DON’T MISS: Ferret Town

By on September 27, 2017

How black-footed ferrets became Wyoming’s greatest conservation story

A wanted poster and a resurrection—that’s how the story begins.

It was 1981 on a ranch in the middle of Wyoming, and a ranch dog came home with a carcass in his mouth. The ranchers had never seen such an animal before—because the animal, or rather, the group of animals, was believed to have been dead for years.

It was a black-footed ferret, an animal that had been believed to be extinct since the late ‘70s. The ranchers didn’t recognize it, but the taxidermist did, because a small handful of optimists still hung “wanted” posters looking or the animal. This body was the proof they needed—it was still alive, right here in Wyoming.

The story was everything wildlife filmmaker Virginia Moore needed for her next project: A charismatic character (because ferrets are adorable, google “ferrets in packing peanuts” and try to disagree) and an animal brought back from the dead, a second chance.

It’s one of the “greatest conservation stories in the U.S,” Moore said. And it all started in Wyoming.

Moore is offering a sneak peak of her film Ferret Town, which doesn’t actually release until the spring, at JH Wild festival this weekend. Clips of the film will be accompanied by Q&A sessions with conservation specialists, and a live ambassador from Colorado—yes, a real live ferret.

“There are so few of them in the wild, they’re so hard to find. It’s a really great opportunity to meet an endangered ferret in person,” Moore said.

This year is Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival’s second public offering of some of the festival’s best films. The real festival, complete with seminars, galas and field workshops, is going on all week at Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park—for a minimum of  $250 a day, or $25 a film.

WILD also brings a selection of those films to the Center for the Arts for free.

The subjects of the feature films are big and global—big cats were the focus of this year’s summit.

The subjects of Ferret Town, meanwhile, are small and scarce, but their story is local. They came to life right in our backyard.

“The last remaining population of ferrets was right here in Wyoming,” Moore said. “We got a second chance to try and keep this animal from going extinct.”

People rally easily behind big animals like cats and condors, Moore said. But despite their cult-like following—owners of domestic ferrets sometimes self-identify as “ferret people”—the black-footed ferret’s survival is still gaining traction in larger conversations about conservation. Even though domestic ferrets are more closely related to the European pole cat, they’re all part of the same family.  Moore is trying to tap into the “ferret people’ market.

“There’s this whole subculture of ferret pet owners that are kind of obsessed with their ferrets,” she said.  Don’t they want to know more about their pets’ wild cousin?

Beyond their domestic pet-owning audience, the black-footed ferret’s story offers conservationists a crucial lesson in animal re-population, Moore said.

“We’re talking about re-wilding an animal that was extricated,” she said. “How did we only get down to 18 [the population in 1986], and how can the federal government, state, and locals work together on endangered species issues to not only save the species but find common ground and work together in a collaborative way.”

Moore compares the ferret to Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs: They went extinct in a different era. When they came back to life, the landscape they now needed to survive in looked drastically different.

The ferrets, like the fictional resurrected dinosaurs, will need to learn to adapt to their new environment.

Also, because it’s worth mentioning: ferrets dance. PJH got a sneak-sneak-peek at one of the film’s scenes, simply titled “ferret dance.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: one unsuspecting ferret, leaping, twisting, and boogying in front of a night-vision camera (ferrets are nocturnal, as are most party animals). It’s even better than ferrets playing in packing peanuts. Moore is especially excited to let that scene go viral.

“It’s awesome,” Moore said.

We agree.

Ferret Town sneak peak is part of WILD fest’s “Science Fest” (so many fests) Sunday, October 1, from 11 am-4 pm. The concluding day of WILD includes over 30 interactive booths for audiences of all ages. PJH

JH WILD kicks off Friday at 4 pm. All events and film screenings are free. For a full line-up, visit JHWIld.org.

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