Ferrets: Do you know about your pet’s endangered sibling?

Ever since you got your first ferret, you’ve been reading everything you can get your hands on about its ways. Now it’s time to get to know something about your ferret’s relative, the black-footed ferret, currently an endangered species.

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is the only ferret breed native to the U.S. (YourHard working black footed ferrets are an endangered species pet ferret’s ancestors (Mustela furo) came over from Europe with the first human immigrants.) Although it’s called a black-footed ferret, its main difference from the domesticated ferret is the black band across its face, the rest of the fur is usually described as tan, buff or beige in color. Black-footed ferrets do have black feet and a black tip on their tails. Unlike domesticated ferrets, which sleep at night, black-footed ferrets are nocturnal.

Despite the similar Latin names, black-footed ferrets are a different species than your pet ferret and thus are shorter and less fuzzy. They are still meat-lovers, feeding mainly on prairie dogs. In fact, 90 percent of this ferret’s diet is prairie dog. (They can eat more than 100 of them each year.) In addition, they also eat small rodents, rabbits, birds and squirrels.

Their fondness for a prairie dog dinner is part of the reason black-footed ferrets are endangered. From the time of the first westward expansion, ranchers wanted to eliminate prairie dogs because they competed for the grass their cattle needed for feed. Therefore, they poisoned prairie dog towns and dug them up to make way for crops and buildings. By killing prairie dogs, they endangered the black-footed ferret, which needed prairie dogs for survival.

Conditions got so bad that in 1987 only 18 black-footed ferrets were known to exist. Some of these were bred in captivity (sometimes by using artificial insemination) and placed in zoos in hopes they could be reintroduced back into the wild. Apparently those efforts have been successful. There are an estimated 400 wild black-footed ferrets in the U.S. and Mexico (most of them in South Dakota’s Conata Basin) and another 300 in zoos. About 200 black-footed ferrets are released into the wild every year.

“So, if black-footed ferrets are endangered, maybe I should get one as a pet. That way I can help rescue it.” That’s an admirable thought but right now that’s not possible. It is illegal to own black-footed ferrets or any animal on the endangered species list without obtaining a permit. If you come across the owner of a black-footed ferret, you may want to mention it to your local game warden/conservation officer for the area or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office. If it is indeed a black-footed ferret, the owner could be subject to a fine and jail time.

Part of the reason for requiring a permit is that black-footed ferrets are very susceptible to disease, especially canine distemper and sylvatic plague. They could easily pass these on to other animals.

Apparently, it wouldn’t be worth the effort to even try to domesticate a black-footed ferret. According to Ferret-info-source.com “Wild ferrets don’t make good pets and you won’t do them any favors by keeping them in captivity.” (The site did not specify its reasons.)

It’s interesting to note that while black-footed ferrets are being successfully reintroduced into the wild, doing the same with domesticated ferrets would be disastrous. Officials in California — where it is illegal to own either kind of ferret — believe that a domesticated ferret would only survive about three days in the wild – they have become that dependent on their human owners.

If you’re outside with your pet ferret (or another pet) in an area where black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced (western U.S. and Mexico), you may wonder what to do if you come across one. First of all, don’t be too sure that’s what you’ve found. Most of the time, black-footed ferrets live underground and, as we’ve said before, are nocturnal.

Second of all, just leave it alone. There is no sense making your pet or the wild ferret skittish or aggressive. You may want to alert your local wildlife or animal control authorities, especially if the wild ferret appears to be injured or in danger. But leave the job of capturing it to professionals who have been trained to do so.

Do not use chemicals or other means to trap or destroy a black-footed ferret. Because it is one of the most endangered mammals in the U.S., you would be risking a major penalty if you were caught doing so. It may also be illegal and you might also endanger your own ferret, other animals or humans with your efforts.

It’s nice to know that your ferret’s wild cousin is making a comeback, proving that as much as we humans can wreak havoc on Mother Nature, we can also fix what we broke. The next time you visit a zoo, look around for black-footed ferrets. You’ll be glad you did.