Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cute Little Creatures with Big, Nasty Teeth--Ferrets, Part Three

Seeing as the last two posts were about rattlesnakes, I guess it's time to get to the furry critters. Ferrets and prairie dogs are adorable, and it's lucky for them that they are. We humans seem almost pre-programmed to want to take care of the cute and cuddly, with mammals being top on the list of "Save the {insert preferred species here}". Reality: cute they may be, but ferrets and prairie dogs can be stinky and nasty. Oh, they have good reason, but still, stinky and nasty.

Just about anything that gets people talking about helping threatened and endangered species, be they ferrets or whales, northern spotted owls (another species I've worked with) or the New Mexican ridge-nosed rattlesnake (yes, even *I* think rattlesnakes deserve help sometimes) is worth it. But there are an incredible number of other mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects, other invertebrates and plants listed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service site that most folks have probably never even heard of. Don't just save the cute ones, people : )

But back to the p.dogs and ferrets.

After scoping out potential release sites, we (being the biology grunts working for the state of Wyoming) coordinated with the program manager and grunts working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get the ferrets ready. The idea was to take captive bred ferrets, fit them with radio collars, set them in holding cages out on the prairie to acclimate them to the big, wide world, and open their cages so they could come and go until they went off on their own. We'd track their movements over time to (a) see if they were staying in the area or not, and (b) to keep tabs on mortality. Harsh reality: It was expected that only about 10% of the ferrets released would be alive by the next year. And that would be considered a good survival rate.

First thing we had to do was learn how to take care of caged ferrets. (You can go on over to the black-footed ferret site and read about all the great work being done with captive breeding and such.) I spent about a week at the Sybille Wildlife Research and Conservation Center in Wheatland, WY with a caring and incredibly dedicated staff whose names have completely escaped me after 17 years! Sorry, folks! But they were all amazing and I appreciate their work to no end. We learned just how hard it was to take 18 surviving members of the species and breed them without creating more of a genetic bottleneck than was to be expected from such a small population, dealing with infant mortality, and the constant threat of diseases like distemper getting into the facility and wiping out the captive population.

Each day, we donned protective gear and stepped into a disinfecting solution to keep from tracking outside nasties into the facility. The staff of caretakers showed us how to prepare food, which consisted of chunks of prairie dog meat and other goodies to keep the ferrets healthy. We were taught the proper technique for securing the ferrets in the nest box within their cages so we could reach in to clean it without getting attacked by the little carnivores. And yes, they had no problem attacking the hands that fed them, which was fine. Despite their captive status, these were wild animals, kept wild and wary and properly aggressive for their own good. You'll soon see how effective that was.

Oh, a note about ferret food: Prairie dog is not found in your local grocery store or even specialty meat market. The p. dogs had been trapped and kept at the facility then humanely harvested to feed the ferrets. That is a ferret's natural prey so that's what they were fed. Prairie dogs are nasty, stinky rodents that tried to bit through the bars of the trap. Which I could understand, considering they were trapped and marked for death. (There were, in the not too distant past, some people who thought they'd make good pets and were selling and buying them. My reaction: WTF???)

While I was training at Sybille, there was a grad student studying the captive ferrets and their hunting instincts. To thrive in the wild, a ferret would have to find its own dinner. Could these captive born and bred ferrets, who'd never seen the outside world or had their mothers teach them to hunt, be successful? It was a huge question. Can you understand how huge? There would be no ground up prairie dog served on a nightly basis, no humans to make sure they were getting their fill once the ferrets decided to leave the release boxes (more on how that worked later). Would the "easy" life of a captive animal be the ferrets' downfall?

To find this out, Astrid, the grad student, secured a long PVC tube (simulating a prairie dog town tunnel) to the bottom of a 2nd or 3rd generation captive-born mother ferret's cage and attached it to a Plexiglas box containing a live prairie dog. Astrid set up a camera that could record in the low light of the room and removed the slats blocking the opening to the tunnel.

It didn't take long for the ferret to make her move.

(to be continued...)



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