Kimberly Fraser / USFWS

Ferreting Out the Plague

AS I SWERVE OFF the exit toward the Grand Canyon corridor on AZ-64, I talk with my wife, who has called me from home, on the hands-free. We debate which would be worse: missing the birth of our firstborn or contracting the plague.

“Both could happen,” she says through Braxton-Hicks contractions.

The call drops. I pass Grand Canyon Junction, Joe’s Route 66 Hot Dogs, and the gates to Big “D” Ranch. Just before Red Lake Valley is Espee Road. The range is dew-dropped, tangy with manure. I cross a cattle guard at 27.8 miles. Before opening the gate, I stuff my pants into my socks. Like the longsleeve shirt and bug spray, this protects my skin from fleas.

I shared this description with my wife days before: “Bacteria are spread by bites from infected fleas, bites or scratches from infected animals, or direct contact with infected animal carcasses.”

“And what are you doing at Espee?” she asked.

“Volunteering.”

The more truthful version: “I’m trapping known vertebrate hosts, knocking them out with anesthesia, taking blood samples, and combing vectors off their backs.” From there, the Centers for Disease Control will test for the world’s deadliest disease.

Senior biologist Kristy Bly has called the prairie dog the “McNugget of the prairie.” Black-footed ferrets (BFFs) are an endangered species whose diet is entirely dependent on prairie dogs. This is why I lend a hand, despite warnings to stay away.

Hours later, an intern is driving, making masterful hairpin turns without consulting a map or GPS.

“This next turn,” she says, “I know because there’s a burrowing owl just chilling.”

Sure enough, when the truck turns like a jibing sailboat, I’m rubbernecking at an owl, its twiggy legs at a steep entrance mound. Like ferrets, owls also squat in prairie dog colonies. Unlike ferrets, owls don’t eat their rodent hosts. Due to suspicion of plague, state conservationists are uneasy that a ferret’s next meal might be its last. The plague could be fatal for the BFF project in Arizona, where their population peaked at nineteen in 2017.

A lollipop reflector marks the site. We arrange traps across the field, sun glinting off their aluminum walls. We slalom rows, giving each spring-loaded trapdoor a high five so it catches the latch. We add cotton balls for nesting and cast oats, millet, and kibble just beyond the treadle, enough to lure smaller Rodentia. After Sherman traps, we switch to Tomahawks with steel wire frames for prairie dogs, doubling their bait. The sun slips, clouds bearing its rosy colors.

Since we’ll wake at 4 a.m., I scarf spaghetti on the way to my tent.

My wife suggested I’d probably sleep better tonight sans her restless body next to mine, but that’s not the case. I go for a walk under the filmy moon, taking a spotlight in the unlikely event of a ferret’s green eye shine.

I’m desperate for my phone to vibrate: “No baby yet” or “Baby’s here. Come quick!” or “You asshole.”

Anything will do.

 

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It’s soon time to check traps. After instant coffee, we’re in the truck again. The burrowing owl is burrowed. A weak flash of blue urges in from the east.

We sleepily hoist occupied cages into the truck.

A grasshopper mouse is processed first.

Her eyes are jumbo caviar, black and glassy, popping at her captor’s nerve. A man dumps her into a pretzel jar and clasps a mesh tea infuser around a cotton ball doused in anesthetic. The infuser clatters as the jar lid is screwed. The rodent immediately staggers. Onlookers compare her to a punch-drunk boxer, last-call boozer, cartoonish dental patient. I try to laugh. Nothing comes out. Eventually, she drops. They rattle the container. In gloved hands, the limp mouse looks bite-size, no bigger than a marshmallow Peep.

“If we don’t get blood from the nail, we can yank a whisker,” wildlife specialist Jennifer Cordova says.

Jennifer brushes its back with a toothbrush to loose fleas. After processing, the mouse is back in the trap, ready for a precise return.

Once samples are labeled, it’s time for our team to process a prairie dog. The procedure is different: a larger container, more isoflurane, a longer wait time until paralysis, and a warning. “Don’t let these guys nip you. Their teeth are a whole other story.” A prairie dog’s cheek teeth grow continuously. It’s only through constant gnawing that they don’t drag on the ground.

It’s my turn to scruff, and the prairie dog is a large adult who weighs two and a half pounds, meaning he’s maxed out. Still, Jennifer appropriates the same amount of anesthesia. After a drawn-out wobble, he drops. I grip him dramatically. When he thrashes twenty seconds later, I tell the person on containment duty he’s going back in.

We all stare at the prairie dog in the jar. No one dares make fun of him. Jennifer gives the cotton ball an extra splash. He succumbs with a thump, and we’re all convinced.

Turns out medical-grade nitrile gloves — designed for “dependable barrier protection” — can’t defend against the
canines of an agitated prairie dog. When he tosses back to life again, he slips from my right hand. My left hand, rushing to support his torso, sustains the bite that punctures the glove. The dog returns to his flimsy holding cell. I fling off the glove. The skin appears contused, not abraded. Jennifer paints the prairie dog’s blood on Nobuto sample strips.

The animals are unceremoniously returned to their burrows, and I leave in a hurry. My injured hand is the last they
see of me as I wave goodbye.

Cell reception is poor out here. It’s still possible I’ve missed the birth and contracted the plague. I was meant to be a volunteer, not a martyr.

If I’ve missed the birth, and my son years from now asks why, I’ll tell him: This other thing was important also.

My pocket buzzes. The brakes squawk. A dust cloud drifts overhead. I listen to a voice mail from my wife and speed homeward. O

 

Lawrence Lenhart is the associate chair of the English department at Northern Arizona University, where he teaches fiction, nonfiction, and climate science narratives. He is author of The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage, Of No Ground, and a book-length essay about the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret to the Colorado Plateau.

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