- Where Is My Little Ferret
Correction: There was a misspelling in the article title. The online version has been updated.
Standing over the terrestrial orifice of a prairie dog entrance mound is kind of like straddling the hole of a squat toilet. It is a geological vertigo: the earth punched out, agape. A means of escape for something smaller, luckier than I. It's not hard to imagine what's immediately beyond a hole in the ground. In the case of a toilet, it's a trapway, a weir, an outlet and flange. But then? Subterranean, the burrow is an invisible architecture, its habitat impenetrable to all but maybe the human forearm. In Discipline, Dawn Lundy Martin writes: "Are holes things with ends to them, or do they go on forever? One must decide." To get eye-level with the mound, lie prostrate on the prairie floor or prop on elbows like an end-zone photographer. Intimacy in nature always requires such sacrifice: a forfeiture of one's stature—a meeting-of-the-ecological-other halfway, and often more. Even there, with the eye hovering over the opening—indeed, a burrow's door coextends with its peephole—there's nothing left to see after the first kink in the complex.
"Nobody really knows what it's like down there," says Richard White, director of Tucson's International Wildlife Museum. "There's nothing in the literature about what a burrow looks like." The museum [End Page 33] is a literal castle built atop Sonoran Desert sand, both celebrated and maligned as a trophy hunter's over-the-top sanctum. White stands before his handiwork, a diorama depicting burrow life. There are several species staged on the steppe, but only black-footed ferret babies, also known as kits, are burrowed below. He claims that, when he staged the black-footed ferrets at the museum, he was merely improvising the adorable scene. Upon receiving the package from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, White cleared his desk. He spilled out the contents and allowed the kits' freeze-dried carcasses to thaw there like chicken dinner. According to the twee website for Perpetual Pet ("The Perfect Plan for the Perfect Pet"), the process for freeze-dry taxidermy is as follows: "The animal is carefully prepared and posed, supported by a custom-made framework. It is placed into a sealed vacuum chamber at extremely low temperature. Over time, frozen moisture is slowly converted into a gaseous state, and then extracted." (Now imagine this explanation typed over a background of pastel paw prints parading diagonally toward the corner of your computer screen.) Once the baby ferrets were thawed, White only had a few minutes to get the positioning right before initiating a permanent freeze and exiling them to the museum's penultimate diorama.
In the competitive world of taxidermy, taxi- is the art and -derma is the material. Without real hide and pelage, a model is not categorically a taxidermy at all; it is dismissed as a "re-creation." Without taxi-, though, the ordering or arranging of the skin, there is no lifelikeness. Anthropology professor Jane Desmond writes, "Taxidermists whom I've spoken with commonly use taxi as a verb—they taxi the skin into place over an adhesive-covered body form, adjusting it this way and that for a perfect fit." In the case of a freeze-dry taxidermy, though—the animal with all of its original parts—the taxiing is more like a forceful splaying, a manhandling ballerino plying his petite dance partner into arabesque into pirouette into grand jeté, pose after pose as he arrives at some locomotive verisimilitude. "The expert taxidermist will calculate the effect of a curving neck on a leap and will shorten the stride to maintain a believable sense of momentum," Desmond writes. "Each part of the body will be visually and kinesthetically balanced against the others." [End Page 34]
In standing with White, you can tell he's impressed with his work. I half-expect him to buff the fingered glass to facilitate a clearer image of the exhibit, but he maintains an admirer's distance like me. The black-footed ferret is, after...