On a cold and windy February day, LightHawk volunteer pilot Michael Baum and his daughter Kimberly embarked on a cross-country journey from their home in Los Altos, Calif., to help give black-footed ferrets a fighting chance to bounce back from near extinction and rejuvenate the North American prairie at the same time.
Baum and his 14-year-old daughter knew they were flying from California’s Bay Area to donate a flight for two highly endangered black-footed ferrets. What they didn’t know was that efforts to rejuvenate the black-footed ferret population from a startling low of 18 to a more sustainable number was inextricably tied to restoring the American Prairie. The black-footed ferret is considered a flagship species for the North American prairie, so helping these animals creates a beneficial ripple that extends to more than 130 unique plants and animals, according to LightHawk officials.
The two ferrets Kimberly and Michael flew that day, Roger and Ari (shown here), were retiring from their roles in the captive breeding program to a life of leisure engaging the public at the Northeastern Wisconsin Zoo (NEW Zoo) near Green Bay.
For wild animals, the difference between commercial and private aviation is less about comfort and more about survival. “Transport by commercial airline is very stressful for wild animals,” explains Carmen Murach, curator of animals for the NEW Zoo. “Airlines require that the animals arrive well in advance of their flights. They often spend significant amounts of time in non-temperature controlled, noisy cargo areas. There is just no way to explain to the animals that they are not in danger during this ordeal. The black-footed ferrets transported by Michael and Kimberly Baum were not exposed to frightening noises and uncomfortable conditions. They were able to ride in the cabin during the flight and listen to Kimberly’s reassuring voice during their journey.”
Michael, a self-described aviation addict who is a driving force behind the Aviators Model Code of Conduct, donates flights through LightHawk near his Bay Area home. Kimberly, an artistic 14-year-old with interest in fashion design, encouraged Michael to donate the flight, and he decided to do it to share the experience with her. “I wanted her to know what it felt like to do something good for environment, and to learn about volunteering for LightHawk,” he says. “She loves animals, in fact, she’s always wanted a dog but family allergies prevented that. I thought she’d really enjoy helping move these ferrets to a new home. And she was fantastic in ensuring the ferrets’ safety and comfort during the flight.”
The plan was for Roger and Ari to travel by road from the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Carr, Colo., to Cheyenne, Wyo. There they’d meet Michael and Kimberly to fly to their new home near Green Bay in Michael’s TBM 700 single engine turboprop. But, as Michael checked updated weather forecasts for Cheyenne, he discovered a problem.
Infamous Wyoming wind forced a change in plans that February. Gusts topping 30 to 40 knots were forecast and, as Michael recalls, “making a descent on the leeward side of some big mountains with those winds and anticipated low level wind shear is beyond my safety envelope.” So Roger and Ari met the Baums at the Fort Collins-Loveland, Colo., airport instead. Wind gusts in the 20 knot range were manageable for the airplane, but likely made the trip from the terminal to the aircraft perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the journey for the ferrets, as well as for Michael and Kimberly.
“While animals transported on commercial flights often arrive exhausted, nervous and shy, Roger and Ari were quick to explore their new home and were even willing to eat a snack within minutes of arrival,” said Carmen. The two high-flying black-footed ferrets are now species ambassadors in their new home at the NEW Zoo, engaging the public with their playful antics and building support for their species’ rehabilitation.
From a teetering population of only 18, the ferrets are now around 1,000 strong, but the battle continues to protect the wild populations in 19 reintroduction sites spread out across the Great Plains stretching from Canada through the US and into Mexico. Disease and habitat loss are still formidable obstacles to the more than 600 ferrets in the wild population.
By flying these ferrets to the NEW Zoo, Michael and Kimberly not only transitioned Roger and Ari into retirement in style; they enabled the ferrets to share their conservation story with more people so they see the value of protecting not only these adorable animals, but the prairie they depend upon to thrive.
For more information: LightHawk.org
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