Ferret business thrives in Seligman

By Jeff Rome

Seligman, Arizona has a wild nightlife.

The town has a very specific and unusual population: they eat nothing but meat, seem to always have a stink about them, are most active around dawn and dusk, prefer to sleep in enclosed spaces and weigh around two or three pounds.

Since 1996, when Arizona’s Fish and Game Department began reintroduction, Seligman’s Aubrey Valley has been home to a growing population of ferrets.

A group of ferrets is known as a “business,” so one could say Seligman is home to a large and growing business. Once in spring and once in fall, around sixty people show up to volunteer for what is known as ferret spotlighting, or using high-powered lights to find, capture and carefully monitor Aubrey Valley’s ferret population, which as of last fall totaled near one hundred.

Among the regular crowd of spotlighters, Prescott College student Samantha Vaughan may be looking at an internship with the Black-footed Ferret Project. Though volunteers can spotlight for only one night if they wish, last fall Vaughan volunteered for four nights out of a possible five, and returned again this spring, when it took place from March 8 to 12. Volunteers adapt to a ferret schedule: they sleep during the day and prowl the prairie at night.

Ferrets are captured by plugging their burrows’ multiple exits with a bunch of Big Gulp cups and setting a trap at the hole they were seen peering out of. Usually the ferrets won’t hide, but will be looking out of their holes at the trappers. A reflective, circular marker, referred to as a ‘lollipop’ by spotlighters, is placed at each trap site. “I’ve even heard stories of people having to keep the ferret away with a lollipop,” said Vaughan. “[Ferrets] are really curious creatures, so they like to know what’s going on.”

Captured ferrets are then brought back to a trailer serving as a field station, weighed, measured, checked for pit tags and given a vaccine to prevent canine distemper, a potentially fatal disease in ferrets. The ferrets are then released to continue their nightly dog hunt — for the prairie dogs, which make up over 90 percent of their diet.

This biannual event draws a large and diverse crowd, from an elderly couple in their sixties to an eight-year old girl who begged her mom to let her go. “I think her mom fell asleep before she did,” said Vaughan.

Jennifer Cordova, a wildlife technician for the Black-footed Ferret Project, gave the rundown on this spring’s spotlighting event. Fifty-two ferrets were caught, with 28 of them brand new, and a record 139 volunteers showed up. Eighty-four of them were new. “The ferret program would not be such a success if it were not for our volunteers,” stated Cordova.

Besides the ferrets and other wildlife, around 500 people still tough it out in this historic town. Ever since I-40 diverted the traffic from Route 66 back in 1984, Seligman has been in a lull. Its biggest mark on culture has been as inspiration for the sleepy town of Radiator Springs in Pixar’s movie “Cars.” One could say that, just like the ferrets, Seligman is endangered.

You can help manage an endangered population, as well as support a historic town, by volunteering in the spotlighting next fall. Dates for fall’s spotlighting will be around the full moon, from the night of October 25 to October 30. The ferret reintroduction program can be contacted at azferret@azgfd.gov. For animal lovers, this is an opportunity to support a local endangered business.

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