of handling. The 2-year-old dark-eyed white ferret seems to enjoy his visits to nursing homes and programs for people with disabilities. He readily slides into their waiting arms and quietly explores their laps, chests and faces while they stroke his long, thin body.
Nancy Ahlborn instantly bonded with Whitey after she met him last year at the Dubuque Regional Humane Society, where she volunteered. He had been found abandoned and sick and became a staff favorite while being nursed back to health. Even then, Ahlborn could see his potential.
“Many people held him and everyone loved him. It was a perfect background for a therapy animal,” said Ahlborn, who adopted Whitey last fall. Before she brought him to her small Dubuque home, she ferret-proofed her entire basement and bought commercial ferret food, filtered water, a special “treat” oil, ferret-sized pet toys and a wire kennel for him to sleep in safely. And Ahlborn had to purchase an additional item — a cloth ferret carrying bag so she can transport Whitey up and down stairs because she cannot hold him with her left arm.
Ahlborn is disabled after a serious 2007 traffic accident north of Bellevue, Iowa. In the ambulance, she suffered a severe stroke that left her with limited use of her left side. The difficult months she spent in nursing centers afterward changed her outlook on life, showing her the importance of therapy animals.
“I always slept with a cat near my head and had lots of different kinds of pets and it was torture without any animals in my daily life,” said Ahlborn, who now has a collie mix and three cats besides her ferret.
“Whitey as a visitor is something neutral to talk about that takes people’s focus off their own problems,” she said.
Whitey also helps to take Ahlborn’s mind off her problems. The polecat cousin jumps into the air and from chair to couch; he “fights” with Pedro, a big black cat; he steals shiny and crinkly items; he lies on his back under the bedroom ceiling fan, and he entertains himself by primping, scratching, sniffing and exploring his surroundings and visitors.
“He has brought so much joy to my life, too. He makes me laugh,” Ahlborn said. “Through Whitey, I’ve met so many people.”
Back at ARC, Carol Bemis’ session with Whitey was about over. She handed him back to Ahlborn so he could visit another client.
Waving toward the little white ferret, Bemis called, “Come again, Whitey!”