Ferrets show their special side

Cherry Canovan reports on how these creatures are shaking off their joke image as they help disabled children

Ferrets may be forever associated with flat-capped old men and eye-watering contests, but the creatures are revealing a hidden talent.

The animals have been working with pupils at Exhall Grange special school in Warwickshire, and are soon to take part in experiments to discover how blind children perceive space.

Richard Bignell, headteacher of Exhall Grange, said: "Ferrets are very interesting. They are fantastic to handle and the children love them."

Ivy, Peanut, Griff, Burnet and Barley were the stars of the school's recent open day, where children could play with them and race them. But they have also been hard at work in the classroom.

Warwick University health psychologist June McNicholas, who owns the ferrets, explained: "We took them into one of the youngest classes, with eight children who are very seriously disabled, and their attention was completely held by the ferrets. As a talking and interactive procedure, it was extremely valuable."

Another benefit is to give the children a sense of normality. "A lot of the children are acutely aware of the extent of their disability," said Dr McNicholas.

"They can hold the ferrets and take them for a walk, which is something of a responsibility."

Now they are set to help increase our knowledge about how the blind map out Euclidean space, or the shortest distance between two points.

"This is absolutely automatic with sight, but not without, which has implications for mobility training," said Dr McNicholas.

In one experiment, the children pop the ferrets into differently shaped tubes, such as right angles, and find the quickest way to collect them at the other end. "It may be very revealing of how quickly and intuitively children are able to map space they cannot see," she said.

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