I have been noting Badger's ageing for years now. This year, what would have been at least his ninth, he stopped being able to make it up onto the sofas and beds. Instead he favoured the blanket box or, the cat basket.
Two months ago he had a forty-five minute appointment with the lovely vet, who performed his first ferret ultrasound. Badger's abdomen had been swelling up - like a couple of our other old ferrets' had; I feared heart failure and didn't expect to bring him home that day. But he lay back stoically on his blankie, like a pregnant woman, as his huge belly was gelled and investigated for fluid or tumours. The vet concluded he was just fat.
He came home with antibiotics for his slight wheeze but when they had no effect we knew his days were numbered. Frankly, when your ferret is eight you know his days are numbered anyway. It doesn't make it any easier though. Neither does the fact that all but the most sociopathic of aquaintances will understand why you are devastated by the loss of your dog or cat, but try telling someone that you're crying because your ferret died...
Of all the cats, dogs, birds, reptiles and other companion animals I have had throughout my life, Badger was quite possibly my favourite. He was certainly my familiar. It wasn't that he was particularly different in personality to Bear and Lynx - the albino and dark-eyed white ferrets with whom he was rescued - but they died younger and so Badger became a house ferret. Sharing our rooms with a free ranging elderly ferret for three years, was an absolute joy. I can't say it would have been as pleasurable when he was younger because when the three of them used to come out of their shed for playtime in the house, they tended to trash it. Badger's favourite game was climbing the bookcases and throwing all the books off the shelves from behind whilst bouncing up and down on all four paws in delight as they fell. They also enjoyed terrorising my elderly greyhound and cats, getting up and into anywhere they could and stealing objects which would turn up much later, stashed in shoes and behind sofas. But by the time Badger was an only ferret, he couldn't climb higher than the sofa or edge of the bath where he would sometimes join me. This meant he could also have unfettered access to our walled back garden. My favourite thing was to be sitting in my kitchen, drinking coffee with a friend, and to have a frantic ferret burst through the cat flap, dragging a headless pigeon he'd stolen from a cat who was in pursuit. What sort of dull, half life is it without that?
Ten years ago, I was the newly single mother of children aged three and nine, and ferretless after my polecat, Slinky, died of adrenal disease - geriatric and almost entirely bald. I desperately wanted another animal but was suffering from severe anxiety and any further change to my life was almost impossible to manage. Adopting a potentially damaged and equally anxious dog, cat or ferret was an enormous challenge but buying a puppy or kit from a shop or breeder had never been something I could support either. I couldn't cope with the adoption procedures of big rescue organisations who don't have the time or resources to counsel neurotic owners as well as saving animals so I didn't think I would ever have another animal again. I felt like a complete failure and a terrible human being. Then I found a small, private, home-based rescue in north-east England, run by another Jane. I blurted out all my fears and she said it was fine, she'd find me the perfect ferret and she'd be there if anything went wrong. With that sense of security, nothing ever went wrong. I ended up adopting five ferrets from Jane - including Badger - over the following couple of years, all of them utterly beloved and now buried in our garden, but Badger was perhaps - as my son's girlfriend said when she met him - the most loved ferret in the world.
Badger won over nearly everyone he met, and those he didn't probably weren't worth meeting. He was the gentlest, funniest, little magical creature. He came on walks, road trips and even a memorable bike ride. He was never any trouble to anyone - except maybe my cats - and cost us nothing but a small amount of food every day (although props to the Metro free newspaper for a decade of unknowingly sponsoring litter trays). One Easter we discovered his weakness for chocolate when he chanced upon some unhunted mini eggs behind a cushion. Thereafter he would get a tiny taste every year and then follow us around for days to come, hoping for more. When we were at the vet, I said to my husband that it was such a shame he wouldn't make it until Easter this year. But he did and he had his bit of chocolate egg. He was weak and wobbly though so, wanting to spare him the painful death that Bear had suffered, we made an appointment on Easter Monday to have him put to sleep and tearfully kissed him goodbye. An hour later he was back home after the vet pronounced him deteriorating but not in distress. Badger was risen!
But less than two weeks on he was unable to sleep at night and barely eating. I sat up with him in my bed, willing him to let go and stop laboring so hard to breathe. By that afternoon he was still clinging on, but starting to struggle. I carried him to the vet in my arms, wrapped in one of my husband's moth-eaten cashmere sweaters, and afterwards we buried him in the garden next to the other four ferrets, heartbroken.
Badger was a legend: the most loved ferret in the world.