The opinion of the court was delivered by: JAMES F. MCCLURE, JR.
On March 8, 1991, plaintiff Brittany Gallick, an infant then aged seven months, was bitten on and about the face by a ferret owned by Shawnee Miller and Todd Long. The bites left open wounds which have left scars on the face of Brittany. Her parents, Leonard and Sonina Gallick, initiated this action to recover for Brittany's injuries. Originally, the defendants were Bruce and Betty Barto, the landlords of Miller and Long. They raised affirmative defenses against the Gallicks, and eventually Miller and Long were joined as third-party defendants. The Gallicks also have been named as third-party defendants.
Before the court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Bruce and Betty Barto. The resolution of that motion will be determined by the answers to two primary questions: Is a ferret a wild animal? If so, can a landlord not in possession be held liable for injuries caused by a wild animal when the landlord may not have had actual knowledge of the animal's wildness?
As set forth at length below, we find that a ferret is a wild animal. Moreover, the landlords may be held liable, since a jury may find that they permitted Miller and Long to keep a wild animal on the property. The Bartos had the right to begin eviction proceedings to enforce the terms of the lease, and did not do so. While the landlords did not have the right to an immediate eviction of the tenants, they might have concluded eviction proceedings prior to the date of the incident in question. A jury could reasonably find that this constitutes control over the property. If the jury should so find, the landlords might be liable for injuries caused by a wild animal, the presence, if not the nature, of which they were aware.
The material facts are undisputed. Leonard and Sonina Gallick are the natural parents of Brittany Gallick, a minor who was seven months old on March 8, 1991. Bruce and Betty Barto are the owners of a rental property located at R.D. #1, Box 355, Hughesville, Pennsylvania. On July 28, 1990, Todd R. Long signed a lease for the house in Hughesville. Sharon Miller signed the same lease on July 30, 1990. Long and Miller resided in the house on March 8, 1991. The lease indicated that a violation of the lease rules could be enforced with a 30-day notice of eviction. Paragraph 8 of the lease stated, "No Pets."
Approximately one week after Miller and Long moved into the Hughesville property, they informed Betty Barto that they had a ferret. Approximately two weeks after the signing of the lease, Betty Barto visited the premises and there observed one ferret. Betty Barto did not know what a ferret was; in fact, she thought that the ferret was a mink.
Neither Bruce Barto nor Betty Barto issued a 30-day eviction notice after having seen the ferrets. They claim that they had no actual knowledge of any violent propensities on the part of ferrets in general or the ferrets owned by Miller and Long in particular. Bruce and Betty Barto had no right to evict the ferrets or the tenants without legal process.
Three ferrets were purchased by Miller from the pet shop in which she worked and were kept as pets by Miller and Long. They were allowed to roam freely about the rental property and slept on the couch. Although there was a cage, it was used for keeping the ferrets' food and water bowls. The ferrets generally were playful, though some aggressive behavior may have occurred.
I. IS A FERRET A WILD ANIMAL?
In Pennsylvania, a person who keeps a wild animal, or a domestic animal with known vicious propensities, may be liable for injuries caused by the dangerous nature of the animal. Summit Hotel Co. v. NBC, 336 Pa. 182, 8 A.2d 302, 305-306 (Pa. 1939); Andrews v. Smith, 324 Pa. 455, 188 A. 146, (Pa. 1936). The early cases indicate that the cause of action is for negligence, not strict liability: "The negligence is in keeping such an animal after notice. . .," Andrews, supra, at 147 (quoted in Summit Motel Co., supra, at 305), although the Pennsylvania Superior Court has more recently discussed the keeping of wild animals in the context of strict liability. Albig v. Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, 348 Pa. Super. 505, 502 A.2d 658, 662 (Pa. Super. 1985) (". . .the doctrine [of strict liability] has long been applied to the keeping of wild animals. . . .").
If a ferret is a wild animal, then, its owner, and perhaps the owner's landlord, may be liable for injuries caused by the ferret. We conclude that, under the applicable principles of Pennsylvania law, a ferret is a wild animal.
A. GENERAL FACTS ABOUT FERRETS
According to Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (College Ed. 1968), a ferret is "a kind of weasel, easily tamed and used for hunting or killing of rabbits, rats, etc. . . ." Generally, two types of ferrets are found in the United States: the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) and the domestic
or common ferret (Mustela putorius or Mustela putorius furo).
1. The Black-Footed Ferret
The black-footed ferret has a yellow-buff coat, with brown fur on the top of the head and the middle of the back. It has a black facial mask and its feet, legs, and last quarter of its tail are black. The male black-footed ferret is larger than the female; it is about 22 inches long, approximately 5 1/2 inches of which is its tail, and it weighs about 2 pounds.
The black-footed ferret is nocturnal and feeds mainly on prairie dogs. It moves into a prairie dog colony, occupies the tunnels, and hunts the occupants. Due to the extermination of prairie dogs, the black-footed ferret is now nearly extinct in the wild, if not already so. As of 1989, a few survived in captive breeding programs run by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and in the National Zoological Park at Front Royal, Virginia.
Obviously, the ferret which injured Brittany Gallick was not this ...