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Animals of the Month came back from the brink

Tanis, one of the two black-footed ferrets at the NEW Zoo & Adventure Park was greeting visitors on Friday, July 27, even though he is nocturnal. He is one of roughly 800 left in existence. Ben Rodgers Photo

By Ben Rodgers

SUAMICO – Tucked away on the Northern Trail of the NEW Zoo & Adventure Park are where two vital members of their population and this month’s Animals of the Month reside.

At first glance, Tanis and Gale, two black-footed ferrets, look like normal ferrets, but these are not the type found in pet stores.

“They have a remarkable story and it is phenomenal,” said Shannon Scanlan, senior zookeeper. “Zoos and active breeding saved this population.”

One of only 20 zoos in the country that has black-footed ferrets, The NEW Zoo is their home now after being active in breeding to save the species.

“They were thought to be extinct in 1981 and then this ranch dog in Wyoming was out on the prairie and came back with a ferrett he caught,” Scanlan said.

That led to the discovery of the last black-footed ferret colony in existence, where 129 were found. Shortly after, however, things took a turn for the worst.

“In 1985 they noticed there was a drastic decrease in population and that was due to diseases,” Scanlan said. “Black-footed ferrets are highly susceptible to sylvatic plague and canine distemper. So the decision was made to take the remaining black-footed ferrets into captivity. At that point there were only 18 left.”

That means Tanis and Gale are direct descendants of the last 18 black-footed ferrets. Currently only 300 ferrets are in captivity or in breeding programs, with roughly 500 in the wild.

“This is the only ferret species native to North America,” Scanlan said. “This is also one of the most endangered species in North America.”

The population downfall is not solely due to disease. Humans are to blame as well.

In the wild, black-footed ferrets survive on a diet that is 90 percent prairie dog. Any decrease in the prairie dog population directly affects the black-footed ferret population.

Ranchers looking to decrease the prairie dogs have used poisons, which in turn affects the ferrets.

Moreover, Scanlan said there has been a shift to convert grasslands into farmlands, which eliminates ferrets’ native habitat.

There are about 18 locations in the U.S. where black-footed ferrets are reintroduced into the wild, in their native grassland habitat. In North America that stretches from plains in southern Canada to northern Mexico.

“They are chosen very carefully because we want to set them up for success and not put them in places where they will have problems,” Scanlan said.

Three years ago, as a NEW Zoo employee, Scanlan went out to the Badlands in South Dakota to conduct field research.

Because they are nocturnal, she said they used lights at night trying to find ferrets to study.

She said the find of two ferrets in the wild was considered a success because of the low population numbers.

In the wild the ferrets have a life expectancy of one to three years, but in captivity they can live from four to nine years.

That makes Tanis and Gale, 6 and 5 respectively, old for their species.

When ferrets are bred in captivity, they go through what Scanlan called a “ferret boot camp,” which they are tasked with having to kill a prairie dog before being released into the wild.

Tanis and Gale did not succeed, which means they can live out the rest of their days, after doing their part in breeding at The NEW Zoo, on loan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Gale destroys everything and is very confident and outgoing and Tanis is laid back and goes with the flow,” Scanlan said. “Nothing bothers him and he is very easy to get along with.”

Even though their habitat is at the back of the zoo and they resemble their domestic cousins that can be found in pet shops, Scanlan said it is important to tell people about their journey.

“So many people think they are domestic ferrets and one of the things I hear most is ‘My sister has a ferret.’” She said. “So we have to stop and tell people their story, about their reintroduction, their survival and how unique they are to the ecosystem.”

To support continued ferret conservation, visit Tanis and Gale at the NEW Zoo, or consider a donation to Prairie Wildlife Research.

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