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Some 60 Siberian polecats are held in a second building at Sybille Canyon. The nucleus of this group of central Asia natives was donated by a fur farmer (commercially, they are referred to as fitch). The polecats look much like the BFFs and are a closely related species, but they also are relatively common and prolific animals. At Sybille, they are used as surrogate research animals and occasionally as foster mothers for BFF kits whose own dams cannot or will not nurse them.
Though their rarity has required extraordinary precautions, the BFFs have proved not much more difficult to maintain than cage-reared mink, according to Don Kwiatoski, another veterinarian who sees the animals on a daily basis. He says that the BFFs adjust nicely to captivity, eat well (a mixture of commercial mink food, fresh hamster, rabbit and, occasionally, prairie dog meat) and, if handled properly, show few signs of stress.
Despite the fine facilities, the first efforts to get the ferrets to breed, in the spring of 1986, were unsuccessful. The six distemper survivors were two juvenile males and four females. One of the latter mated briefly but did not become pregnant. The other females did not come into breeding condition. Thorne believes that the BFFs' long isolation had traumatized them.
The 1987 breeding season started equally badly. For the most part the females in heat violently rejected the males. "They just flat out whipped and intimidated them," Thorne says succinctly. It then seemed that the elaborate BFF recovery program might well be for naught because of sexual incompatibility. Until better techniques are developed, artificial insemination of ferrets can only be accomplished surgically, which makes it unacceptably difficult and risky. However, the 1987 mating season did show signs of progress thanks to a remarkable animal who, if this species survives, should be remembered as a hero-founder.
After capturing the 11 ferrets in the summer and fall of 1986, Biggins and the other federal field researchers found signs that indicated there might be another animal still in the Meeteetse prairie dog colony. It would prove to be an extremely elusive and wary creature. Over the course of the next four months, the feds caught only fleeting glimpses of it and were not able to lure the animal into a trap until February 1987. It proved to be a mature male, and from the evidence of the healed wounds on its muzzle, a veteran of combat against other beasts or perhaps competing ferrets. Biggins named him Scarface and sent this last, so far as is known, of the wild BFFs to Sybille, where he was first put into one of the eight isolation wards. However, Thorne and Kwiatoski saw that Scarface was in fine sexual fettle. Desperate to get some breeding action, they brought a female to his quarantine cage and went to watch what happened on their video screens. There was a brief but fairly ferocious fight, and then, says Thorne, "he just plain overpowered her."
Subsequently, Scarface did the same to a number of other Meeteetse females. Thorne thinks that beyond being an idiosyncratically aggressive BFF, Scarface was an experienced animal, one who had learned the rough courtship rituals of his kind while in the wild.
In 1987 seven kits were weaned at Sybille, the first captive-bred BFFs to survive—as they still do. In 1988, there were 34 young, in 1989 another 58, and in 1990 an additional 80 kits survived through weaning. Of the current population of cage-reared BFFs, over half are immediate descendants of Scarface. After his Success, other males mastered ferret mating games, and in 1990 Scarface was not permitted to breed with other BFFs, the concern being that his genes may become overrepresented in the species. However, he remains sexually enthusiastic and able. To keep him in service, so to speak, he has been mated with several Siberian polecats, which have produced hybrid offspring, a matter of considerable interest to taxonomists.
As of the end of the 1990 birthing season last fall, there were 180 captive BFFs at Sybille Canyon. The astonishing success of the breeding program has enabled the ferret recovery team to do something about a situation that has concerned it from the start—that a natural catastrophe or unexpected epidemic might wipe out the sole remaining BFF colony, there being no definite proof that any BFFs remain in the wild. Not wishing to keep all their BFFs in one basket, from 1988 to '89 the scientists at Sybille sent 10 BFFs to Front Royal, Va., where the National Zoo of Washington, D.C., operates a research facility. Another 21 animals were shipped to the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo. In addition, zoos in Colorado Springs and Louisville have already received BFFs, and Toronto and Phoenix will get some this fall. Despite the expense, zoo directors have been enthusiastic about having a BFF project because of the scientific honor and publicity that come with it. These institutions will not be allowed to put the BFFs on public display—at least for several years—and have been required to build and pay for facilities modeled after Sybille, in the hope that other breeding colonies can be established. If there is progeny at one of these other locations, the ferret recovery team in Laramie will determine what to do with the offspring.
With captive ferrets now apparently in good supply, there is new optimism that some of them can eventually be reestablished in the wild. If all continues to go well, the first attempt will be made this year. The present plan is that after the BFFs have been given some retraining as hunters, about 50 captives—divided into litter groups, i.e., siblings of the same year—will be released near the town of Shirley Basin, in central Wyoming. Other prairie dog colonies in Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota are also being surveyed as subsequent release sites.
There is some opinion that if these returnees do not adjust immediately, they should be returned to protective custody. However, Thorne believes that once they are set free, they should remain so, whatever their fate. "We can give them some help in the beginning, by selecting sites that appear to be disease-free, keeping away local predators, doing some supplemental feeding. But sooner or later they have to make it on their own. Otherwise we will end up with a permanent zoo species. The whole idea is to reestablish ferrets as part of our native fauna."