BUXTON — As soon as Crystal Kennedy starts down the basement stairs, sleek, furry heads pop up from boxes, blanket piles and plastic tubes.

It’s hard to tell who comes running first. Suddenly there’s a brown ferret at her foot, a white ferret dancing for attention nearby. A roly-poly ferret abandons her water dish to scamper over. A pair appear from nowhere and decide the best place to wrestle is on Kennedy’s other foot.

As greetings go at the Ferret Rescue of Maine, this one is pretty common.

“You can have the worst day in the entire world, at work or wherever, and come home to these guys and you smile,” Kennedy said. “And it’s not just because we run a shelter. Anyone who has a ferret will tell you. They do the funny things; they make you laugh. And your worst day becomes your best day.”

For the past 14 years, Kennedy and her husband, Jim, have run what they believe is the only ferret rescue in Maine. It started the day they returned from vacation and picked up their two ferrets from the woman who was caring for them. The woman was also known for taking in ferrets who needed a permanent home — until that day.

“She’s like ‘I have 16 ferrets in the shelter right now and here you go. … I’m done,'” Kennedy said. “And I’m like, ‘Uh, this wasn’t the plan.'”

But the Kennedys couldn’t turn their backs on ferrets in need. So the couple brought them all home to their three-bedroom trailer in Buxton. It didn’t take long before they had added more homeless ferrets to the mix and had to knock down a wall to give their brood a larger room.

When that space grew too small, the couple built a house with the shelter in mind. Their new Buxton home features a full, ferret-friendly basement with tubes and tunnels, beds, toys and open space to play.

“A lot of these guys coming in had been caged most of their life. They didn’t even know what it was to be out of a cage. They just weren’t getting the attention that they needed,” Kennedy said. “So when they come to the shelter, we have an open cage policy.”

The basement is divided into four sections so the Kennedys can quarantine newcomers and separate ferrets who don’t get along. But quarantine doesn’t last long and real fights are few, so nearly all the rambunctious, social animals share the same big common area.

The Kennedys now care for 40 ferrets. They try to find adoptive homes for as many as they can, but more ferrets arrive than leave.

Some came straight from families who couldn’t or didn’t want to care for them anymore. Others came from animal shelters.

“They don’t hold them. They’re not set up for it. They just can’t,” Kennedy said. “Usually within, I would say, a half-hour of intake, they’re calling us saying, ‘Just got two in. Can you take them?'”

Many of the 40 are elderly (more than 5 years old) or have special needs. Some were abused or neglected in their former homes.

The couple has only pressed animal abuse charges once: Blind ferret Mocha fell from the top level of her cage to the bottom and laid there unable to move. Her owner left her there, without food, for a week.

The owner eventually gave Mocha to the Kennedys, but by then she was close to death. With help from dedicated veterinarians, the couple nursed her back to health. She lived for 11 more months and died in her sleep, next to her best friend.

Charges against Mocha’s former owner were dropped. Kennedy said the owner had no money, and authorities felt the owner did the right thing, eventually, by bringing the ferret to someone who could care for her.

Mocha is now the rescue group’s mascot. Her image, with her teddy bear ears and tiny spotted nose, adorns the group’s T-shirts and website, www.ferretrescueofmaine.org.

Kennedy and her husband both work full time — she as an office manager and he as a shipping and receiving supervisor — and they run the rescue alone. Volunteers are welcome but rare.

Donations are welcome but rare, too. Adoption and drop-off fees help, and people can sponsor individual ferrets. But the nonprofit shelter, which serves all of Maine and part of New Hampshire, has struggled to get the kind of attention dog and cat groups get.

“I mean, a lot of people don’t even know — I don’t know why — that there’s a ferret shelter out there. We advertise. Being around 14 years old, we would think people would know by now we’re here,” Kennedy said.

She often spends her weekends doing fundraisers or manning a table at one pet store or another in an effort to educate people about ferrets and the rescue.

The rescue is a lot of work, a lot of time, and it costs a lot of money. But the couple can’t imagine walking away from the furry critters who run to greet them every day.

“You have to do it because you love them. And we know right now there’s nobody else to take it, so even if we decided to close our doors tomorrow, we kind of know what the end result is. And the end result is they would go to local shelters, and they’ll probably be caged, and they’ll be miserable. Neither one of us can have the heart to do it,” Kennedy said. “You just dig down deep and you keep doing it.”

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Contact Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or [email protected]

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