Wild Ferrets Back in Canada
When I was a kid, growing up in Rochester, NY, I used to go to the Seneca Park zoo almost once a month. Then one day it hit me: zoos are just animal jails! Those 8-foot by 10-foot concrete-floored cells for gorillas and lions were driving them stir-crazy.
Sally the Elephant was a particularly sad case. She was confined to a 20 by 30 foot enclosure with a small outdoor annex that had no vegetation whatsoever. On many of the days I visited her, she was shackled to the floor with a six-foot chain. No wonder she crushed her keeper to death. She was executed for her offence and buried in an unmarked grave that very few knew about. I used to visit it occasionally; I thought of her as our very own “I’m mad as hell and I‚m not going to take it any more” pachyderm. A zoological rebel with a very good cause.
Zoos have long since cleaned up their acts, but I still can‚t visit them. Once you‚ve seen giraffes and elephants and lions on the Serengeti, you don‚t want to see them caged ever again, no matter how vast and life-like the enclosures are.
Even their good works make me wonder – their species preservation efforts. I am both heartened and melancholy when I hear about them.
Thus this week (October 2, 2009) when it was announced that 34 black-footed ferrets were released in Grasslands National Park (south of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, near the Montana border), I was hesitant to join the celebrations.
Black-footed ferrets are the only ferrets indigenous to North America. They were last seen in Canada in 1937 and thought to be extinct on the continent until a small colony was found in Wyoming in 1981. The entire population at one point numbered only 18 ferrets. Industrialized farming was the major culprit.
Since 1981 zoos have played the major role in preserving the species. There are now as many as 6,000 of the creatures, and they’ve been “successfully” reintroduced into the wild in 17 areas in Mexico and the US.
They’re cute little buff-colored creatures with distinctive raccoon-like masked eyes and dark-colored cheeks and feet. But I can‚t help thinking about that scary-funny scene in The Big Lebowski when The Dude is attacked by a “tame” one in the bathtub; it went for his genitals and throat. That movie went a long way in erasing decades of Beatrix Potter and Walt Disney images of cuddly, anthropomorphized animals. I know it was all in good Cone-head fun, but I‚m still not wild about ferrets.
I wish the recently freed black-footed ferrets of Saskatchewan well. I hope they find a sufficient supply of black-tailed gophers (their favorite “fast” food) to sustain a colony. Given the precarious state of the bird populations on the prairies, I hope they don’t further upset the “balance” of nature by snacking on ground-nesting birds between gopher binges.
Sometimes good intentions can produce bad results.