A Colorado man had a surprise encounter with the rarest mammal in North America, which he found hiding beneath a table saw in his garage.
Reese Nettles had gone out to lift weights when he caught sight of a furry face with soft, curious eyes.
“He looked like if you put your hand down he would run right over to you,” Nettles told the Pueblo Chieftain.
His visitor was a black-footed ferret – the rarest mammal in North America, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).
“What are the odds?” Nettles said. “It was a really neat experience. To think there are just 605 in the world and to have one in my garage – it was really interesting.”
Only about 370 black-footed ferrets still live in the wild, the species having fallen victim to a virus that is nearly 100% deadly for them and the prairie dogs they hunt.
An intensive vaccination campaign has been trying to pull the ferrets back from the brink of extinction. In the meantime, populations have been supplemented with a limited supply of captive-bred ferrets.
The ferret found by Nettles was one of nine released two weeks earlier at Walker Ranch in Colorado, where more than 120 black-footed ferrets have been introduced in recent years.
Nettles guessed he lived five or six miles from the ranch, an impressive distance for a ferret to travel without being noticed by hunters. At first, he thought the animal was a pet. A friend later identified it.
“We don’t know exactly why this black-footed ferret left the colony,” said Ed Schmal, a CPW conservation biologist. “We put them into prairie dog burrows but they may not stay.
“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. We really don’t know.”
Nettles’s new friend is the exception, not the rule. CPW said it has only heard of one other black-footed ferret leaving the ranch, and it did not end up in a garage.
“This is extremely rare,” Schmal said. “Black-footed ferrets are nocturnal and extremely shy. For some reason, this one left the colony and was seeking shelter.
“We’re just glad it appeared healthy, not starving or sick, and we were able to capture it and return it to the colony.”