BAYONET POINT — The gold plaque on Cindy's three-level 7-foot-tall cage is etched with her accomplishments: Gold Champion, Best in Show. Attached to the wire wall is a pink photo frame that says "Diva."
Cindy is a beauty queen in the ferret world. Hundreds of breeders and ferret enthusiasts bring their pampered pets to shows across the country where they compete for ribbons and bragging rights (but no cash prizes). Cindy is the color of champagne, and judges usually prefer darker critters with more striking features. But she overcomes that with a lean physique that is prized on the ferret showing circuit.
Gail Suzanne Burlaka got Cindy a year ago from a bad home. Cindy was about 51/2, a year shy of the mandatory retirement age for show ferrets, but Burlaka fixed her up and entered her in four shows near the end of the season.
"We all knew she was a quality jill," the term for female ferrets, Burlaka said.
Cindy — who competes under the show name Mischief Maker Ferret's Siena of Shamalar — won enough accolades that she's in the running for Ferret of the Year awards in two categories.
The awards will be announced Friday night at the American Ferret Association's annual banquet in York, Pa. If Cindy's score tally doesn't impress the judges, her Cinderella story might.
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When Cindy was 17 weeks old, she clinched her first Best of Show for her first owner. Then she was given to a Michigan breeder who became so overrun by the multiplication of accidental offspring that Cindy spent nearly five years caged and neglected, Burlaka said.
Burlaka pleaded with the breeder for two years before finally getting Cindy last April. The ferret had mites and infections in both ears. She was developing a uterine infection. Her tail was missing patches of hair and her coat was covered in grime.
"She was a mess," said Burlaka, 70, who has been showing the ferrets for 14 years. "When we brought her home, we had to scrub her down with Dawn dishwashing detergent."
Burlaka spent about $800 on treatments and surgeries to patch Cindy up. Getting her socialized was another matter. Because she wasn't used to playing with her kind, Cindy was scared of Burlaka's six other ferrets.
"She got so upset, shaking badly, hissing, backing off into a corner, that I finally gave up," Burlaka said.
She didn't push. Ferrets can develop ulcers when they're stressed.
Instead, she gave Cindy her own space in the three-level Ferret Nation cage in the kitchen. Every night, while the other ferrets are nestled in their plexiglass sleeping pen, Cindy gets exclusive romp time in the sunroom.
In August, Cindy entered her first show in five years. She won first place in one class and second place in another at the Ferret Buckeye Bash in Columbus, Ohio, the nation's largest ferret show. After collecting ribbons and trophies in two other shows, Cindy finished her career at the Oct. 31 Dooktoberfest in Maryland.
Once again, she was Best in Show.
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There's no prancing around the ring, no pet tricks at ferret shows. The judges simply hold the slinky mammals and examine their features: their teeth, their color, facial features, the length of their body.
They also look for personality and exuberance.
"If they bite the judge, that's a different story," Burlaka said. "They're out."
Burlaka, a retiree who used to work in the legal profession, can tell you everything about her ferrets: What they eat (premium ferret food mixed with kitten chow), what they get as treats (eggs and diced poultry) and what they'd really like to eat (raisins and bananas, which are unhealthy and off-limits).
Burlaka landed in the ferret world by chance but she's no stranger to the animal showing circuit. She used to breed and show Afghan hounds. Her prize pupil, Champion Shamalar Fuzzbuster, ranked No. 6 in his breed in the country in 1984. His picture appeared in the American Kennel Club book as the standard for what an Afghan Hound should look like.
But all that grooming became a burden as Burlaka grew older. As her dogs passed away, she decided not to replace them.
Then one day her vet called. Someone had abandoned a pair of ferrets at his clinic. Would Burlaka like to take them home?
She agreed, and after seeing an article in the paper about a ferret show, Burlaka entered the pair.
"I guess I never got the 'show' out of my blood," Burlaka said.
Now she has Cindy plus six: Schuyler Drew, Joshua Dean, Anya Lenore, Shara Melina, Tiffany Grace, and Aaron Marc, whom she calls Poppy. They also have golden plaques on their cages highlighting their awards. Eventually, when a ferret dies, Burlaka will place its plaque on the tablet bearing its cremains.
Burlaka, who is a member-at-large of the American Ferret Association, thinks Cindy should be a cinch for the senior ferret of the year award, given to the top-scoring critter over age 4. Cindy also has a shot at winning the altered class, which is for ferrets of all ages who have been spayed or neutered.
This will be Cindy's swan song on the ferret circuit, as she is retiring from the pageant life. Burlaka is toying with retirement, too. Her ferrets have picked up plenty of awards, and the road trips to the ferret shows are getting harder to make.
Retirement would look much like everyday life at Burlaka's home: Ferrets scampering, playing, snacking, snuggling, napping.
"I'll just enjoy them for what they are," she said.
Times correspondent Jesse Brock contributed to this report.