Mr. Reg Mellor, the "king of ferret legging," 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 72-year-old champion, "no jockstraps allowed. No underpants—nothin' whatever. 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."
Consider the Wild Animal Down Your Pants
Some 11 years ago I first heard of the strange pastime called ferret legging, and for a decade since then I have sought a publication possessed of sufficient intelligence and vision to allow me to travel to northern England in search of the fabled players of the game.
Basically, the contest involves the tying of a competitor's trousers at the ankles and the subsequent insertion into those trousers of a couple of peculiarly vicious fur-coated, footlong 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 out.
From a dark and obscure past, the sport has made an astonishing comeback in the past 15 years. When I first heard about ferret legging, the world record stood at 40 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 5 hours and 26 minutes, a mark reached last year by the gaudily tattooed 72-year-old little Yorkshireman with the waxed military mustache who now stood two feet away from me in the middle of the room, apparently undoing his trousers.
"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."
Reg Mellor lives several hours north of London atop the thick central seam of British coal that once fueled the most powerful surge into modernity in the world's history. He lives in the city of Barnsley, home to a quarter-million downtrodden souls, and the brunt of many derisive jokes in Great Britain. Barnsley was the subject of much national mirth recently when "the most grievously mocked town in Yorkshire"—a place people drive miles out of their way to circumvent—opened a tourist information center. Everyone thought that was a good one.
When I stopped at the tourist office and asked the astonished woman for a map, she said, "Ooooh, a mup eees it, luv? No mups 'ere. Noooo." She did, however, know the way to Reg Mellor's house. Reg is, after all, Barnsley's only reigning king.
Finally, then, after 11 long years, I sat in front of a real ferret legger, a man among men. He stood now next to a glowing fire of Yorkshire coal as I tried to interpret the primitive record of his life, which is etched in tattoos up and down his thick arms. Reg finally finished explaining the technicalities of this burgeoning sport.
"So then, lad. Any more questions 'for 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 above 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 working man'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, weasel-like animals 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 "a 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. Rabbits, rats, and even frogs run screaming from hiding places when confronted with a ferret. Ferreters—those who hunt with ferrets, as opposed to putting them in their pants—sit around and tell tales of rabbits running toward hunters to surrender after gazing into the torch-red eyes of an oncoming ferret.
Before they were outlawed in New York State in the early part of the century, ferrets were used to exterminate rats. A ferret with a string on its leg, it was said, could knock off more than a hundred street-wise New York City rats twice its size in an evening.
In England the amazing rise of ferret legging pales before the new popularity of keeping ferrets as pets, a trend replete with numerous tragic consequences. A baby was killed and eaten in 1978, and several children have been mauled by ferrets every year since then.
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 Encyclopaedia Britannica suggests that you can get a ferret to let go by pressing a certain spot over its eye, but Reg Mellor and the other ferret specialists I talked to all 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 10 minutes.
Mr. Graham Wellstead, the head of the British Ferret and Ferreting Society, says that little is known of the diseases carried by the ferret because veterinarians are afraid to touch them.
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. Because 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 hunted.
"The world record was 60 seconds. Sixty seconds! I can stick a ferret up me ass longer than that."
So at 69, 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," saying something about not being paid enough for that.
"Come on, Reg," I said. "Do they bite your—you know?"
"Do they!" he thundered with irritation as he pulled up his pants. "Why, I had 'em hangin' off me—"
Reg stopped short because a woman who was with me, a London television reporter, had entered the cottage. I suddenly feared that I would never know from what the raging ferrets dangle. Reg offered my friend a chair with the considerable gallantry of a man who had served in the Queen's army for more than 20 years. Then he said to her, "Are ye cheeky, luv?"
My friend looked confused.
"Say yes," I hissed.
"Why," Reg roared again, "I 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 just 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 for sure."
A SMALL RED HUT SITS in an overgrown yard outside Reg Mellor's door. "Come outa 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.
Reg thrust one of them at me, and I suddenly thought that he intended the ferret to avenge my faux pas concerning his virility; so I began to run for a fence behind which my television friend was already standing because she refused to watch. Reg finally got me to take one of the ferrets by its steel cable of a neck while he tied his pants at the ankle and prepared to "put 'em down."
A young man named Malcolm, with a punk haircut, came into the yard on a motorbike. "You puttin' 'em down again, Reg?" Malcolm asked.
Reg took the ferret from my bloodless hand and stuck the beast's 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 and 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."
Reg Mellor gives all the money he makes from ferret legging to the local children's home. As with all great champions, he has also tried to bring more visibility to the sport that has made him famous. One Mellor innovation is the introduction of white trousers at major competitions ("shows the blood better").
Mellor is a proud man. Last year he retired from professional ferret legging in disgust after attempting to break a magic six-hour mark—the four-minute-mile of ferret legging. After five hours of having them down, Mellor found that almost all of the 2,500 spectators had gone home. Then workmen came and began to dismantle the stage, despite his protestations that he was on his way to a new record. "I'm not packing it in because I am too old or because I can't take the bites anymore," Reg told reporters after the event, "I am just too disillusioned."
ONE OF THE FERRETS in Reg's pants finally poked its nose into daylight before any major damage was done, and Reg pulled the other ferret out. We all went across the road to the local pub, where everyone but Reg had a drink to calm the nerves. Reg doesn't drink. Bad for his health, he says.
Reg said he had been coaxed out of retirement recently, and he intends to break six—"maybe even eight"—hours within the year.
Some very big Yorkshiremen stood around us in the pub. Some of them claimed they had bitten the heads off sparrows, shrews, and even rats, but none of them would compete with Reg Mellor. One can only wonder what suffering might have been avoided if the Argentine junta had been informed that sportsmen in England put down their pants animals that are known only for their astonishingly powerful bites and their penchant for insinuating themselves into small dark holes. Perhaps the generals would have reconsidered their actions on the Falklands.
But Reg Mellor refuses to acknowledge that his talent is made of the stuff of heroes, of a mixture of indomitable pride, courage, concentration, and artless grace. "Naw noon o' that," said the king. "You just got be able ta have your tool bitten and not care."