Mr. Reg Mellor, the "king of the ferret-leggers," paced
across his tiny Yorkshire miner's cottage as he explained the
rules of the English sport that he has come to dominate
rather late in life. "Ay, lad," said the seventy-two-year-old
champion, "no jockstraps allowed. No underpants-- nothin`
whatsoever. And it's no good with tight trousers, mind ye.
Little bah-stards have to be able to move around inside there
from ankle to ankle."
Basically, ferret-legging involves the tying of a
competitor's trousers at the ankles and the insertion into
those trousers of a couple of peculiarly vicious fur-coated,
foot-long carnivores called ferrets.
The brave contestant's belt is then pulled tight, and he
proceeds to stand there in front of the judges as long as he
can, while animals with claws like hypodermic needles and
teeth like number 16 carpet tacks try their damnedest to get
From a dark and obscure past, the sport has made an
astonishing comeback in recent years. When I first heard
about ferret-legging, in 1972, the world record stood at
forty painful seconds of "keepin' 'em down," as they say in
ferret-legging circles. A few years later the dreaded
one-minute mark was finally surpassed. The current record--
implausible as it may seem--now stands at an awesome five
hours and twenty-six minutes, a mark reached last year by the
gaudily tattooed little Yorkshireman with the waxed military
mustache who now stood two feet away from me explaining the
technicalities of this burgeoning sport.
"The ferrets must have a full mouth o' teeth," Reg Mellor
said as he fiddled with his belt., "No filing of the teeth;
no clipping. No dope for you or the ferrets. You must be
sober, and the ferrets must be hungry-- though any ferret'll
eat yer eyes out even if he isn't hungry. So then, lad. Any
more questions 'fore I poot a few down for ye?"
"Ay, whoot then?"
"Well, Reg," I said. "I think people in America will want
to know. Well -- since you don't wear any protection -- and,
well, I've heard a ferret can bite your thumb off. Do they
ever -- you know?"
Reg's stiff mustache arched toward the ceiling under a sly
grin. "You really want to know what they get up to down
there, eh?" Reg said, looking for all the world like some
workingman's Long John Silver. "Well, take a good look." Then
Reg Mellor let his trousers fall around his ankles.
A short digression: a word is in order concerning ferrets,
a weasel-like animal well known to Europeans but, because of
the near extinction of the black-footed variety in the
American West, not widely known in the United States.
Alternatively referred to by professional ferret handlers as
"shark-of-the-land," a "piranha with feet," "fur-coated evil,
" and "the only four-legged creature in existence that kills
just for kicks," the common domesticated ferret -- Mustela
putorius -- has the spinal flexibility of a snake and the jaw
musculature of a pit bull.
Ferreters -- those who hunt with ferrets, as opposed to
putting them in their pants -- tell tales of rabbits running
toward hunters to surrender after gazing into the torch-red
eyes of an oncoming ferret.
Loyal to nothing that lives, the ferret has only one
characteristic that might be deemed positive -- a tenacious,
single-minded belief in finishing whatever it starts. That
usually entails biting off whatever it bites. The rules of
ferret-legging do allow the leggers to try to knock the
ferret off a spot it's biting (from outside the trousers
only), but that is no small matter, as ferrets never let go.
No less a source than the Encyclopedia Britannica suggests
that you can get a ferret to let go by pressing a certain
spot over its eye, but Mellor and the other ferret
specialists I talked to say that is absurd. Reg favors a
large screwdriver to get a ferret off his finger. Another
ferret legger told me that a ferret that had almost dislodged
his left thumb let go only after the ferret and the man's
thumb were held under scalding tap water -- for ten
Reg Mellor, a man who has been more intimate with ferrets
than many men have been with their wives, calls ferrets
"cannibals, things that live only to kill, that'll eat your
eyes out to get at your brain" at their worst and
"untrustworthy" at their very best.
Reg says he observed with wonder the growing popularity of
ferret-legging throughout the '70s. He had been hunting with
ferrets in the verdant moors and dales outside of Barnsley
for much of a century. Since a cold and wet ferret
exterminates with a little less enthusiasm than a dry one,
Reg used to keep his ferrets in his pants for hours when he
hunted in the rain -- and it always rained where he
"The world record was sixty seconds. Sixty seconds! I can
stick a ferret up me ass for longer than that."
So, at age sixty-nine, Reg Mellor found his game. As he
stood in front of me now, naked from the waist down, Reg
looked every bit a champion.
"So look close," he said again.
I did look, at an incredible tattoo of a zaftig woman on
Reg's thigh. His legs appeared crosshatched with scars. But I
refused to "look close."
"Come on, Reg," I said. "Do they bite your -- you
"Do they!" he thundered with irritation as he pulled up
his pants. "Why, I've had 'em hangin' from me tool for hours
an' hours an' hours! Two at a time -- one on each side. I
been swelled up big as that!" Reg pointed to a five-pound can
of instant coffee.
I then made the mistake of asking Reg Mellor if his age
allowed him the impunity to be the most daring ferret legger
in the world. "And what do ye mean by that?" he said.
"Well, I thought since you probably aren't going to have
any more children --"
"Are you sayin' I ain't pokin' 'em no more?" Reg growled
with menace. "Is that your meaning? 'Cause I am pokin' 'em
A small red hut sits in an overgrown yard outside Reg
Mellor's door. "Come outta there, ye bah-stards," Reg yelled
as he flailed around the inside of the hut looking for some
ferrets that had just arrived a few hours earlier. He emerged
with two dirty white animals, which he held quite firmly by
their necks. They both had fearsome unblinking eyes as hard
and red as rubies.
A young man named Malcolm, with a punk haircut, came into
the yard on a motorcycle. "You puttin' 'em down again, Reg?"
Reg took one of the ferrets and stuck the beasts head deep
into his mouth.
"Oh yuk, Reg," said Malcolm.
Reg pulled the now quite embittered-looking ferret out of
his mouth and stuffed it and another ferret into his pants.
He cinched his belt tight, clenched his fists at his sides,
and gazed up into the gray Yorkshire firmament in what I
guessed could only be a gesture of prayer. Claws and teeth
now protruded all over Reg's hyperactive trousers. The two
bulges circled round and round one leg, getting higher and
higher, and finally...they went up over to the other leg.
"Thank God, " I said.
"Yuk, Reg," said Malcolm.
"The claws," I managed. "Aren't they sharp, Reg?"
"Ay," said Reg, laconically. "Ay."