Extinction is permanent. Luckily, when black-footed ferrets were considered to be extinct in the late 1970s, a dog in Wyoming erased this fear in 1981 when he found one, which later led to the discovery of a small black-footed ferret colony. That discovery continued the saga of the black-footed ferret in North America, its native range. But the species remains endangered.
In the book Wild Again, author David Jachowski takes readers on a journey across the prairie and into the lives of black-footed ferrets — stretching from perhaps the first description by a European explorer in 1599 to Jachowski’s own work with recovery efforts through 2012. Jachowski weaves the story using the history of black-footed ferrets, his own personal history dating back to his childhood, his experiences working as a biologist on black-footed ferret recovery and even world events. He describes moments in time he experienced working in the field so well that you can practically feel the heat, cold, wind and dirt. Life in the field can get grungy, and he takes you there. He also explains the “politics of the prairie” and environmental stressors like sylvatic plague that contributed to where black-footed ferret recovery efforts stand today. It’s a gripping tale, and the story of black-footed ferrets continues with hope.
Jachowski graciously granted SmallAnimalChannel an interview in which he offers insights about the book and about black-footed ferrets.
What inspired you to write the book Wild Again?
The realization as a conservationist and scientist that even after we have filled in most of the knowledge gaps on what initially limited our ability to conserve the species, such as how to breed it in captivity and where to release it into the wild, recovery of this critically endangered species depends mostly on public support. I firmly believe in the famous Aldo Leopold quote “we only grieve for what we know,” and I wanted to write a book that would engage the reader, take them to the Great Plains and see the bounty and beauty that are there, and hopefully by the end of the book make them care about this amazing critter and the ecosystem that surrounds it.
Although you have written numerous articles and research findings, it seems that Wild Again is your first published book. Is that correct?
Yes, I always had dabbled in writing from an early age, but I had never taken the time to put all of the pieces together. So Wild Again is a compilation and weaving together of stories from many years of work. All of the chapters have roots that can roughly be traced back to my field journal entries while trying to do the hard science and conservation work to restore this species.
Did you find the process of writing a book much different from an article?
Absolutely. Scientific writing is rigid and highly structured to meet the demands of reviewers and peers. My process for writing a book is much more like a conversation, organic and free flowing, allowing me to tell a story in a way that integrates personal stories that are often left unsaid or in the background of scientific articles.
How long did it take to write the book?
In truth, I have been writing this book for over a decade, but only had the time to sit down and compile chapters in earnest following the completion of my dissertation research. It was a solid spring and summer of writing and revising in 2012 that gave me a first draft, and then there was a year-long process of edits and finalizing the book for the publisher.
Your writing style uses an interesting blend of facts and personal anecdotes, which makes it quite compelling. Did you hesitate about revealing any of the personal stories?
I had to decide early on in writing this book whether I would include such personal details. I was conflicted about this for a long time and it was not an easy decision to say the least, but I wanted to write a book that was both honest and engaging. I grew up reading books by biologists and fell in love with Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard and Alan Rabinowitz’s Jaguar. When I was older and could think critically about what made those books so amazing to me, it wasn’t the hard scientific facts, but the personal story of what the researchers were going through in dealing with life in the field interlaced with scientific findings. Matthiessen never even saw a snow leopard in his book, but I was entranced by how he poetically interlaced field research and leopard biology with a personal spiritual journey into the Himalayas after the death of his wife, in search of the great mysterious cat. I wanted to try to create that same type of intimate feel in my book, so that in telling a little about my life and the lives of those around me, the reader would more easily find interest in the book and the underlying message of Great Plains conservation that it contains throughout.
Do you think you were born to be a biologist?
My father and grandfather were both biologists, so I suppose it was inevitable that I became one too, but I was never pressured to do so. It was just that I spent a great deal of time as a child outdoors with my father. Also, I was a quiet and introspective child, so I found great solace in the outdoors with animals and learning about their biology. My earliest memory is taking in a snapping turtle hatchling as a pet and learning about how it moved, what it ate, and from there everything else in my career has just been a further evolution of trying to uncover the ecology of wild animals. It was only later that I really became focused on using that curiosity toward conservation of the species I was intent on studying.
Did you already know most of the facts before writing the book?
Given the long period of time I was involved in black-footed ferret recovery, I had amassed many of the facts for the book before I sat down in earnest to write it in 2012. However, there were historical things I uncovered only when I stepped back and tried to write about the past, such as the efforts to conserve the species after rediscovery in Meeteetse, Wyoming, in the 1980s. One of the most interesting facets on which I did extensive research was the long history of government-funded prairie dog eradication campaigns. I was shocked to discover that the origins of such devastating campaigns can be traced back to people we currently think of as founders of the wildlife management and conservation movements.
What were some of the most surprising things you learned about black-footed ferrets, either in the field or while writing the book?
In a single word, tenacity. When we think of rare things we often think of them as being delicate or shy animals. Wild black-footed ferrets are fighters that live in a bountiful but harsh environment. Every few days, they have to go into the home of a prairie dog and kill one that outweighs them and has chisel-sharp teeth that can do lethal damage. They also must go through extended winters on the high plains that most other small mammals choose to hibernate through. It is the contrast of rarity and tenacity that I find most alluring about this species and that I tried to highlight in the book.
The other surprising aspect of wild black-footed ferrets that I learned is likely similar to what people with pet ferrets have long known, that they each have a unique personality. Studying these animals so closely in the wild over a span of years, I uncovered how each animal would behave a little bit differently. For example, some animals would be active every night and allow me to approach them without hiding. Others were very reclusive, only coming above ground every third or fourth night and never letting me get more than a glimpse of them before ducking down a prairie dog burrow.
What do you consider the biggest mystery that’s been solved regarding black-footed ferrets? What do you consider the biggest mystery yet to be solved?
The biggest mystery back in the 1960s through the ’90s was how to successfully breed this species in captivity. We had the fundamental problem of not being able to produce more ferrets for release into the wild. As I talk about in the book, this problem was solved just in the nick of time when the species was on the precipice of extinction, and now we have a great captive source of ferrets for reintroduction across the Great Plains.
The biggest mystery yet to be solved is twofold. First, we have to come up with a way to make people accept and even conserve prairie dogs. This will not be easy because hatred for prairie dogs has been passed down from generation to generation by Western landowners. We need to find a way to combat the mythos and incentivize prairie dog conservation for the good of the ferrets that rely on them, but also as I relate in my book, for the good of biodiversity and maintaining healthy prairie ecosystems across the West.
Second, scientists need to come up with a practical vaccine or mitigation tool to combat the disease, sylvatic plague. Plague (nearly identical to the bubonic plague famous for millions of human deaths in the Middle Ages) only reached North America around 1900, and has been slowly moving into the Great Plains and decimating prairie dogs and reintroduced ferret populations over the last two to three decades. When plague arrives in an area, it kills up to 99 percent of prairie dogs and all unvaccinated ferrets. To make ferret recovery work in the long-term, we need to find a way to combat this disease.
Which of the various jobs you took on for black-footed ferret recovery did you most enjoy? Which was the most challenging?
I was horrible at breeding black-footed ferrets in captivity. They befuddled me, and I was continuously left to wonder how such a tenacious wild predator could be so delicate when kept by mankind. I had pet ferrets as a teenager but never tried to breed them. Black-footed ferret captive breeding takes animal husbandry up to a whole new level of devotion and expertise, and I was never able to replicate what others in zoos and at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center have seemingly perfected.
By contrast, one of the most enjoyable parts of working on black-footed ferret recovery was finding and studying ferrets in the wild. It was always the field work, by which I mean the combination of time outdoors, wild animals and the colleagues along the way, that drove me to keep working on conserving the species. I spend a great deal of time in the book profiling the core group of people who found similar satisfaction and similarly devoted their lives to preserving the species.
Looking back, would you take on the challenge of black-footed ferrets again?
Absolutely. I think that things that are the most difficult when you are in the middle of them are often in retrospect the most rewarding. Being a professor and university lecturer now, I can talk from a broader perspective a few steps back from the trenches in ferret conservation. I stay involved, but not with the intensity I profile in the book. I cannot imagine a different or more rewarding path for my life than that time on the Great Plains.
If you could only tell people one thing about black-footed ferrets, what would that be?
I would say that the effort to conserve the black-footed ferret is more than a leading success story for endangered species conservation. For over 40 years, this critter has been a lightning rod for conservation in the Great Plains. In the book I call the ferret the wild heart of the Great Plains because we know that if a portion of the prairie can maintain a population of this rare species, then it is one of those rare relics from the past that is still biologically intact and critical to conserve.
What do you want people to take away from the book?
In the epilogue of the book I talk about how it is up to the reader and general public to keep the ferret from going extinct, and to prevent the efforts profiled in the book from becoming nothing more than an elegy. Many of our environmental problems seem so large or easy to blame on previous generations, but this is a solvable conservation problem that depends on decisions we as a society make right now. Black-footed ferret recovery and larger Great Plains restoration can succeed; it only requires increased public support for prairie dog conservation and recovery actions.
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