When John and Lucille Hogg’s dog, Shep, started barking one night, the couple went outside their home near Meeteetse to see what the ruckus was about. In the dog pen they found the carcass of a small strange-looking animal they’d never seen.
It was Sept. 26, 1981 and the couple didn’t know it, but they were looking at the body of a black-footed ferret, an animal scientists believed to be extinct. The last known living member of the species died in captivity in 1979.
A local taxidermist identified the carcass from posters biologists had distributed years earlier — scientific “wanted” posters, aimed at learning if anyone had seen the animal, or if it was really extinct. Reports of the dead ferret brought a renewed effort to find the elusive mustelid in the wild. A few months later, biologists trapped a live ferret in the area.
That wasn’t the end of the black-footed ferret’s story. It was the beginning of a new chapter for the small predators. They’d face near-extinction yet again. Today, in fact, their fate is still uncertain.
The saga captivated Virginia Moore, a Jackson filmmaker, who this month is showing previews of her forthcoming documentary “Ferret Town” around the state. Each event will include speakers familiar with the ferret restoration effort and at some events people will have a chance to see a live ferret.
Moore learned of black-footed ferrets in 2013 when she met David Cunningham, director of the Meeteetse Museums, at a fundraiser. Cunningham’s business card had a ferret on it, sparking a conversation about Meeteetse’s pride in the 1981 rediscovery. The story captivated Moore.
Not all wildlife stories make great documentaries, but Moore knew this one would.
“This was a story with a historical component, but it was still unfolding,” she said. “That was what really caught me as a filmmaker.”
She saw a story of hope, but also one of struggle, as people tried to figure out the best way to save a species.
Biologists had about five years to study black-footed ferrets after 1981. Then a plague eradicated the population. In a last-ditch scramble to stave off extinction, researchers captured 18 ferrets for captive breeding.
Researchers have since released the offspring of that program at sites across the country. But the ferrets didn’t “come home,” to the wilds near Meeteetse until a release last year, Moore said.
Moore filmed biologists opening the small cages. The ferrets often took a few minutes before leaving the familiar confines and moving into a nearby burrow.
“At that moment, the ferret becomes a wild ferret and then everyone walks away,” Moore said. “And the thing is, that for us to recover the species, we have to have ferrets in the wild living and dying and breeding and eating prairie dogs without humans ever seeing them do it.”
Moore started work on the film in 2015, documenting the many challenges of bringing an animal back from the brink of extinction.
Black-footed ferrets were one of the first animals placed on the endangered species list and at one time were one of 13 mammals on the list, Moore said. Biologists knew little about the rare animals, including their hunting methods, other wild behaviors, or the major threats to its survival.
“They had to handle animals that would impact the future of an entire species,” she said. “And when you handle a sedated black-footed ferret, you realize its vulnerability. You realize it’s really in our hands to recover the species and make sure it still has a place in the ecosystem.”
For all of biologists’ new knowledge gained during years of captivity, black-footed ferrets still have to be “rewilded” before they can be released, Moore said. Ferret kits go through a sort of wild ferret boot camp at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center near Fort Collins, Colorado, she said. They need to learn to be a predator and how to kill prairie dogs, their primary food source.
When Moore started working on the documentary she didn’t know what would happen to the species. Was she filming a story of survival, or the extinction of a species? She also had no idea they’d return home to Meeteetse.
“The story really came full-circle with the animals coming back to where they were discovered,” she said.
The Meeteetse release is a highlight of the story, but there is much more to tell. Researchers, for example, are working on plague vaccines for ferrets, and prairie dogs — if a prairie dog colony succumbs to disease, local ferrets die with them.
“It’s a success story, but there’s still a ways to go,” she said.
Moore will finish the documentary in the spring of 2018. This autumn’s screenings around the state, sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council, are meant to preview the film and raise awareness of black-footed ferrets.
“Ferret Town” – Promotional Film Tour – 2017
Saturday, Sept. 30 – 5-7:30 p.m. – Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Coe Auditorium; Cody, WY
Sunday, Oct. 1 – 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Jackson Hole WILD; Center for the Arts, Jackson, WY
Monday, Oct. 2 – 5-7 p.m. – UW Berry Biodiversity Center in Laramie, WY
Tues. Oct. 10 – 5:30-7:30 p.m. – Fremont County Library, Lander, WY