PUEBLO, Colo. — Colorado homeowner Reese Nettles got a shock on Nov. 8 when he went out to his garage to lift weights and noticed a ferret peeking out from under his table saw.
It had been a day and a half since the garage door was mistakenly left open overnight.
“He looked like if you put your hand down, he would run right over to you,” Nettles said.
Perhaps another homeowner’s reaction would have been to shoo the critter out, but Nettles shut his garage door to ensure the ferret didn’t escape. He thought it had to be a neighbor’s pet, but he snapped a picture of it and sent it to his friend Kris Gard, who works for Colorado Parks and Wildlife at Cheyenne Mountain State Park.
“He identified it as a black-footed ferret and told me they are endangered and extremely rare,” Nettles told The Pueblo Chieftain, part of the USA TODAY Network. “It was so silly we could not believe it ourselves.”
The rarest mammal in North America
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the critter that Nettles found in his garage is the rarest mammal in North America. There are just 605 black-footed ferrets in the world, 304 of which are in captivity.
Since 2013, more than 120 black-footed ferrets have been released on Walker Ranch in Pueblo West, Colorado. The goal is to restore the endangered species, said Bill Vogrin, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Southeast region public information officer.
Nettles and his wife Debbie live near the ranch.
“If I was to guess, we are five or six miles from where these little guys were released,” Nettles said, adding he was surprised that nearby nocturnal hunters did not find the black-footed ferret that traveled to his garage before he did.
Why did the ferret leave the ranch?
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Conservation Biologist Ed Schmal said officers have only received one other report of a black-footed ferret leaving the ranch. But they have never heard of a ferret entering a garage or similar structure.
“This is extremely rare,” Schmal said. “Black-footed ferrets are nocturnal and extremely shy… We don’t know exactly why this black-footed ferret left the colony.”
Schmal added that the ranch’s black-footed ferrets are put in prairie dog burrows, but that they don’t always stay put.
“Sometimes they scramble around the colony to find the right home. This one might have gotten pushed out by other ferrets and it went looking for a new home,” Schmal said.
Another scenario could have been that the ferret was chasing prey such as mice when it ran into the garage and decided to seek shelter, Vogrin said.
Getting the ferret back home
Whatever the reason the ferret left, the goal was to get the critter back on the ranch.
With the help of Gard and another friend, Pueblo County Sheriff Deputy Jon Grein, Nettles managed to coax the ferret into a box.
“Just as we got the ferret in the box, the other wildlife officers showed up,” Nettles said.
Because each black-footed ferret raised for release has a microchip inserted between its shoulder blades, Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region Officer Stephanie Dominguez responded with a portable scanner – which confirmed the ferret was one of the nine ferrets released on the ranch two weeks ago.
If there had not been a microchip, the ferret could have been one that was born in the wild, which would have been an exciting discovery.
Photos of the ferret were sent to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services biologists, who determined the garage-crashing ferret appeared healthy and could be taken back onto the prairie dog colony to be re-released.
“We’re just glad it appeared healthy, not starving or sick, and we were able to return it to the colony,” Schmal said.
State officers have invested extensive time and effort to monitor the colonies and distribute plague vaccine in hopes of protecting the black-footed ferrets and the prairie dogs, which is their primary source of food and shelter.
When reflecting on his own time with the rare critter, Nettles thought, “What are the odds?”
“It was a really neat experience,” he said. “To think there are just 605 [black-footed ferrets] in the world and to have one in my garage – it was really interesting.”
Contributing: Wyatte Grantham-Philips, USA TODAY
Follow Tracy Harmon on Twitter: @tracywumps.