It was a cold night out on the prairie, about 3 a.m., and a half moon illuminated the plateau that hid the downtown lights of Wall, S.D. I sat beside Travis Livieri of Prairie Wildlife Research in a pickup truck as we raced toward a distant, green gleam in the dark. Raced is a term I use loosely because what we actually did was bounce and careen across a landscape pitted with miniature craters that marked the entrances to prairie dog burrows. Eventually, a few moments after our kidney stones were knocked as free as our molars, we arrived at a rectangular wire trap that contained what looked to be a ferret, but with inner-city attitude. It was an endangered black-footed ferret, and it had no particular place to go, being trapped in the cage and all. Its green eye-shine was unmistakable.
It barked out its displeasure at our presence in syllables I swear were the black-footed ferret equivalent of cussing. Moments earlier, Travis and I had discussed the intelligence of ferrets, and as Travis pulled the trap out of the prairie dog burrow, he remarked, “They can’t be all that smart if they are so easily caught in these dumb traps.”
“Smart” is a relative term because I was a willing participant in a nightly ritual where the driver of the vehicle, Travis, received “points” if he could actually flip the passenger, me, out the side window onto the rocky prairie floor. Travis failed, but not for a lack of trying. Still, somewhere between floating weightless in the cab and hearing the dull crack of my cranium impacting the roof of the pickup, Travis’ words sunk in. If black-footed ferrets were so dumb as to walk into a wire trap, how intelligent could our ferrets be, being dumbed down during domestication?
The Problems With Tests **For the full article, pick up the 2008 issue of Ferrets USA or click here to buy the issue.**
As animals are domesticated their cranial capacity — a measure of brain size — shrinks. Pet ferrets have a cranial capacity 10 to 20 percent smaller than wild polecats and black-footed ferrets. Many domestication scientists interpret this to mean the domesticated animal is not as smart as the wild ancestor. Considering the amount of trouble our “dumbed-down” ferrets can get into, losing a few points from the IQ might not be such a bad thing!