By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Pat Wright loves his three ferrets - even though they do sometimes bite and he's had to replace the baseboards in part of his house after they urinated for years along the walls - and he really wants them to become legalized as pets in California.

On Monday, Wright was anxiously preparing what he admits may be a quixotic campaign to legitimize Tiger, Bailey and Jethro after a decision on Friday by state officials in Sacramento to allow him to gather signatures to place a referendum on the ballot making it legal to own and import ferrets.

"Back in the mid-1980s, I lived in an apartment, and I couldn't have a dog," said Wright, who lives in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa. "I had two cats, but I wanted something more interactive."

He drove to Yuma, Arizona, and bought Chester, a neutered male who has since died, from a breeder there, bringing the ferret back to California even though the state, along with Hawaii, is one of two in the U.S. that bans them.

Years of advocacy followed. He founded a pro-ferret organization, Ferrets Anonymous, and has been arrested for keeping them as pets.

Once, after a complaint that one of his ferrets scratched a child at a park, he went to jail for three months for(unadvisedly, he says) grabbing a kitchen knife in a panic to ward off police and animal control officers who had come to his door.

In 1998, one of his ferrets bit a cameraman at a pro-ferret march and was euthanized on state orders, according to the Ferrets Anonymous website.

After Arnold Schwarzenegger, who as an actor had appeared in a movie with a ferret, became governor in 2003, Wright had high hopes - until Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill to legalize the weasel relatives.

California's law banning ferrets dates back to the 1930s, remaining in place for reasons including safety (they bite), sanitation (they are hard to house-train) and concern that they will breed in the wild and become invasive.

Even so, Californians who really want ferrets have little trouble finding them, because they are sold as pets in other states.

The Petco chain offers ferret food and supplies in California despite the ban, though it does not sell the animals themselves.

Wright admits ferrets are not easy pets. He recently had to replace the wood baseboards edging the floor downstairs in his house, squirting silicon beneath the new wood trim so ferret urine would not seep through.

But earlier this year, he filed an application for a ballot initiative to lift the ban, and on Friday the state said the measure was approved for signature-gathering.

Wright can't afford to hire professionals to circulate petitions, and concedes he may not be able to gather the 365,880 signatures needed to win a place on the November, 2016, ballot.

But he plans to try.

"It would take a miracle," he said. "But if we showed some traction I think people would come out of the woodwork.

(Editing by Sandra Maler)