Posted: August 26, 2008, 5 a.m. EDT
Back In The Saddle Again
By Travis Livieri
Sylvatic plague has reached the Conata Basin, an area of South Dakota that was a previous safe haven for black-footed ferrets and one of the most successful sites for reintroducing the endangered black-footed ferret into the wild. Travis Livieri is one of the people working to save the black-footed ferrets, also known as BFFs.
© Travis Livieri
The procedures performed on the captured and released black-footed ferrets help the species survive, but must seem like an alien abduction to the ferret.
I’m back … back in the saddle again. Now we’re moving into a more intense phase of BFF work: capturing, microchipping and vaccinating under anesthesia. Since late July I have been taking care of paperwork and gathering equipment. I even managed to take some time off. In the upcoming months there will be very few days off. It’s dark outside, but I’m not going to spotlight for BFFs tonight. I have some more repairs to make and equipment to prepare so I can begin tomorrow night.
The trailer is hooked up, and all of the equipment is packed and ready. I begin a slow drive to the field. First job is to set up the mobile anesthesia trailer near the prairie dog colonies where we will trap BFFs during the next few nights.
I’ve prepared the trailer, and now all we need are some BFFs. The goal is to capture BFFs and bring them back to the trailer. Inside the trailer is a modified redneck-veterinary lab for anesthetizing BFFs. A homemade “ferret plunger” made of duct tape and a broom handle is used to coerce the BFF from a holding tube into a gas chamber. The gas chamber is then flooded with isoflurane gas. Once the BFF is sufficiently knocked out, it’s removed from the chamber and a breathing mask is placed over its head. As long as it breathes the gas it remains unconscious. And then the fun begins. Combing for fleas, picking off ticks, inserting a microchip, vaccinating against canine distemper and plague, plucking hair and scraping inside cheek cells for DNA, measuring the teeth and body, drawing blood, dye-marking the neck, weighing and finally spraying Frontline on the BFF. The whole process takes less than 20 minutes and the animal quietly recovers in a pet carrier. After a few minutes of breathing regular air the BFF is ready to be released at the burrow where it was captured.
OK, let’s face it. This is an alien abduction for a BFF. Bright lights at night … capture and immobilization … poking and probing … microchips … waking up at home with foggy memories.
I’ve caught the first BFF of the night, an adult female from 2006. Even though she already has a microchip and is fully vaccinated against plague, I take her back to the trailer for a blood draw and checkup. I reset the trap on the burrow at which she was caught, hoping to catch her kits while the mother is at the trailer.
We return to the burrow and release the adult female. No luck in trapping her kits yet.
It’s been a long and productive night. Eleven BFFs caught and processed in the trailer, two kits and nine adults. I’m tired and have some more work to do before bed.
I drew blood on 10 of the BFFs caught last night and need to prepare the samples for storage. After I draw the blood I squirt it into a serum separator tube (SST) and put it on ice. The SST is basically a test tube with a little bit of gel in it that looks like waxy snot. Back at the house, I put the SST into a centrifuge to spin the blood for approximately 30 minutes. The waxy snot in the SST along with the centrifugal force separates the serum from the blood cells. The serum is clear and contains most of the goodies that veterinarians, epidemiologists, epizootiologists, and other folks with big, long titles enjoy. In this case the serum is sent off to my partners at the National Wildlife Health Center where they can analyze the effectiveness of the plague vaccine. I pour the serum off into a tiny tube, label it and place it in the freezer.
I got about five hours of sleep today, and I’m ready to go again. The mobile anesthesia trailer is ready to go again, and I’m spotlighting.
It was a slow night. Most of the BFFs didn’t come above ground until after 2 a.m. and several of them were trapped previously. That’s where the dye-marking comes in handy. It allows us to easily identify BFFs that have been previously trapped. I can put different patterns of dye and even numbers or letters on a BFF to allow identification. And the preferred tool of the trade for me is Clairol Nice-n-Easy, Natural Black, No. 122. I’d love to ask Clairol for a sponsorship, but considering it is a woman’s beauty product being used on wildlife, that may not go over so well.
We’re back at it, and I get a call on the radio from Norm with the U.S. Forest Service. He’s got a trap with two BFF kits in it. It’s somewhat rare to capture more than one BFF per trap at a time, but this has happened to Norm before. He even holds the record. In the fall of 2002, while we were spotlighting, Norm called me on the radio and asked me to come over to him as soon as possible. He had a trap with multiple BFFs in it, and it looked like one of them might be dead. We unwrapped the trap to find four BFFs crammed together inside one end of the trap. Carefully we removed them one by one — a mom and her three kits, all alive and well.
Another productive night. We captured and processed 11 more BFFs tonight. I need to clean up the trailer, spin blood and get some sleep.
It’s windy tonight, which makes spotlighting a gritty experience. As my pickup truck bounces across a prairie dog colony, searching for BFFs, the dust kicks up. If I travel with the wind, then the dust can obscure my headlights and spotlight, reducing visibility. And if my window is open, it leaves a fine film of grit on every surface.
The wind finally laid down at about 2:30 a.m. and the BFFs were somewhat cooperative. We did pretty well for the first four nights: 30 BFFs, including 13 kits and 17 adults.
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Back In The Saddle Again