Amira Chichakly has an unconventional form of rodent control at her Saratoga barn
With horses comes grain. With grain comes mice and rats. It’s a universal truth battled by horsemen in many ways through the years, from sturdy bins to cats to a Jack Russell Terrier named George.
Trainer Amira Chichakly has a different solution. They require an oversized plastic cage, and often confuse her toddler’s toys for theirs.
Their names are Jagger and Slim Jim, and they are ferrets.
“I had a ferret when I was a kid briefly,” said Chichakly. “And I knew they would go after mice, and that even the smell of them would drive away mice. Actually the first time I brought them to Belmont, the rats cleared out. They didn’t disappear, but they stopped coming into the barn. Then they got used to it a little bit, they came back, and then I started letting [the ferrets] loose in the shed.”
When Chichakly first acquired them from a pet store near Belmont a few months ago, they were too young and too unfamiliar with a stable setting to roam freely around the barn. About the time they got big enough to do some serious hunting, it was time for Saratoga, where there isn’t a rodent problem. While she doesn’t have a lot of data to go on, she suspects they’re going to earn their keep as rat-catchers when they return to Belmont.
“I’m excited to let them loose at Belmont to let them hunt for a few hours instead of just 30 minutes a day,” she said. “People apparently sell ferret-soaked papers and bedding to get rid of mice, so you don’t even really need the ferret. But my guess is the genetically-modified pseudo rats we have at Belmont wouldn’t care so much. They’d figure it out.”
Jagger and Jim are both leash-trained and (sometimes) come when called. They’re also faster than you may expect of a creature with such short legs, darting around and disappearing into holes they’ve made under the barn office or storage shed. They spend training hours in their cage in the shade outside Chichakly’s barn and hop around the yard after horses are put away for the morning. Chichakly will sometimes leave one in the cage while the other plays to keep them from getting bold and wandering too far, but they mostly seem, like a barn cat or dog, to know their territory and stay nearby on their own. They showed some initial interest in the horses, but have learned decorum at the ripe age of five months.
Saskia (the dog) comes face to face with Jagger and Jim
“They seem to have no understanding of their own mortality,” she said. “When I first got them, Jimmy, day one, goes into the stalls, bites a horse on the foot. Looks at it, sniffs it, bites. Now that they’re a little older, they now know the foot is attached to a whole horse and you don’t do that.”
At the time, the three-month-old ferret’s teeth weren’t much to write home about and didn’t even leave a mark on the horse’s pastern. Rather, the filly snorted at the ferret in surprise, and he evidently rethought his priorities.
Ferrets are odd creatures for those unfamiliar with them. Chichakly says they have the attitude of a puppy with the fluid spine of a snake. If you pick one up, they feel much like a furry Slinky toy, wriggling and wobbling in all directions without a care.
That’s assuming you can catch one. Jim and Jagger spent a recent morning darting from one side of Chichakly’s storage shed to another, trying to make off with a bath sponge, and ignoring a bag of their own feed while trying to climb into a bag of the horses’ grain.
They’ve gotten used to being carried or slung over the shoulder of Chichakly’s daughter Kriya, who enjoys carting them around. Although they’re not given to sit still long enough to request pats from humans in the same way a dog or cat would, they are social.
Chichakly’s daughter, Kriya, frequently carries the ferrets from place to place, which they don’t seem to mind.
“They’re unlike anything and they’re both terrifyingly creepy and adorable,” she said. “They want to be a part of our family. They’ll search us out.”
Despite their quirks, Chichakly said the mischievous pair have a certain charm to them.
“They’re very loyal animals,” she said. “And I’d say they’re a lot smarter than your average Labrador. You’ll see them figure things out. You have to watch the latches [on the cage] and double latch them because they’ll figure that out from the inside. They come in the feed room all the time, and they know where they left things. You’ll see them plan things. It probably serves them well when it comes to hunting rats and mice.”