Interview with Bob Church: The king of raw feeding, respected researcher and ferret expert, anthropologist, biologist, photojournalist and enigma
By Stephanie Warzecha
Bob Church is an ex-Navy veteran corpsman who studied to become a photojournalist in New York, primarily working for newspapers. Once retired from newspaper work, he chose to follow his interests by getting dual bachelor’s degrees in anthropology (archaeology) and biology (zoology) and attending graduate school to study zooarchaeology.
After falling in love with ferrets, he chose to further his expertise in polecat and ferret diets, domestication, carnivore enrichment, mustelid behavior, ferret and polecat anatomy, odontology and osteology, mustelid ecology and feral issues, and environmentally-caused medical issues in ferrets.
In his spare time, he works on the Ferret Project, a worldwide investigation into ferret diet, husbandry, medical issues, DNA, and breeding practices. This research project has now been running for over 8 years and spans over 3 continents.
Bob is a popular and sought-after speaker who frequently lectures at ferret events and veterinary conferences around the world. His ferret articles and photos have been published in veterinary books and journals, and numerous veterinary ferret publications.
It’s an honour to be able to interview such a well-respected ferret expert in the world. How did you become involved with ferrets in the first place?
I first saw a ferret in Texas when I was working as a photojournalist. It must have been about 1986 or so. I was immediately attracted to the strange-looking thing.
I bought a few ferrets and wanted to learn more about them. I discovered the FML (Ferret Mailing List) in about 1994 and joined it, posting about my small brood. There were so many misconceptions and outright myths about ferrets, I elected to investigate them to see what was true and what was false. I was in graduate school after retiring from newspaper work and was studying zooarchaeology. Learning about bones from archaeological sites and studying the domestication of ferrets seemed to mesh together.
Why are you so passionate about helping ferrets and their owners?
I became ill with an autoimmune disorder, resulting in numerous surgical procedures and lots of drug therapy. My ferrets helped me through the rough times, inspiring me with their antics and playfulness. One in particular, Stella, mothered me and seemed to understand those times I was in discomfort. I made it a point — out of gratitude — to find out as much as I could about ferret needs, both physical and psychological, and to instruct others in what I learned. Stella paid it forward and I’m trying to do the same thing.
I now live with a sword of Damocles hanging over my head. I could sicken and die with little notice. I figure I’d better not sit on my bum if I want to get things done. That gives me the passion, positive energy and strength of will to get slogging through reams of papers to find a single clue.
Oh yeah, did I say I loved ferrets? That too.
Have you ever bonded with another ferret as much as you bonded with Stella?
Yes, with many. Stella was the first, but there have been many since. Currently, Aslan and Arbe are probably as closely bonded; Arbe, in particular, is so bonded he fights off sleep until I cuddle him for a few minutes. Once I ignored Arbe — who was begging to be lifted up — and he gave me the tiniest little nip on my calf. I lifted him up and he curled into a ball in my arms and was asleep in a few minutes.
What made you decide that you needed to get involved in ferret research?
No one else was doing it and I had the time, especially when ill. Years of my early research was self-funded, but later other ferret lovers helped me fund the Ferret Project. The worldwide data collection phase of the project was largely funded by Dr. Susan Brown, some by Richard Clark, and some by other contributors — all greatly appreciated and listed individually on the scientific paper I am writing! This gave me the opportunity to take a leave of absence and use my research funds to pay household expenses while I was gone. I’d applied for grants, but they were rejected because the research wasn’t viewed as important enough.
Tell me about your research that you travelled around the world for. What were you looking to find out and learn?
I felt the “pet industry” style of ferret husbandry contributed to various pathologies, mental and physical, that could be eliminated with a better understanding of their needs. I looked at various husbandry practices and disease rates and compared them to disease rates in wild polecats and feral ferrets. My hope was to see if there was a correlation between husbandry and disease.
Did you get what you were looking for or were there some surprising insights that you weren’t expecting to find?
I wasn’t looking for anything. I was basically cataloging various husbandry practices and recording disease rates and pathology. That way I could see if any correlation existed between one and the other. I had a passionate argument once about my insistence to stay double-blind during the study, and other times I’ve been accused of not trying to finish the work. This project has required an open mind, dedication to procedure, and lots and lots and lots of patience.
I have sampled thousands of ferrets, autopsied nearly a thousand, and taken data on hundreds of museum specimens.
One reason was to try to hit sample redundancy. That is, I wanted to add so much data that adding more no longer caused a change in the data results. For example, if you flip a coin ten times, you might end up with 7 heads and 3 tails. Each flip is random and in small samples, random error can skew the data. However, if you flip the coin long enough, the head to tail frequencies becomes 1:1 (50%/50%). You can keep on flipping, but you will not change the result. That is the point of sample redundancy; it is when the results equalize and statistically no longer change. I wanted to be able to say — with strong statistical backing — that X% of pet ferrets eating kibble have a Y% rate of insulinoma, which in wild polecats, pet ferrets eating raw/whole and feral ferrets that rate is Z%, AND have statistical redundancy so the opposition cannot attack the data easily. I want to argue implications, not data.
The other reason was because I knew that after the 8 to 9 year period I had planned for the length of the data acquisition portion of the Ferret Project, I wouldn’t be able to contact many of the original people to find out end-of-life data about their ferrets (what were their illnesses and why did they die). I anticipated as many as 75% of the original people would not recontact me after 8 years. I needed a lot so I could end up with enough data.
The project was done as a double blind study that extended over a typical ferret’s life span. To avoid bias, I placed the data into a worksheet and did not do any analysis. Late last year, I stopped collecting data and started to do the math. It is taking some time; I am completely self-funded and doing the work in my spare time.
What are the biggest takeaways from your research?
I can’t release the actual data yet; it is proprietary and would be a disservice to get it into the public prior to scientific publication. Too many people made too many sacrifices for me to allow such a thing.
However, without releasing numbers, I can say that caged ferrets sleep too much and are fat and bored, resulting in weak muscles when compared to wild polecats and feral ferrets. Kibble diets result in worn teeth that tend to crack and fracture, with a long-term increase in gum disease. Soft diets and gravies/soups cause a rapid buildup of tartar, resulting in gum disease and tooth loss if the ferret does not have its teeth brushed. Insulinoma and adrenal disease are probably due to environmental factors. Stereotypic behavior is common in caged ferrets. There are other findings that are not as well supported.
Why is ferret diet so important for their health? How does diet affect health?
I’m not sure I can answer this without writing a book.
Imagine the ferret’s body is a city. To run, build, upgrade and repair a city and keep its citizens healthy, it needs construction materials, fuel, police to protect them, water, nutritious food, and other things. Too much fuel doesn’t take care of construction needs. Too many construction materials don’t take care of the need of workers for nutritious food. There needs to be a balance so everything remains in order. Now, there will always be shortages of one thing or another, but city fathers were wise and built storage facilities, fuel depots and food banks for such events. As long as the proper amounts of materials flow into the city, things go just right. Sometimes, there is a need for some extra supplies in case the food banks or fuel depots are emptied or repairs need to be done. Sometimes, a city might be forced to run a long time before supplies can be rushed in, and repair and construction stop, the infrastructure suffers, parts of the city are burned to replace lost fuel, and the population suffers.
Ferrets require nutritious food in much the same way. But unlike a city, ferrets get their requirements dumped all at once in the form of prey, or a raw diet, or kibble. The big questions are: Are we supplying too much or too little? Is the food damaging in some way? Does a nutritious food meet psychological requirements? There are more questions, but you can see that if the biomechanical, psychological, physiological or nutritional requirements of a ferret are not being met, the ferret will suffer.
Why is this an area that you chose to research?
It is actually part of a triad of ferret research I am interested in: Diet, mental and physical enrichment, and behavior. I think ferret diet is poorly understood; many of the studies are flawed or incomplete. Some show ferrets can breed on a particular diet, but cannot show long-term effects to their health.
Do you believe a raw diet is the only way a ferret can be truly healthy?
No. I think commercial diets, if done properly, can be as nutritious as a raw diet. If a diet meets the biomechanical, psychological, physiological and nutritional needs of a ferret, then it doesn’t matter to the ferret’s body where it came from. With that said, if those needs are not fully understood or met, one has to default to a diet that has already been proved successful for millions of years: The raw, whole prey evolutionary diet.
Do you believe all ferrets should be on a raw diet? Are there any exceptions?
No. Sick ferrets might have to be placed on a special diet — under a veterinarian’s care of course. Ferrets with a compromised immune system might have difficulties with raw foods. Baby ferrets need more fuel and building blocks for teeth, muscle, tendons, bone, etc..
Are there any downsides to a raw diet?
Cost is a big factor. There are really 2 types of ferret owners: Those that try to learn about and help their pets and those who see them as a room decoration. The former will try and do their best to feed their ferrets as well as they can. The latter doesn’t care and feeds whatever is really cheap. Cost is also a huge factor in shelters for obvious reasons. I believe in the long run, it is cheaper to feed a ferret a better and more expensive diet because of a lowered veterinary overhead, but shelters are usually forced to take the short run approach.
Raw diets are time constrained and therefore wasteful. I eliminate the idea of waste by giving any leftovers to the birds that frequent my home. They always utter a cry of thankfulness. My observations suggest that if meat is rancid or spoiled, pet ferrets won’t eat it, but I can’t guarantee this. If the meat is dry and unspoiled (like jerky), they chow it down. Birds don’t seem to care as long as they can fly away with it.
Raw diets also have to be formulated to produce a nutritious and balanced diet; this pushes them to the same problems faced by kibble makers — what is nutritious and balanced? Whole prey is the fallback option.
Ferrets have immune systems designed to defeat the microorganisms that reside on raw meat, but if they’ve never been exposed to it, they might get sick. Wild polecats and feral ferrets do not have this problem; they get part of their immunity from their mother — before and after birth — and from being exposed to raw meat from birth. They are eating it by 4 weeks; if a healthy ferret by happenstance should eat spoiled food, they do exactly what we do. They vomit and purge their bowels. Then, they learn what is good and bad and don’t usually do it again. There are horror stories about raw/whole prey food; some are true and some exaggerated. I look at it this way: I think the risks of insulinoma, adrenal disease and other human-mediated disease are in sum greater than the risks from raw or whole prey foods.
I always recommend to inform your vet of the food change and ask if the ferret is healthy enough for the stress. Then carefully watch for any signs of vomiting or diarrhea, call your vet immediately and follow their advice. The worst thing I’ve experienced is a day of the runs.
What are the benefits of a raw diet?
Clean, sharp teeth; nutritional requirements met; increased food awareness and satisfaction; and knowing that if the food meets the compositional analysis of whole prey, you have done your best.
What do you believe are the biggest problems and challenges facing ferrets these days?
Three I think (tied for first): 1. reaching out to new owners, 2. breeding, and 3. diet.
I don’t have a lot of worries about responsible ferret breeders; they share information, discuss the bad aspects, etc. If they see a lineage is producing bad ferrets (for any reason), they pull the jill and hob from the breeding line.
I worry about a serious biting attack making it into the newspapers from someone breeding wild polecat back into the domestic line (I suspect most of the historical reports of ferret-to-human-violence is due to back breeding to the progenitor). That sets back everything, especially to those in areas trying to legalize the ferret.
Like with dogs and cats, breeding for smaller-than-normal and larger-than-normal individuals using ends by having animals with shortened lives and other genetic problems.
What’s next for Bob Church? What else can we expect to see from you?
Who knows? I’m stealing time from everything to work on the Ferret Project, but without funding and needing to pay for my house and things, it is taking longer than I thought it would. Once it is done, give some time back? Probably retrace my Ferret Project path, this time enjoying the scenery and being able to hold an extended conversation with people I meet.
Or I guess I could start to record the ferret vocabulary.
Thank you, Bob, for this amazing opportunity to interview you for Dook Dook Ferret Magazine. I’m sure our readers will find it as fascinating as I have.
NOTE: This is a shortened version of the full interview (from magazine issue 2). Ferret-World Members (who purchase the magazine archives) will have the full interview available to them in their membership platform. Check out the Ferret-World Membership.