Toronto Zoo has been participating in the conservation-breeding program for the Black-footed Ferret since 1992. Since then, the Zoo has bred hundreds of baby ferrets (kits) for reintroduction to the wild in USA, Mexico, and Canada where they were listed as extirpated in 1978.
“The black-footed ferret was once thought to be extinct in the wild. Saving species at risk, like the Black-footed Ferret, is only possible through partner collaboration and the success of international ferret recovery demonstrates how working together can have a big impact on saving critically endangered species,” says Maria Franke, Curator of Mammals, Toronto Zoo.
This year, Toronto Zoo has 16 adult ferrets. One female, named Twilight Sparkle, after a My Little Pony character, gave birth to four kits (three males and one female) on April 16, 2016.
Kits are born blind, hairless, and are less than 10 centimeters long. Twilight Sparkle was instantly a very good first-time mom, nursing and protecting her babies. The kits weaned at approximately 30 days of age and started eating meat brought over by Mom. A week or so after weaning, their eyes started to open and they began to explore their surroundings.
Now, at almost three-months-old, their personalities are strong and they are very active and chatty. The kits recently had their first veterinary exam and are all healthy, with beautiful adult colors. They are full-grown and the boys weigh more than Mom. Adult females weigh 700-800 grams and adult males 900-1,000 grams.
On June 13, 2016, another female, named Indigo, gave birth to six kits (unfortunately, two were stillborn). Mom and her four kits have been doing very well. Now, at almost one-month-old, they have grown quite a bit, have white baby fuzz, and are even squirmier.
Four other females bred this year; three did not become pregnant. The remaining female, named Fiddlesticks, gave birth on June 22 to one kit.
Females can have between one and seven kits, with an average litter of three to four, so this is a small litter but not uncommon. Fiddlesticks is an experienced mom and not bothered by a single noise in the barn. She has been caring for this kit just as well as she did for her four kits last year.
In the fall, kits will go to the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center, in Colorado, to prepare for release into the wild. They will live in outdoor pens and learn valuable skills, such as hunting prairie dogs.
Toronto Zoo is proud to be part of this successful program, which has helped restore the wild population to approximately 300 animals. However, the ferret continues to need help as they face habitat loss and disease.
The Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes), also known as the ‘American Polecat’ or ‘Prairie Dog Hunter’, is a species of mustelid native to central North America. It is listed as “Endangered” by the IUCN, because of its very small and restricted populations.
First discovered by Audubon and Bachman in 1851, the species declined throughout the 20th century, primarily as a result of decreases in prairie dog populations and sylvatic plague. It was declared extinct in 1979. Then, in 1981, the dog of Lucille Hogg brought a dead Black-footed Ferret to her door, in Meeteetse, Wyoming. That remnant population of a few dozen ferrets lasted until the animals were considered extinct in the wild in 1987.
However, a captive breeding program launched by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service resulted in its reintroduction into eight western states and Mexico from 1991–2008. There are now over 1,000 mature, wild-born individuals in the wild across 18 populations, with four self-sustaining populations in South Dakota, Arizona and Wyoming.
The Black-footed Ferret is roughly the size of a mink, and differs from the European Polecat by the greater contrast between its dark limbs and pale body and the shorter length of its black tail-tip. In contrast, differences between the Black-footed Ferret and the Steppe Polecat of Asia are slight, to the point where the two species were once thought to be conspecific. The only noticeable differences between the Black-footed Ferret and the Steppe Polecat are the former's much shorter and coarser fur, larger ears, and longer post-molar extension of the palate.
The Black-footed Ferret is largely nocturnal and solitary, except when breeding or raising litters. Up to 91% of its diet is composed of Prairie Dogs.