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Totems: Black-Footed Ferret, Part 2

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


A few words about prairie dogs, since they are so intricately tied to the life and times of the black-footed ferret: Early American settlers named these members of the squirrel family, prairie dogs because their tails wag when they are excited, and because, like all good “dogs” they bark warnings when there is danger. Not only are prairie dogs ferrets’ main food source, but the slender-bodied ferrets also live in prairie dog tunnels and burrows by day, and hunt them at night. Even though they are about the size of cats, they only weigh about 2 pounds, as opposed to a domestic cat of similar size, which may weigh 10 pounds. Just perfect for slithering in and out of prairie dog burrows and tunnels. So, if you are one who sometimes finds yourself in tight spots, but always seems to find a way either to make them work for you, or find a way out of them, perhaps you have ferret Medicine. Oh, by the way, since ferret’s name is often used synonymously with thief, if this totem is in your life, be sure to be scrupulously honest in your dealings with others, or you may get into a spot so tight, you won’t be able to slither your way out of it. When ferret comes around in your dreams or meditations, it may be time to assert yourself with your family or friends, or in your career. Certainly, you are astute in business dealings. Do not doubt your abilities, and trust what you feel. You have to believe in yourself first, and then others will stop underestimating you.

A prairie dog town is quite an extensive system of wards and coteries. Each coterie houses several closely related females and an unrelated male, along with their offspring. Their deep burrow system (as deep as 10-15 feet down, and branches of 30 to 40 feet in length) can have as many as 50 or 60 entrances, which is why they may not know a ferret has intruded. A mound that looks like a volcanic crater causes fresh air to be drawn through the tunnels, and helps protect the dogs from predators and flash flooding. Mounds provide lookouts; if prairie dogs see a predator or other danger, they give alarm calls and dive underground. Prairie dogs spend time in the burrows at night, when it’s really hot in summer, and when weather’s bad in winter. One ferret can eat as many as 100 prairie dogs a year.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the expression, “trying to weasel out of something.” Since ferret is a member of the weasel family, all the traits of weasel apply here. Let’s look at some of the positives and negatives: ferret folks are very intelligent, but they might want to be careful when that slips over the edge into cunning. Do you use your sensitivity and intuition to expand your mind, or do you find yourself examining things with tunnel vision? Ferret people have an amazing ability to see behind the masks others put up, but they also need to direct that ability to recognize their own masks. It’s good to be focused on achieving a goal. Just do it the right way, and then you can be proud of the achievement. Ferret people are prone to delving deeply into the mysteries of life. It’s important though to balance this tendency with time for fun and being playful. Ferret teaches us to hold on, as in “this too shall pass.” This is a totem of regeneration. After getting through a rough patch, it’s time to rejuvenate.

Another aspect of ferret’s Medicine is its virtual invisibility. The coat serves as the perfect camouflage in the daytime, and its stealthy behavior at night makes it almost undetectable. A ferret can remain in a prairie dog’s burrow for days if it’s eaten a dog. John James Audubon and John Bachman first reported on the Black-footed ferret in 1851 in their book, The Quadrupeds of North America. No other was seen again for 25 years. By the 1960’s, Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct, but a small population of them was found near Meeteetse, Wyoming and it led to a captive breeding program. It was hoped that they would be the seed colony of about 150 for reestablishing a wild population of ferrets, but it failed. In 1985, it was estimated that there were only 18 Black-footed ferrets left. These 18 were captured by Fish & Wildlife and the Wyoming Game & Fish Dept., and placed in a captive breeding facility. By 1989, ferret numbers had increased to 120. Each year, about 250 kits are produced and some are successfully introduced into the wild. Beginning in Wyoming, reintroduction efforts have spread to sites in Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, and as far south as Chihuahua. As of 2017, there are more than 500 black-footed ferrets in captivity and the wild, thanks to ongoing breeding and reintroduction efforts. Though 500 is the demarcation number for species viability, the future of the species is still uncertain. For one thing, they’re all descended from the original 18, so inbreeding is a concern.

There are other reasons the survival of black-footed ferrets is precarious. They are innocents in a conflict between men and prairie dogs; men who want to use the lands where the dogs live for development and for cattle grazing. In 2013, a Safe Harbor Agreement was created in cooperation with State, Tribal, Federal, and private land partners in 12 states to volunteer land as sites for the reintroduction of this precious species.

Another hazard is distemper. Ferrets can catch distemper from prairie dogs, and for them, it is almost always fatal. They are susceptible to pneumonia, and most of all to sylvatic plague, which is a bacterial disease transmitted by fleas. The bacterium that causes plague was inadvertently introduced into North America in the early 1900’s. Because it is foreign to the evolutionary history of North American mammals, most species have little or no immunity and succumb quickly to the disease (like Europeans infecting Native Americans with smallpox). Prairie dogs are particularly susceptible to plague and suffer high mortality rates (90% or more) during outbreaks, often resulting in local or even regional extinctions. Black-footed ferrets are also highly susceptible, through ingestion of infected prey or bites from infected fleas. Plague is now considered endemic throughout western states. Scientists are developing and testing vaccines that can be used to protect black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs against sylvatic plague.

So, why would I write about a totem with such few numbers, that most people will never see in the flesh? Because they are a keystone species, which means that the removal of ferrets from the ecosystem drastically changes the ecology. Ferret is a perfect species to bring along all the other species in the prairie ecosystem. It’s worth all the effort made on behalf of their survival. The most remarkable Medicine of Black-footed ferret is that of survival – they were on the verge of extinction and are now making something of a comeback. Adaptability is a corollary of that. Are you flexible in your beliefs? Are these beliefs spawned from fear or do they stem from your deepest inner knowledge and experience? Do you judge others who don’t share your beliefs, or do you live and let live? Traits of this totem are relevant to this time of earth changes. Ferret asks us to stand up for what we believe in, and apply in our own lives, what we would have others do – or as I like to say, We must eat our own Medicine.

When we’re at the end of our ropes and are thinking of giving up, we have a choice about how we will respond to great adversity. Wayne Dyer told a story, which illustrates three options. It’s the tale of The 3 Pots: A woman’s daughter was in despair, tired, and wanting to give up on life. In response, her mother put three pots on the stove and boiled water in each of them. In the first pot, she put carrots, an egg in the second, and ground coffee beans in the third. The mother explained that though unrelentingly hard at first, the carrots got soft and weak when subjected to the adversity of the boiling water. After peeling off the fragile shell of the egg, what was left was hard inside. The coffee beans however, actually changed the water itself. So my friends, the choice is ours. In times of great trial, we get to decide – do we want to be the tough guy going through life as a cynic, or the hurt one reacting to everything from our wounded place, or do we want to transmute our pain and make our suffering turn into a gift for ourselves, and to help others with what we’ve learned?

You can read Black-Footed Ferret Part One online at www.wisdom-magazine.com (in the article archives).

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a healer and writer for more than 40 years. Her work is to bring forward and disseminate the healing arts and ancient universal wisdom through writing, teaching, and healing, facilitating the mystical reunion of humans with Source and Nature. For 18 years, she has been a contributing writer for Wisdom Magazine. For healing for you or your animal, spiritual training, to invite Cie to bring her presentation: “Our Partnership With Nature” to your area, or purchase 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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