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‘Robo-Badger’ Is Scary, But Do Friendly Ferrets Think So?

August 26, 1989

FRONT ROYAL, Va. (AP) _ A 20-pound badger killed on a Wyoming highway is spending the hereafter stuffed in a fierce pose, mounted on wheels and racing hither and yon trying to scare some sense into overly friendly ferrets.

He’s called ″Robo-Badger″ by his handlers from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo, who hope his radio-controlled scare tactics will help ferrets reared in captivity learn to protect themselves from predators when they are returned to the wild.

If Robo-Badger’s menacing lunges aren’t enough to instill fear, zoo conservationists pelt the puzzled ferrets with rubber bands, whose harmless stings usually encourage them to dive into the nearest hole.

Another fear-inspiring weapon is a stuffed owl with outstretched wings that swoops down on a hand-operated pulley and string to buzz the sleek, furry ferrets as they scamper over a dirt mound.

Here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 80 miles west of Washington, at a former training camp for U.S. Army cavalry troops, scientists are conducting ″predator-avoidance training″ for ferrets at an outpost of the National Zoo that is dedicated to saving endangered wildlife from extinction.

Wildlife biologist Brian Miller says his project at the zoo’s Conservation and Research Center is aimed at ensuring the survival of the North American black-footed ferret, which he calls ″one of the most endangered mammals in the world.″

Hundreds of thousands of these ferrets, the chief predators of prairie dogs, once lived in the vast arid grasslands of the West, from southern Canada to northern Mexico. But they fell victim to agricultural development and the federal government’s program to eradicate grass-eating prairie dogs as a threat to the livelihood of cattle ranchers.

Deprived of their main source of food as well as shelter in prairie dog burrows, the ferrets rapidly fell prey to disease and other predators such as great horned owls, golden eagles and badgers. By 1985, only 10 black-footed ferrets remained, all of them in Wyoming.

They were quickly removed to the safety of captivity, where breeding was begun. Today, says Miller, there are 120 black-footed ferrets at the Wyoming game and fish research center at Sybille Canyon, Wyo., the Henry Doorly Zoo at Omaha, Neb., and at Front Royal.

″They were raised in captivity and they know nothing about predators,″ Miller said in an interview.

″They have never seen a badger. Will they duck when they see one? Will they run into a hole? It’s one thing to be afraid, and another thing to know what to do. We want them to get into that hole as quickly as possible.″

Enter Robo-Badger.

The badger was a road kill found lying alongside a Wyoming highway. At Miller’s request, it was hustled into a freezer and shipped across the country to Washington, where Smithsonian taxidermist Paul Rhymer transformed it into a battery-operated robot.

Stuffed with ears bent back and front paws clawing as if chasing a prey, the badger was mounted on the chassis of a toy truck with miniature tractor wheels and a tiny, red-tipped antenna for receiving radioed stop-and-go and directional commands.

Miller is experimenting first with 50 Siberian polecats, more populous first cousins of black-footed ferrets from Soviet Asia which were bred from stock imported from the Moscow Zoo.

In the first couple months of testing, the Siberian ferrets seem mostly curious about Robo-Badger, but more frightened by the swooping owl.

Once he has determined what ferrets know instinctively from their ″genetic memory″ about self-protection, feeding, digging into burrows and other necessities in the wild, Miller will know what training in captivity is required to prepare the black-footed variety for its return to the wild.

If the black-footed ferrets make a comeback there, he said, other species of plant and animal life - birds, insects, small mammals and shrubs - may also flourish and help restore what was once a ″rich oasis of diversity″ in the ecosystem of prairie dog communities.

Working in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wyoming game and fish officials and experts at North Carolina State University, Miller hopes to give the ferrets their freedom in Wyoming’s Absoroka Mountains adjacent to Yellowstone Park sometime in 1991, if the current population of 57 adults has grown to 200 by then.

″They’ve had a pretty hard time,″ he said. ″They deserve the best shot we can give them.″

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