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Totems: Black-Footed Ferret, Part 1

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman


We, the BLACK-FOOTED FERRET people know how to love. We love ferociously, with everything that we are. That driving force seeps down into our bodies making us lithe, sinuous, and connected to the rhythms of life. Humans – no one can stop you from being who you are – no one, not even the ones who break your heart, can stop you from being love in every thought, word, and action. But you have to decide to be who you are deeply and truly, no matter what they do, to or for you. Ferociously supporting and loving yourself whether they love you or not, takes great courage, but the whole point of being alive is to be and express all you can be!

Here is the first thing to know about the black-footed ferret – this species is North America’s most endangered mammal. This is because of the reckless extermination by humans of this ferret’s almost exclusive prey – black-tailed prairie dogs. Though ferrets have been known to eat rabbits, mice, rats, small snakes, squirrels, and ground-nesting birds, these make up a small part of their diet. Prairie dogs make up 90% of a ferret’s diet. The North American plains in the western, central, and even some southern states, used to host millions of black-footed ferrets, before farmers and ranchers tried to kill all the prairie dogs, assuming they were competitors to cattle for grass. Prairie dogs thrive on the short grass prairie, so that’s where ferrets would be too, but over the past century, prairie dog eradication campaigns have employed the use of such poisons as strychnine and cyanide, being shot by hunters, being gassed, plowed under, and blown up with dynamite. Ugh! This is even though studies show that in aerating and turning over the soil, they produce high-quality forage (forbs), and keep down brush and shrubs that cattle reject. Bison also like to graze around prairie dog towns. Their nitrogen-rich urine fertilizes grass growth to everyone’s benefit.

Of course, farmers were not the first to hunt black-footed ferrets. Tribes like the Blackfeet, Sioux, Crows, Pawnees and Cheyenne hunted them for their food and fur. Ferrets were also used in sacred ceremonies and for medical rituals. Ferret skins were used in chiefs' headdresses. Sioux Medicine men had ferret skins in their Medicine bundles. Ferrets are in the same family as weasels. Ferret/Weasel Medicine gave the ability to hear the truth behind a speaker’s words, and the ability to see beneath appearances, to know what is really going on. That’s why weasel was the one sent to an enemy’s camp to assess their strengths and weaknesses. And, it was weasel that tearfully told the First People of the coming of the white boat people, and of the great darkness that would befall them.

First Nations people lived in honoring relationships with everything in the natural world. That was when not only ferrets, but bison freely roamed the plains. When will humans learn that each species has its place in creation? Learning to live in harmony with all is a prerequisite to a peaceful world. We know it can be done because we have an example. In an area in northwest Wyoming, ranchers have never pursued prairie dog elimination. In their concern for wildlife and for conservation, they have adopted a more live-and-let-live attitude. It’s really an ecosystem issue. Since prairie dogs are not considered endangered, in order to save the ferrets, conservationists agree that a broader interpretation, which includes farmers and ranchers as part of the solution is necessary.

Black-footed ferrets are of the family Mustelidae, (Mustela nigripes), which literally means, black-footed weasel. These beautiful, sleek members of the weasel family (minks, otters, skunks, fisher cats, polecats and wolverines) have black feet and black-tipped tails with tan body fur. Raccoon-like black markings around their eyes make them look like banditos, which is apt because this mammal is known for its stealth and for being a thief. Thief might be too strong a word to use, but if ferret is your totem, you certainly are one who recognizes and takes advantage of opportunity. The perfect use of your creativity is to plan for the unforeseen. Because of ferret’s ability to survive and thrive in hard times, one with this totem is likely to have a pantry full of stores, or a knapsack full of survival tools, ready to leave in an instant. Ferret may have come your way today to help you be prepared for changes where you live, in light of the erratic, severe weather that is occurring everywhere.

The remarkable eyes of a black-footed ferret reflect a bright emerald color at night, from a reflecting layer behind its eyeballs. In addition, they have a sense of hearing that can pick up the slightest sound even at a distance, and a keen sense of smell that helps them locate food in the dark. Some of the qualities of ferret that relate to healing are that folks with this Medicine are sometimes healers who perceive things through clairsentience, that is, through their bodies. Often accompanying this is an extrasensory sense of smell. These healers can “smell” illness in another.

Like all mustelids, ferrets have scent glands from which they emit a strong odor when they are frightened or feel threatened. In the case of ferret, they have scent glands all over their bodies, but just like skunks, the strongest smelling one is from the anal gland, though not as strong as a skunk’s. When a ferret is excited, angry, or fearful, the hair on its tail may stand on end. This makes it look like a bottlebrush. Don’t mistake a person with this medicine to be a pushover. Though often silent and stealthy, when pushed to the wall, these folks may respond with single-minded ferocity. In the wild, ferrets take out prairie dogs with one carefully placed bite on the neck.

That’s where the renowned ferret hunting skills come into play. Have you ever heard someone use the expression, “ferreting out the truth”? This refers to ferret’s tendency to dig out rodents. In medieval England and ancient Greece and Rome, domesticated ferrets hunted with villagers by helping them flush rabbits out of their warrens. That’s how the expression was coined. People with this totem will do almost anything to get to the truth of something. You may be wondering how wild ferrets compare to the ferrets you can get at a pet store. Well, both belong to the weasel family, but domesticated ferrets (fitch) came from Europe. They’re also closely related to polecats from Eurasia and Northern Africa. In fact, biologically, both are so close, they can interbreed.

Throughout the winter months, black-footed ferrets are rarely seen. You might conclude that this is a solitary animal. Certainly folks with this totem might be surprised to find themselves somewhat isolated at times. I say they might be surprised because given the chance, like in spring during mating, ferrets can be playful and gregarious. How’s this for romance: during mating, the male chortles to attract his mate. However, the male goes back to being solitary after mating. After a gestation period of six weeks or so, the female gives birth to, and takes care of, the baby ferrets on her own. The usual number of kits born in a litter is around four. Though adult ferrets spend nine-tenths of their lives underground, young emerge from burrows previously usurped from prairie dogs, in late summer at about six weeks old, to explore their surroundings, and play and romp with their littermates for a while. They learn to hunt by stalking, chasing and attacking each other in imitation of the art of the hunt. With mouths wide open, the kits will perform the ferret dance – a series of hopping, leaping, and bucking movements that they do with wild abandon. By autumn, now almost fully grown, the young ferrets leave home to stake out their own territory in the same town or nearby. This is a dangerous time for them in terms of predators like coyotes, badgers, bobcats, foxes, and rattlesnakes. Oh, and payback is a b*#ch! Given the chance, a gang of prairie dogs will isolate and kill a ferret.

Flying ferret predators are golden eagles, hawks and great-horned owls. When danger appears, mom ferret tries to protect her young by hissing like a cat or barking wildly, which either scares off the predator or makes the kits bolt for the nearest hole or burrow. Once they are fully grown in the fall, mom will scatter the kits to separate burrows, tending to them separately until they can hunt for themselves. Then they begin living independent, solitary lives. Just as well, for by the end of summer, mom will appear haggard and worn-down from finding and delivering prairie dog meat to her litter, as often the prairie dogs at that time of year are bigger than she is. So, for those with this Medicine, that solitariness is a double-edged sword: on the one paw (see what I did there) going through the mature years mostly alone has its challenges. On the other, it pushes one to trust oneself and one’s instincts, as well as deepen one’s relationship with Source. Finding a calm, refreshing place to call your own is important for folks with this totem. Regular meditation will help to know oneself and one’s strengths.

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a Healer, Writer, Minister, Advocate and Steward for the natural world for over 40 years; author of this column for 18 years. For Healing for you or your animal, Training, or her Book, Totems for Stewards of the Earth ($22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370), call 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com


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