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As playground supervisor, college student Julia Tandy has to keep a sharp eye out for misbehavior. She's surrounded by 30 little ones, jumping, splashing in the pool, digging in the sand, playfully wrestling with each other.
She promptly scoops up those who get too excited and exiles them to a "time out" for a few minutes. She doesn't want friendly tussles to turn serious.
"I'm watching their tails," she says, as the ferrets enjoying themselves in Ferretland - the nation's only playground for ferrets - race around her feet. "Their tails will bottle up - turn bristly like a bottle brush - if they get agitated. That's when they need to go into time out."
Home Goes to the Ferrets
Ferretland - a roughly 400-square-foot enclosure of ferret-sized tunnels, hollow logs, a concrete castle, a shallow pool, a water-spewing volcano, a water slide and other ferret delights - is the brainchild of Randy Horton, the 45-year-old founder of Especially Ferrets, one of the largest ferret-rescue organizations in the world.
Horton and his wife, Gloria, have turned all but one room of their suburban Denver home over to the beloved ferrets. A former bedroom is now a ferret hospital, where 14 ailing creatures are currently being nursed back to health. Another 30 or so are in the "intake room," the place where newcomers spend a couple of weeks adapting to life at a shelter. The rest - there are about 130 altogether these days - usually hang out in the "community room." They take turns going outside to Ferretland, which fills the Hortons' backyard.
Last year, the Hortons and their crew of about 50 volunteers rescued more than 900 ferrets. Some had been abandoned. Some were found injured. Some died, usually cradled in a volunteer's arms. Most - 726 - were placed in new adoptive homes. The rest have taken up semi-permanent residence, either at the shelter or in foster care with one of the volunteers.
Ferret Fun Day
Ferretland, open every day during summer and throughout the year on days when it's warm and sunny, draws ferret owners from across the country. Ferret Fun Day, which includes ferret races and other special events, is the last Saturday of every month. Admission is $5 for members, $7 for non-members. Owners can stay and watch their ferret play with the other ferrets, or can drop their ferrets off in the morning and pick them up later in the day, secure in the knowledge their animal will be supervised - and exhausted by day's end.
Victoria Gonyier drove an hour from Boulder to bring her ferrets, Pooper and Buddy, to enjoy July's Ferret Fun Day.
"This is my first time," says Gonyier, who works for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. That's where she heard about Especially Ferrets and Ferretland. "I thought they'd have fun - and Buddy is fat and needs the exercise. Pooper's never even been with other ferrets before. It will be a completely new experience for him."
Laura and Steve Hendricks, who live six hours away in Montrose, Colo., decided to bring their ferret, Slinky, when they came to Denver to visit family. They'd heard about Especially Ferrets and thought it would be a good place to find a permanent playmate for Slinky.
"I think he's overwhelmed," said Laura Hendricks, sitting in the shade near the water-spewing volcano and trying to keep an eye on her ferret as he scampered among all the others. "He's certainly never played with 30 other ferrets before."
Ferrets Make New Friends
Horton happily surveys the scene in his backyard. At times, there have been as many as 100 ferrets in Ferretland. "It's just giggles and grins when we have that many," he says. "They jump. They play. And they make new friends."
Horton is uncommonly attuned to the needs of the little animals. A burly retired fishing-boat captain, he figures he's got something of a karmic bill to settle for the 20 years he spent taking the lives of animals.
"I used to celebrate the death of animals. I thought I was a big shot for killing a 500-pound swordfish," he says. "I couldn't do that now."
Humbled by a series of health problems, Horton now finds his passion in ferrets. A heart attack six years ago forced him to curtail most of his activities, and he fell into a deep depression. Laughing at the antics of a pet ferret eventually brought him out of his despair and gave him a new purpose in life. For the past four years, he has devoted virtually every waking hour to caring for ferrets in need.
Another heart attack in May, followed by quadruple bypass surgery, forced him to cede most of the duties of running the shelter to his wife and volunteers. But he is slowly getting back up to speed, doing what he can, surrounded by his beloved ferrets.
"I guess God isn't through with me yet," he says. "By rights, I should have died in May, but there's just still so much work to do."
A Bigger, Better Ferretland
Horton envisions the day when the shelter can move from his home to an 80-acre, $20 million facility complete with ferret-friendly camp sites, hotel rooms for patrons, a much larger ferret playground, therapeutic ferret-play programs for the (human) disabled and at-risk youth, a sanctuary for the endangered wild black-footed ferrets and room for thousands of domestic ferrets to live.
An architect already has drawn up the plans, and a donor has offered to make the land available. Since Especially Ferrets recently received federal tax-exempt status, it's now just a matter of raising the funds to make the dream a reality.
"You know," says Horton, fondly watching the ferret-inspired chaos in his backyard, "I'm tired of being poor, and sometimes I get sad when I think how poor I am. But then I think how rich I am, and it makes me happy again."
For more information on Especially Ferrets and Ferretland, check the Web site, www.especiallyferrets.org.