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In Louisville, An Unlikely Conservation Success Story: Black-Footed Ferrets

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J. Tyler Franklin
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The Louisville Zoo is celebrating 25 years of work rehabilitating a nearly extinct species and reintroducing it into the wild.

In the zoo’s Conservation Center, Keeper Guy Graves stood in a room filled with small cages. Inside each one, poking its head up from a corrugated pipe sticking out of the floor, was a black-footed ferret.

We moved closer to one named Rihanna, after the singer. Graves said he generally doesn’t name the ferrets the zoo releases into the wild — only the ones that are kept for breeding. The names are thematic, reflecting the animal’s lineage.

“We’ve had a rapper theme, we’ve had a noodle theme,” he said. “We’ve got Fettuccine over there, part of the pasta line.”

Rihanna didn’t seem happy to see us and started barking loudly.

“These are actually still one of the rarest mammals in North America,” Graves said.

As recently as 1980, black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct. Then a few were discovered in the wild. And ever since, with the help of conservation programs in Louisville and four other zoos, the population has been rehabilitated.

Since 1991, the Louisville Zoo has successfully bred the ferrets and reintroduced 700 of them back into the wild.

“This is basically why I got into the business: to come to work and to work with an animal you know you’re going to be able to reintroduce into the wild,” Graves said. “That’s basically a zookeeper’s dream.”

He tossed a ball, and then an empty paper bag, to one of the ferrets. The furry creature attacked the bag, then began trying to stuff it down its hole.

Black-footed ferrets are a conservation success story, but they’re not out of the woods yet. The species is still listed as endangered, and Graves said they probably always will be.

The ferrets are native to the west, and because they eat prairie dogs, the fates of the two species are linked. And the west’s prairie dog population is at about 1 percent of what it was at the turn of the 20th century, thanks to human development and disease.

“When people think of zoos, they think of just some place to come out and spend time with family and see neat animals,” Graves said. “But the zoos are actually a lot more than that, and one of our primary goals is conservation. This is something we’ve been very proud of for the last 25 years.”

There aren’t currently any black-footed ferrets on display at the zoo, though work is underway to renovate an exhibit space for some of the animals.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.