We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,150,520-week series, Wiki Wormhole.
This week’s entry: Ferret-Legging
What it’s about: An ill-advised, inhumane, and just plain idiotic sport that has somehow persisted for centuries. Also known as “put ’em down,” or the overly explanatory “ferret-down-trousers,” ferret-legging is an endurance test to see who can stand having a ferret down their pants the longest.
Biggest controversy: No one’s entirely sure where ferret-legging came from. Wikipedia says the sport became popular among Yorkshire coal miners in the 1970s, but it seems to have existed for centuries before that. It likely has humble roots, as there was a time when only wealthy Britons were allowed to keep animals for hunting, so poachers had to conceal their hunting companions. (Ferrets were long used to hunt rabbits, although nowadays they’re mostly just kept as pets.) Based on the dates mentioned here, the sports seems to have been a fad in the ’70s and ’80s, had a resurgence in the ’00s, and has largely died away, although ferret racing (in which the animals race through a length of pipe) seems to have replaced ferret-legging in the public’s imagination.
Strangest fact: Crocodile Dundee is a fan. Australian actor Paul Hogan went on The Tonight Show in 1996, ostensibly to promote a remake of Flipper, but instead spent the interview talking about ferret-legging, which he claimed was, “a new Australian Olympics event.” (The animals are illegal to keep as pets in much of the country.)
Thing we were happiest to learn: The animals don’t seem to mind. The Manitoba Ferret Association—an animal shelter that has held ferret-legging contests as fundraisers to help homeless ferrets—points out that the animals like enclosed spaces, although pants probably aren’t what evolution had in mind. More open to dispute is how dangerous the animals are to humans. On one side, there’s the Ferret Rescue League, who monitor ferret-legging contests to make sure no animals are harmed. The League claims that no contestant has ever been bitten on their watch, although a few scratches are to be expected; some contest organizers have characterized ferrets as “harmless fun-loving creatures.”
On the other side are those who see the essence of the sport as being able to “have your tool bitten and not care.” Wearing underwear is forbidden in ferret-legging, so the animals have easier access to both pant legs, not to mention the additional challenge for the competitor.
Writing for Outside magazine, Don Katz described ferrets as “having claws like hypodermic needles and teeth like number 16 carpet tacks.” Series ferret-legging competitor Reg Mellor (see next entry) gives the Quint-like description that, on a bad day they can be “cannibals, things that live only to kill, that’ll eat your eyes out to get at your brain.” As of press time, we’re not aware of any incidents of ferret brain-eating, but then, as far as we know, no one’s held a competition to see who can keep a ferret under their hat the longest.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The sport manages to be both dangerous and boring. In 1972, when ferret-legging was in its infancy, the world record was 40 seconds. Within five years, the record was five hours and 10 minutes (and record-holder Edward Simpkins added a second ferret for the last 70 minutes). However, watching someone with a ferret in their pants was not riveting entertainment for the full five hours—even Simpkins played darts for some of that span.
In 1981, retired miner Reg Mellor set a new record at 5:26. His trick was making sure the ferrets were well-fed before competition began. He often hunted with ferrets, and often kept them in his pants to keep them out of the rain, so it’s likely the animals had already developed some level of comfort. But again, comfortable ferrets do not make for thrilling competition, so in 1986, when Mellor tried to break his own record and hit the six-hour mark, the assembled crowd of 2,500 got bored and left. By hour five, workman began dismantling the stage Mellor had arranged for the event. “Disillusioned and broken-hearted,” Mellor’s dreams of both setting a new record and starting an annual competition were shattered.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Reg Mellor referred to his attempted six-hour record attempt as the “four-minute mile” of ferret-legging. The four-minute mile was an unreachable aspiration for distance runners everywhere until Roger Bannister broke the barrier in 1954. Running a four-minute mile requires the runner to maintain an average pace of 15 miles per hour for that duration. (By comparison, 8 mph is considered a brisk jog, and while Usain Bolt has reached 28 mph, that’s only for very short distances.) Sixty-six years of improved equipment and training later, hundreds of athletes have repeated Bannister’s feat, and it’s now considered a standard for competitive middle-distance runners. But metaphorically, it’s used in all variety of sport as a metaphor for a very high bar to clear. (That’s also a sports metaphor!)
Further Down the Wormhole: Former ferret-legging world record holder Edward Simpkins hailed from the Isle Of Wight, an island of less than 150 square miles in the English Channel just off the British mainland. King Charles I was imprisoned there before being executed; Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a vacation home there. Other famous residents included Dickens, Keats, Tennyson, Robyn Hitchcock, Jeremy Irons, Anthony Minghella, David Niven, and naval captain Jeremiah Coghlan, who was legendary for his daring heroics during the Napoleonic Wars. Few figures in history have had as much written about them as Napoleon Bonaparte, but less has been written about his younger sister, Pauline Bonaparte, a fascinating figure in her own right. We’ll look at her colorful, scandalous life next week.