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Posted: September 11, 2008, 5 a.m. EDT
The Old Girl

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.

A black-footed ferret at sunrise
©Travis Livieri
In 2005, this 3-year-old black-footed ferret watched a sunrise with Travis Livieri. She lived to be 5 years old, which equates to 100 in human years.

September 10
11:11 p.m., Wednesday
The wind and rain are keeping me inside tonight. The weather has been cool, a reminder that fall is fast approaching. Despite the outbreak of plague, we have still found quite a few BFFs over the past few months, but there is no sign of her, the old girl.

She didn’t have a name per se but was identified by a number that I assigned to her, 02-001, as I do with all the BFFs in Conata Basin that are captured. She was born in 2002 and captured for tagging on September 16, the first kit caught that season. 02-001 lived on a prairie dog colony we called the South Exclosure and by the fall of 2002, as the weather cooled and the days grew short, she set up her territory on the south end of the colony. In late March of 2003, at 10 months of age, she was ready to breed for the first time; by June she was nursing her first litter of kits. As a first-time mom her instincts served her well in raising that first litter of kits. Prairie dogs (food) and their burrows (shelter) were abundant, and 02-001 thrived.

In the summer of 2004 she was a seasoned veteran and had her second litter of kits, despite the dry conditions in the peak of a drought. Every year there she was on the same prairie dog colony raising a litter of kits. After a long night of spotlighting BFFs in August of 2005, I saw 02-001 just before sunrise. I shut down the truck, grabbed my camera and slowly tiptoed my way closer to her. She sat quietly on top of a prairie dog burrow, watching my approach but not terribly worried. After all, she was 6 inches and a lightning-fast dash from safety. I sat down on the ground about 10 feet away from her as the morning twilight painted the sky every color of red and the meadowlarks began their morning song. We watched the sunrise together. As the sun broke over the horizon those first rays cast a halo around her head.

As we began the BFF population count in September of 2006, I wondered if we would find 02-001. She would be 4 years old, which is relatively old for a BFF. Typically we find only a few 4-year-olds every year but on the first night of spotlighting my friend Steve Forrest captured the old girl. I figured we wouldn’t see her in 2007, but much to my surprise she was on the South Exclosure in August with her fifth litter of kits. We’ve never documented a 5-year-old BFF in Conata Basin. This is the equivalent of a human living 100 years. We captured her and brought her into the mobile anesthesia trailer for a health checkup. Earlier in the summer graduate student Dave Eads reported that her left eye had swollen shut, probably the result of a scuffle with a prairie dog. The eye had returned to normal, but she looked haggard. Her ribs and spine were visible through her skin, which was missing fur in some places, most noticeably around her face. All four canine teeth were still present but well worn and the once razor-sharp tips were now blunted and rounded after five years of eating prairie dogs. I knew she didn’t have much more time.

She finished the job of raising her four kits in 2007, her fifth litter in as many years. There would be no sixth. One morning in July of 2008, after a long night of spotlighting, I drove down to the southern end of the South Exclosure, turned off the truck and quietly sat on the ground. As I watched the sunrise a smile came across my face thinking about all of her offspring and descendents, some of which I observed last night. But most of all I thought about the sunrise halo of 02-001, the old girl.

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The Old Girl

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Reader Comments
So sad how wild animals wear down their bodies to survive. I was hoping when they captured her for the last time they would bring her in for a few more years and a struggle free retirement.
Donna, Northampton, MA
Posted: 8/21/2011 3:42:08 AM
Great story, Travis. Thanks for everything you do for the ferrets.
Kimberly Perry, Olympia, WA
Posted: 4/13/2009 7:12:44 PM
Travis,
What an honor to have such a friend in your cause.
Old Girl knew your ways as you did hers.
Afine and fitting memorey-an other sunrise...
J, Upper Darby, PA
Posted: 1/3/2009 8:48:29 AM
Thank you for telling us about the Old Girl, what a great story.
Robin, Glendora, CA
Posted: 9/19/2008 6:19:51 PM
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