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The Man Behind The Spotlight: Travis Livieri

Although Travis Livieri did not set out to save black-footed ferrets and other prairie species, that is where is heart is and it has changed his life.

Rebecca Stout
Posted: September 21, 2014, 9 p.m. EDT

Travis Livieri is a man of many accomplishments. He graduated from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and holds a BS degree in Wildlife and Biology as well as an MS degree in Natural Resources with Wildlife emphasis. He is the founder and current executive director of the nonprofit Prairie Wildlife Research (since 2001). He is a widely acclaimed champion of the endangered black-footed ferret and of the prairie lands. And he is also a respected advocate for domestic ferrets. Who is the "guy” behind these accomplishments?

Travis Liveiri holds a trap

© Courtesy Travis Livieri
Capturing black-footed ferrets in the wild to collect data, vaccinate and more is just part of Livieri's job.

I first met Livieri when he spoke about black-footed ferrets at the 2005 International Ferret Symposium in St. Louis, Missouri. Before then, I never knew much about the little, endearing creatures that romped the prairies at night, let alone that they had nearly become extinct at one time. And I certainly didn’t know that this humble man behind the podium was greatly responsible for their ongoing recovery. The black-footed ferret saga and the man that was brilliantly delivering its message had everyone in the room captivated.

It was pure chance that brought Livieri to the event. The International Ferret Congress (IFC) had invited a colleague of his to speak. Unable to attend, she suggested they invite Livieri in her stead. Livieri recalls his first contact with the ferret community, "I was quite skeptical and didn’t know what to expect but I drove to St. Louis from my home in Wall, South Dakota. One of the first people I met was Renee Downs at the shelter picnic. She was very warm, welcoming and fun. I thought to myself that she didn’t seem too crazy — little did I know.” 

Throughout the day, he enjoyed the festivities and became familiar with the attendees and fellow speakers. "By evening we had the banquet dinner and I shared a few beers with folks who have become good friends — Dr. Jerry Murray, Tim Cairns, Barb Clay, Randy Belair, Renee, Linda and many more,” he said. "As the beer continued to flow that night I realized that domestic ferret folks are crazy, but it’s a good kind of crazy.”

After his speech, a great many people lined up to show their appreciation and to meet the man behind the delightful creatures he made them fall in love with. After the small crowd dispersed, I went over to introduce myself. We shook hands, smiled and exchanged names. It was then he told me that he was not the least bit prepared for the tremendous response he had gotten. He also admitted to being taken off guard and overwhelmed by the support and generosity people had given him. I told him that was rather typical of the ferret community. We are, in fact, all part of one big family. 

Livieri said before he left that day, after a trip to the zoo with the IFC folks, he exchanged emails, addresses and hugs with many people. "At that point I knew that I had entered the domestic ferret community and there has been no going back,” he said. Little did he know how fateful it would become.

The domestic ferret community soon began to refer to him as "Travis Honey”. And not just because the women found him cute and charming! He turned out to also be a guy’s guy … a honey of a guy. Fatefully, it was because of his entry into the domestic ferret "family” that he became someone’s one and only honey. After the St. Louis symposium, he was asked to make a return appearance at the next IFC event in Fort Collins, Colorado, later in 2005. Afterward, attendees toured the black-footed ferret breeding facility there. And that is where he met a gal with a bubbly personality named April. In 2008, he proposed to her at the IFC’s ferret symposium in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, amidst his newfound ferret family. They are now happily married.

black-footed ferret peers out of burrow

© Courtesy Travis Livieri
The green eye shine of black-footed ferrets when spotlighted at night helps Livieri locate this endangered species.

Livieri currently resides in Colorado with April and is "daddy” to two dogs and a motley crew of furry ferrets. "My wife, April, has had ferrets for most of her life,” he said. "I knew that being with April meant having ferrets and now I cannot imagine our life without ferrets. We currently have 8 ferrets: WHY-T, Browneee, Hudson Huron Hardware Riley, Dora, Ranger, Andy, StanLee and Mia Sophia Annabel Gucci. Together we have had about a dozen other ferrets that are no longer with us including the immortal Isabella Gucci Jones.” 

He enjoys many things outside of ferrets, black-footed and not. Livieri loves beer, and one of his favorite things to do is to take April out on the town to share one. Also, "I’m quite passionate about my favorite sports teams, the Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers. After all, I do own an NFL team.” He also enjoys occasional fishing and hunting during his bi-yearly visits to his home state Wisconsin to see friends and family.

Yes, this article is about the man, but it is impossible to talk about who he is without discussing where his heart truly lies outside of his home and family — and that is with the recovery effort of the black-footed ferret and the well-being of the cherished prairies of this country. 

The return of the once nearly extinct elegant and comical creatures of the night began in Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981 with a rancher and his dog. While on one of his doggy adventures, the canine found a treasure and brought it home to his owner. The rancher then took that gift, the carcass of a black-footed ferret, to a taxidermist and from there the taxidermist contacted wildlife authorities. The species was considered extinct at that time, so this was a major discovery. And so the long arduous recovery efforts began. 

Livieri’s black-footed ferret journey began when he submitted an application to the federal government for a general technician position. His application was not for any particular position or specific species. He says it was pure serendipity that he began working with black-footed ferrets. "In April 1995 a guy from Badlands National Park in South Dakota called me and asked if I wanted to work with black-footed ferrets. I didn’t know what a black-footed ferret was but I had always been interested in the weasel family (Mustelidae) and endangered species. I wasn’t entirely sure where South Dakota was, but it was a seasonal wildlife job. I figured that after my term was up that I would move on to the next seasonal job somewhere else. After a few months working with black-footed ferrets in South Dakota I did not want to leave. I had fallen in love with black-footed ferrets and the prairie.”

A young Travis Liveiri holds a ferret
© Courtesy Travis Livieri
Livieri has always been interested in the weasel family. Here he is as a child holding a domestic ferret.
 

Today, Livieri works to keep the mission of Prairie Wildlife Research alive, which is "to conserve and research wildlife species of the prairies and their associated habitats.” He is fully committed to do whatever it takes to save the endangered black-footed ferret. In order to make sure these endearing and intriguing animals remain in our lives, he also does a bit of work with prairie dogs. This is because the black-footed ferrets are dependent on them not just for diet but for homes, because they occupy their burrows. 

Although Livieri works in several locations in the western states, his work is mostly in the Conata Basin/Badlands of South Dakota. He says the work is year-round, "The summer and fall months are occupied by field work — mapping prairie dog colonies, estimating prairie dog numbers, locating, capturing and vaccinating black-footed ferrets against plague, training others in field methodology, etc. The winter and spring months do have some field work but also quite a bit of office time — compiling and analyzing data, writing reports, grants and research papers, meetings, accounting, fundraising, etc. Recovery of black-footed ferrets requires me to wear many different ‘hats.’ Occasionally I have had a crossover project that involves black-footed ferrets and domestic ferrets.”

Livieri has had to become nocturnal to work with black-footed ferrets because they are. What is his typical work "day” like? "I spend quite a bit of time in the field at night — black-footed ferrets are nocturnal — using a big spotlight to find them, capture, anesthetize, vaccinate, collect research samples, and sometimes move them to new areas. My day begins at 6 p.m. when I wake up, eat and head out for the evening. The day ends about 10 a.m. after a full night, taking care of samples, phone calls, emails and a healthy breakfast of bacon, eggs and beer.” Did I mention that Livieri is funny? It is one of his best qualities, and I can tell you myself that he is as comical as the ferrets that dart and dance about his home. 

There is something else notable about Livieri; he never stops striving to broaden his education. Somehow, in between frolicking with ferrets, keeping up with his career and being a devoted husband, he is pursuing a PhD at Colorado State University. I’d say he’s earned a beer or two, wouldn’t you?

In the end, Livieri prefers to be behind the spotlight, not in it. True to form, his wish is for this story to strongly emphasis his message and how to help these tiny precious animals whose eyes flash green in the night when he spotlights them. So I will leave you with his words.

"Get educated about black-footed ferrets, prairie dogs, plague, politics and your public lands. Politics and plague are the worst enemies of black-footed ferrets. In some cases it is simply politics that prevents black-footed ferrets from being released into new areas, including public lands. There are federal public lands, i.e., land that is owned by every American, in Wyoming that are highly suitable for black-footed ferrets but politics are preventing any releases. Last year I evaluated some state lands in Colorado, i.e., land that is owned by all Colorado citizens, that are highly suitable but politics are preventing any releases.

"The greatest biological threat to black-footed ferrets is plague. Continued support for plague research, wildlife research and wildlife management in general is needed. See our website for the latest news regarding black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs. Then educate others and spread the word. Support organizations that work with black-footed ferrets including Prairie Wildlife Research, World Wildlife Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, etc. and also the zoos that breed black-footed ferrets in captivity — Louisville Zoo, Toronto Zoo, National Zoo, Phoenix Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo — or have displays —NEW Zoo, Dakota Zoo, Hutchinson Zoo, Lee Richardson Zoo, Milford Nature Center, Elmwood Park Zoo and more.”

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Posted: September 21, 2014, 9 p.m. EDT


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The Man Behind The Spotlight: Travis Livieri

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Reader Comments
Thank you, Wolfy, for the best write-up about Travis. I think he'll take any kind of beer but I'll bet his favorite is a Leinie.
Carol, Vail, AZ
Posted: 11/23/2014 10:33:29 PM
Great article - good account of the black footed ferret recovery efforts since their lucky sighting(unlucky for the first one caught by a dog!) in 1981.

Great picture of Travis as a child (very cute) - I had forgotten that his family had a domestic ferret when he was growing up. Also good info on the amount of work (and political issues) involved with protecting the BFFs. Great that the species seems to be doing well currently. Let's hope things continue to go well. At least now there are several populations which is encouraging - but protection of habitat is so important as well.

As a domestic ferret owner I try to support the BFF's - not many mustelid (weasel) species are doing well these days usually because of loss of habitat. Some such as the American mink (Neovison vison), are trapped or raised (sigh) commercially for their pelts. It is so great to have a species previously in such danger to now show signs of recovery.
Meryl, San Diego, CA
Posted: 9/22/2014 6:14:46 PM
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