Should we clone the black-footed ferret?

From petri dish to prairie with North America’s most endangered species.

An ankle-high fog of liquid nitrogen drifted over the floor of the Frozen Zoo, coasting around the keg-like cryotanks that host the world’s largest collection of living cell cultures. The fog immediately lowered the room’s temperature, a reprieve from the sultry June day in Southern California. This room — about the size of the beer cave at my local gas station — is probably the most biodiverse room in the world. (Well, this one and a duplicate collection assembled in some discreet facility in a different Southern California fire zone.)

Marlys Houck, the zoo’s curator, climbed a stepstool and peered through protective goggles into one of the tanks, which steamed like a frozen hot tub. She waited for the carousel within it to spin to the correct quadrant. 

 

When I parked at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido that morning and asked an attendant for directions to the Frozen Zoo, she clearly thought I was joking. Did I mean the polar bear’s tundra habitat? I found my own way, walking the fence line to the facility next door. The Beckman Center for Conservation Research includes the 20,000-square feet of laboratory space where the international nonprofit San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance makes good on its conservation mission. The Frozen Zoo is its crown jewel.

“Come see,” Houck said to me as the frosty carousel stopped.

I tipped to my toes to see into the tank, and she rummaged through the racks in what appeared to be ski gloves. The racks resembled model skyscrapers, with each floor removable like a drawer and full of vials. Inside the vials were 1 million to 3 million gooey living cells. And inside each cell were tens of thousands of genes, some of which have endured decades in suspended animation, just one thaw away from reentering the gene pool of an extant endangered species. It’s no wonder, as Houck said, that “the safety of this collection literally keeps me awake some nights.”

When she found what she was looking for, Houck wielded foot-long forceps with her cryogenic gloves and transferred the rack to a stainless-steel table. Houck ran her eyes over a hundred vials until she ID’d it: Ceratotherium simum cottoni, male. Northern white rhino.

Houck admired her decades-old script on the vial. “It’s funny seeing my handwriting — to think, what was going on in my life when I wrote the label for this one?”

Someone mentioned that 1988 was the summer she first learned to spay mice as a zoo intern. Another person remembered it as one of the Frozen Zoo’s last years with its late founder, Kurt Benirschke. I wasn’t alive yet. Like time capsules, once the vials are submerged, they don’t reemerge until authorized. When they are called up, it’s because one of the wildlife alliance’s partners has a specific genetic project in mind, one that promotes species recovery or extinction risk management. 

Take the vial of northern white rhino, for instance. When a veterinarian snipped a lentil-sized notch from the rhino’s ear decades ago — mixing it with enzymes, antifungals, antibiotics and nutrients before incubating it in a flask, letting its cells cleave and multiply for a month, then be cryopreserved indefinitely — there were two dozen or so northern white rhinos left in the world. But now, when a technician prepares those same cells for thawing, the species is critically endangered, more than likely extinct in the wild. The two known living specimens, Najin and Fatu, are at a conservancy in Kenya. As both are female, the species is at least functionally extinct, with no male to sire another generation. That vial beneath my nose is as close as one can get to a living male northern white rhino. The researcher-recipients of these living cells might use them for applications in embryology, in vitro fertilization, stem cell technology, even — one day — cloning.

To produce a new northern white rhino, scientists would need to complete genome sequencing, create rhino sperm and oocytes from stem cells, and develop new assisted reproductive technologies. “We’ll be long gone by the time that happens,” Houck said, referring to her colleagues. I couldn’t tell if it was a euphemism for retirement or death. 

The process — from thaw to clone — was much quicker for the black-footed ferret, or BFF, which, in December 2020, became the first endangered species native to North America to be genetically duplicated. And not just any endangered species; it was prematurely declared extinct on two separate occasions, and many consider it North America’s most endangered mammal. Its membership within an endangered ecosystem (prairie grasslands) and its specialized diet of endangered prey (prairie dogs) make its survival that much more precarious.

It all began with an email from Seth Willey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery coordinator in the Mountain-Prairie Region, entitled “Out of the Box.” He asked his addressee, the biotechnology company and resurrection biologists Revive & Restore, if the technology was “ripe” enough to genetically enhance the BFF. Ryan Phelan, Revive & Restore’s co-founder, and Ben Novak, its lead scientist, spent the better part of a decade as biotech ambassadors, convincing Fish and Wildlife officials, led by BFF Recovery Coordinator Pete Gober, that genetic restoration was in the best interest of the ferrets. When Phelan and Novak were told to “slow down” at working group meetings, they realized it was because of the way the agency guards each and every ferret, especially following a devastating plague in 2008 that vectored through South Dakota’s Conata Basin, once home to the only self-sustaining population of BFFs. Phelan explained, “We told them we’ll take the criticism, we’ll raise the money.” And they did.

Once it was discovered that the Frozen Zoo curated a special cell line that belonged to a non-reproductive ferret known as Willa, it was clear that Escondido would become the auspicious starting line for the genetic restoration. The current BFF population, which numbers about 600 — half of them wild, half in captivity — all originate from a measly seven founders from Meeteetse, Wyoming, a stark fact that severely limits genetic diversity. Willa’s decades-old genes, however, can’t be found in any living ferret, meaning she signifies the potential of an eighth founder.

When the last extant wild population was infected with canine distemper in 1987, conservationists trapped the willowy weasels for safekeeping, jumpstarting one of the most comprehensive pedigree charts in the biological world. A studbook keeper at the Smithsonian acts as matchmaker for all captive ferrets, making breeding recommendations based on data. Genetically speaking, opposites attract. But there’s only so much one can do for a species with seven founders. Over time, most of the BFFs have become the genetic equivalent of siblings, or cousins at best. Remarkably, in 1988, Fish and Wildlife had the wherewithal to collect cells from non-reproductive ferrets in Meeteetse in the event technology would later enable them to reenter the population. Or to cop the Frozen Zoo’s well-worn maxim, quoting historian Daniel Boorstin: “You must collect things for reasons you don’t yet understand.”

“You must collect things for reasons you don’t yet understand.”

Arlene Kumamoto, a prolific technician during whose tenure the Frozen Zoo’s holdings rapidly expanded, received the cells. After growing those cell lines, she deposited a few vials in the freezer, where they’ve been boiling in a cauldron of liquid nitrogen for 34 years.

Conservationists have cast Mustela nigripes as an ambassador species — a charismatic minifauna, if you will — whose bonny features have been leveraged to convince the public that the prairie ecosystem is worth saving. Show someone a video of unremarkable tufts of swaying grass, and they’re bound to shrug, but sprinkle in a few pop-going weasels, and suddenly, people  give a hoot about the landscape. In this way, the ferret is an unwitting agent of the prairie, protector of grasses whose 15-foot root systems reliably sequester carbon. At a time when drought and wildfire threaten other precious carbon sinks, such as forests, researchers wager that grasslands, with their fixed carbon, will be the most resilient and adaptive ecosystem of the future. BFFs are even the ironic protector of their own prey, the prairie dog, a keystone species that acts as a vital ecosystem engineer. Researchers at the United States Geological Survey have demonstrated how prairie dog foraging, nibbling, and digging provides essential services, like mixing the topsoil with subsoil, effectively fertilizing the prairie, keeping it moist.

In Scott Weidensaul’s The Ghost with Trembling Wings, he describes a business of black-footed ferrets (the beguiling collective noun for a solitary species) like this: “phantoms: secretive, highly nocturnal, almost entirely subterranean. … A prairie dog town is the ferret’s universe: shelter, larder, birthing chamber, and tomb, all in one.” At night, ferrets slink between colonies, diving through entrance mounds and ambushing tunnels, nests, latrines and turnaround bays. They’ll occasionally breach with emerald eyeshine, their nose, whiskers and chin slicked with blood, ready to waggle onto the next ingress.

A black-footed ferret obsessive, I’ve spent a decade in thrall to the species. I’ve spotlit the sage steppe for their eyeshine and begged my way into biosecure breeding facilities. It’s long been my pleasure to gaze on their Mickey Mouse ears, bandit mask, champagne fur and sooty feet. I contacted Oliver Ryder, director of conservation genetics at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, to get the scoop on BFF cloning.

“You have to remember, when we got those ferret cells in ’88, there was no Dolly the Sheep, and the Human Genome Project wasn’t done yet,” Ryder said. In fact, it hadn’t even begun. “We might have wished it was possible to clone them, but it wouldn’t have been responsible to say it aloud.” 

In other words, Benirschke’s concept of a biobank, the first of its kind, was aspirational. It seems that, at the Frozen Zoo, futurity necessarily drives present action. Conservationists must think two steps ahead to preempt any future incursions on biodiversity that are already in motion. And there are many in motion. In 2015, Paul R. Ehrlich, president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, coauthored a paper in Science Advances that established, using very conservative assumptions, that the sixth mass extinction has officially arrived. This means we are likely at the dawning of a lonely era in which 75% of species will perish from the Earth.   

In September 2020, the vial containing Willa’s cells saw daylight, its contents representing an untapped source of genetic diversity for the severely bottlenecked black-footed ferret population. A marvel of conservation-as-curation, this slurry of cells began as Willa and ended a few months later as the fang-baring Elizabeth Ann, the would-be eighth founder in Mustela nigripes’ gene pool.

And ain’t it just like the ferret to reappear triumphantly on the other side of a great lull? BFFs were declared extinct in the wild in 1974 — that is, until a blue heeler named Shep chanced upon one in 1981. Shep scuffled with that specimen in a big ball of violence à la Looney Tunes. Imagine a smoke cloud with terrific growling and yowling, hissing and chattering, maybe a flash of canines or a tip of tail, until death was that ferret’s end. But, as tends to be the case with ferrets, death is rarely the end. Instead, the carcass led conservationists to an extant business of ferrets, one of whom was Willa, whose every fiber now lives on in the clone, Elizabeth Ann.

EVEN AGNOSTICS WHO BEHOLD the cryopreserved snot-like cells of an endangered species, held up to fluorescence or clipped to the microscope’s stage, have to reckon with the soul. How much of the immaterial spirit can stow itself away in this smudge of particles? In a paper exploring the metaphysical and moral implications of cryopreservation, Jason T. Eberl asks, “Does cryopreservation thus involve ‘suspending’ the soul?” When Houck thaws the cells — of a ferret, or the white rhino in the vial I saw — are they at all ensouled?  I looked around the vats of frozen tanks.

“When you think about it,” Ryder said, “to have 1,000 species in something the size of a trash can, that’s like a neutron star of biodiversity.” The zoo holds 1,224 species and subspecies, represented across 10,500 individuals. “Here is an orca whale next to a meerkat next to a hippopotamus next to a California condor next to a Galápagos tortoise next to a kangaroo rat next to an elephant next to a black-footed ferret. I could go on and on. That just startles me.”

“To have 1,000 species in something the size of a trash can, that’s like a neutron star of biodiversity.” 

It startles other biologists as well — and not always in a good way. Ehrlich, the Stanford biologist, likened it to “anticipating a flood and planning to bail with a thimble.” He would prefer to see the immense resources of a $561 million not-for-profit like the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance go toward addressing the root causes of the conservation crisis, such as population growth and climate change. In The Washington Post in 2015, he said, “Screwing around with science to save a white rhino might be fun, and I would like to see it preserved and am all for biodiversity, but it’s so far down the list of things we should be doing first.” One has to admit, though, the cryotanks in the frozen zoo make for a pretty big thimble. But for every voice of caution, Ryder must contend with its eager counterpoint: those who wish the Frozen Zoo would go even further in its genetic rescue. When he discusses genetic restoration with Revive & Restore, Ryder tries to temper their interest in de-extinction. Whether it’s the passenger pigeon, the po’ouli (an extinct Hawaiian bird) or the woolly mammoth, a handful of biotech firms are intent on destigmatizing de-extinction.

If the Frozen Zoo was created to collect things for reasons not yet understood — well, then, “not yet” has suddenly morphed into the here and now. Biologist George Church is proceeding with plans to de-extinct the woolly mammoth from the Siberian tundra; paleontologist Jack Horner continues to genetically edit the chickenosaurus; and for an actual example of de-extinction, see the Pyrenean ibex, whose endling Celia was cloned for all of 10 minutes before the newborn succumbed to a lung defect, effectively resulting in a second extinction. If all of this seems tinged with ethical anxiety, then you might sympathize with actor Jeff Goldblum, who played Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park. In response to online chatter about the chickenosaurus, he reprised his cautionary line from the film, this time via tweet: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

One can’t help but imagine Ryder doing his best to tune out all those competing voices as he considers what’s best for the species represented in the zoo’s holdings. Ultimately, he decided that the chickenosaurus and woolly mammoth, et al, were outside the scope of the zoo’s charge, but he suggested two extant species that could benefit from some genetic rescue: Przewalski’s horse (a Mongolian equid, also known as the “last wild horse”) and that perennial survivor, the black-footed ferret.

Back in the lab, Houck thawed the rhino cells in a bead bath while chatting with a technician who was stirring the eyeball of a white crown shrike. If the tech were to trade her white lab coat in for a witchy black cloak, the sight would send chills.

The lab is as antiseptic as one would expect: phenolic work stations, autoclave and fume hoods. And there is a prized sketch of a rhino. At the microscope, another tech karyotyped cells of an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin that recently stranded itself nearby on the coast. Over her shoulder, I watched the crystal violet-stained ovoids round up, cleave, divide. On deck was a fossa, a relative of the mongoose, endemic to Madagascar. I asked if species are at all recognizable under the scope once they’ve been pureed into culture, into cells.

“I used to say ‘no,’” Houck said. “But the ferret really has an odd morphology.” It’s one of the few species whose cells she could recognize under the microscope, she explained, “because it’s more rounded. They don’t have those long. …” she trailed off while looking at the dolphin’s spindly cells.

“I’d recognize your cells anywhere,” the eye-stirrer teased from the other side of the room.

Houck checked the clock and glanced my way.

“If the northern white rhino is functionally extinct, aren’t any interventions to revive them categorically an attempt at de-extinction?” I asked.

“Well, no.” She paused. “Not precisely.” She went on to provide the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s definition of de-extinction, more or less. In 2016, the IUCN released a report called Guiding Principles on Creating Proxies of Extinct Species for Conservation Benefit, which defined de-extinction as “any attempt to create some proxy of an extinct species or subspecies … through any technique, including methods such as selective back breeding, somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning), and genome engineering.”

But Ben Novak of Revive & Restore would have liked a more nuanced definition. As a concept, “de-extinction” has enjoyed two stints in the popular imagination: first, through the  Steven Spielberg franchise Jurassic Park, and more recently, when National Geographic and Revive & Restore partnered to live-stream a TEDxDeExtinction event. Amid a media frenzy of specious reporting, the IUCN set out to define the phenomenon. Novak finds the definition too restrictive, based on a binary — extant versus extinct — that, for him, isn’t intellectually honest.

“Such classifications of extinction are more helpful for conservation practice and intervention than a binary concept of
extinction and survival.” 

As he pointed out in his 33-page redefinition in Genes — which reads like a manifesto for de-extinction — there are gradations of extinction, which are variously termed locally extinct, extinct in the wild, functionally extinct, evolutionarily torpid and globally extinct. “Such classifications of extinction are more helpful for conservation practice and intervention than a binary concept of extinction and survival,” Novak wrote. Somewhere between extant and extinct is the black-footed ferret, which Novak name-checked in the article. Ferrets are said to be “locally extinct,” as they have been extirpated from many sites across North America. All reintroduced black-footed ferrets, known as “replacement populations,” are translocated from captive populations. To reverse a local extinction, specialists use techniques ranging from husbandry to IVF to — now, starting with Elizabeth Ann — cloning. For Novak, these are all just part of the grab bag of conservation.

I asked Houck about the ferret genes. “What did you do after the cells thawed?”

“We regrew them, saved the newer ones, and then shipped the others out.”

“Shipped them how?”

“FedEx overnight.” She smiled. 

It’s hard to believe that the Earth’s most precious genetic materials are shipped alongside America’s pet supplies, yoga mats, board games, hair-care products and toothbrush heads. I imagined the ferret culture tempering in frozen cryovials on solid carbon dioxide, being loaded onto delivery trucks, forklifted onto cargo containers, shuttled to airplanes, stacked in boxcars before chuffing off to the regional sorting facility, and finally to the local sorting facility in Rochester, New York, a few miles from the shrewd embryologist who awaited their arrival.

OVER THE PAST COUPLE OF DECADES, Dennis Milutinovich has worked in the agricultural, reproductive and pet industries, where he developed expertise in husbandry, in vitro fertilization and cloning, respectively. Currently an embryologist at ViaGen Pets and Equine (“America’s Pet Cloning Experts”), he occasionally lucks into the “fun stuff,” as when he’s on the receiving end of rare ferret, horse or snow leopard cells. While his work with pets is the science of the uncanny, one detects in his work with endangered species the art of the sublime. 

It all happens in an 8-by-40-foot shipping container punctured with a few doors and windows. Milutinovich’s name for it — the steel coffin — is a misnomer, considering it’s designed for life-giving activities like embryogenesis and fertilization. Parked outside of a Rochester strip mall, the shipping container is crammed with high-tech equipment, including incubators and a cloning scope.

“In order to do the conservation projects, we need to make money. That’s the dog-and-cat stuff,” he said.

Let’s say your furry friend has one paw in the grave, and you’ll wager anything — in this scenario, $50,000 for a dog and $35,000 for a cat — to “extend the special bond with your beloved pet,” as the website says. Just snip the tip of its ear or get a biopsy of its abdomen, and Milutinovich will take it from there. If your pet is already dead, act quickly: Transport its corpse to the shipping container and they’ll cryopreserve the cells for you, prepping your pet for resurrection.

The majority are pets whose inconsolable owners can’t imagine a world without them — or rather, without their genes. This anguish calls to mind a woman Errol Morris interviewed in his 1978 cinéma verité documentary, Gates of Heaven, who, upon burying her dog at a pet cemetery, said: “There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?” Imagine if this woman had the option to not just purchase a burial plot, but a resurrection. As best I can tell, that’s the essential constitution of a ViaGen client.

“Is it all just an elaborate form of projection?” I asked during a videoconference with Milutinovich . “The pet owners are superimposing memories of Pet #1 over the genetically identical form of Pet #2?”

“I’m sure most of it is projection,” Milutinovich admitted. “As much as you can tell them, ‘You’re not getting your exact animal,’ in their minds, that’s what they want. There are very high expectations. There’s a lifetime of love they’re dumping on the animal.”

“They want to pick up where they left off,” I said.

“Yeah,” Milutinovich assented.

Milutinovich has cloned hundreds of dogs and a hundred or so cats in the past five years, which, based on advertised prices, comes to around $20 million in just five years. Why so pricey? ViaGen’s website boasts its cloning services are “the ‘Cadillac’ of animal care and technology development.” It is just one of many companies in the global pet-cloning industry. And here’s where my ignorance shows.

“As much as you can tell them, ‘You’re not getting your exact animal,’ in their minds, that’s what they want. There are very high expectations. There’s a lifetime of love they’re dumping on the animal.”

I assumed Dolly the sheep (b. 1996) was the one and only of its kind — that, like the moon landing, we’d been there/done that and generally lacked the will or permission to do it again. 

“Didn’t Clinton kibosh cloning in the ’90s?”

Human cloning,” Milutinovich  clarified, alluding to the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prohibited federal funding of research involving human embryos, including cloning. “At this point, it’s routine to clone mice for certain types of research. Pigs and horses are cloned, but the government doesn’t keep track of those. And there’s a self-imposed moratorium for cattle companies who agreed not to put clones in the food source.”

But given China and Japan’s recent forays into pet cloning, with operations similar to ViaGen’s, there are by now tens of thousands of clones among us.

“Our clients sign a pretty airtight waiver,” Milutinovich  said. “We tell them we can’t guarantee it’s going to look exactly the same. More than likely, it will not have the same personality.”

A stately house cat launched itself onto a fabric tower behind Dennis.

“Is that a clone behind you?” I asked.

“Cheeto?” He turned around to study his cat. “No, but she was a queen in our surrogate colony. We have to restrict the number of embryo transfers, so after her last one, I adopted her.”

When compared to conservation projects, pet stuff seems relatively low stakes. It’s easy to see why the chance to clone a black-footed ferret for the sake of genetic recovery would appeal to Milutinovich. “There’s a lot of cool stuff I want to do, like the woolly mammoth,” he said. For the black-footed ferret, Revive & Restore handled all the paperwork (“the hard part”) while ViaGen started establishing a protocol.

“So the black-footed ferret was a side hustle? Was it similar to working with a pet?”

Milutinovich  had never done ferret cloning before this. In fact, before him, only one other lab had ever cloned a Mustelo furo, or a domestic ferret — the kind you can find curled up in a hammock at your local pet store, purchasable for around $150. (I have owned four such ferrets.) That lab published a few papers on the protocol for cloning domestics, which became the blueprint for Milutinovich’s own protocol.

“It was quite an undertaking,” he said. “It’s very difficult to work with ferret oocytes on the scope, because they’re so soft.”

So difficult, in fact, it took him a year and a half to produce a litter of domestic ferret clones. As soon as he was successful, Marlys Houck received a call, greenlighting the extraction of Willa’s vial. She flipped on the frozen carousel, tonged and thawed the cells, 250,000 of which were put into a flask, grown out and frozen down for new vials — backups — in a process that could be repeated ad infinitum, though a little quality is lost each time. Once FedEx fulfilled the order, someone at ViaGen signed on the dotted line, and Milutinovich  repeated the cloning protocol, this time using Mustela nigripes genes. The embryos imperceptibly divided, enlarged and differentiated until ready for transfer. When the time came, a licensed vet made a midline incision and pulled the ovaries out of the surrogate so Milutinovich  could inject the embryos.

“That part is easier than a spay surgery,” he said.

“How was the surrogate chosen?”

“Well, she was an established mom, a proven mom, with a couple litters of domestic ferrets. She was a good mom of the right age and birth history who we knew would whelp out OK, and she’s good to her kits and everything. Oh, and she was in heat.”

I was gobsmacked that the surrogate was a domestic, a completely different species of weasel. In other words, the dime-a-dozen pet store variety carried this multimillion-dollar wild ferret fetus.

Milutinovich  reminded me that it’s common to employ different species with similar morphologies in surrogacy, especially if, as is the case with black-footed ferrets, it’s difficult to obtain and risky to work with the actual species.

Three weeks after implantation, the vet performed an ultrasound on the pregnant jill, finding vesicles that resembled living tissue. At 25 days, they listened for the clone’s flickering heartbeat, which set the surrogate into motion. She was relocated to the Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center (BFFCC) in Carr, Colorado, to receive expert care from Fish and Wildlife Service staff. The trip began with a six-hour leg — Rochester to a hotel parking lot in Toledo, Ohio — where she swiftly changed hands, from one keeper to another, like a furry baton in a relay race.

From Toledo, Robyn Bortner and a technician from the BFFCC chauffeured the surrogate the rest of the way. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Bortner, the center’s captive-breeding manager, opted for ground transport to minimize risk of human-to-animal exposure. As someone who’s repeatedly driven pet ferrets cross-country I know ground transport involves anal glands emitting oily skunk-like musk, pee with notes of battery acid, and a short digestive track voiding endless crud. By the time the surrogate arrived at the interstate facility in Carr, 10 miles south of the Wyoming border, I imagine the whole caravan sighing in relief.

THERE ARE 168 LOW, wide metal mesh enclosures at the center, most occupied by a single ferret. Arranged in tight aisles, a captive breeding colony is carceral, but ferrets — who are solitary anyway — are mostly indifferent to their neighbors’ messy mastication, ecstatic clucking, the rapid battering of the lattice during a fierce scratch reflex. Enter the surrogate.

Nudged into a vacant coop, a domestic among a hundred-plus captive wilds, she whiffed the air with her coffee-bean nose as she warmed to her new space. Not yet inured to the ambient ferret business surrounding her, she reluctantly turned in, scuttling down the corrugated tube to the nest box, which is partitioned into den and latrine. She needed the rest as the clone’s fetal tissue tautened into a skeletal structure. Is there maternal dissonance in carrying another species? Does it resolve as the surrogate snoozes, knowing that what is within her now surrounds her completely?

By gestational day 42, a jill is usually ready to be whelped out. If the mom has a “healthy squeaky litter in there,” Bortner said, there’s no need for visual confirmation. She’ll put up a literal red flag on the enclosure and let her be for four days. On very rare occasions, a mother will cannibalize her young; from a taxpayer’s perspective, “baby ferret” is just about the most lavish meal one can eat.

“Usually, when breeding a wild animal in a captive setting, you need to accept some losses,” Bortner said. “There’s only so much you can do in the process. For our expensive clone, though, we had a lot higher stakes.” It helps that a domestic surrogate is more tolerant of humans during labor, even permitting staff to handle her.

“We don’t usually stay up all night waiting for the ferrets to whelp,” Bortner said, “but for this one, we had a 24-hour camera vigil.” A dozen staff rotated on two-hour shifts, ready to alert the overnight veterinarian. And it was a good thing,  because the surrogate needed an emergency cesarean section.

The clone kit was milked through an incision in the uterine horns. She was dried, warmed, and given oxygen therapy. At some point, she acquired the name Elizabeth Ann.

Elizabeth Ann was born outside of the black-footed ferret’s springtime breeding season, so her birthdate (Dec. 10) is an anomaly. Because the surrogate was recovering from a difficult labor and it’s impossible for technicians to hand-raise a kit, Elizabeth Ann was adopted by another domestic mother that the center arranged to have on hand. Born within hours of her foster litter of five, Elizabeth Ann nursed alongside them, nuzzled them, until she was about a week old.

So Elizabeth Ann is an endangered species clone who had an interspecies surrogate mother, wet nurse and foster siblings?

“I don’t think we ever put it quite like that, but yes. Essentially,” Bortner said.

That makes them oddkin, a colloquial term defined in Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble as “other-than-conventional biogenetic relatives.” A clone has no biological parents, per se. It’s not the sexlessness that disqualifies this parentage, but the fact that Elizabeth Ann is isolated by twelvish generations from her parents.

I asked my mother-in-law, a keen genealogist, how such a thing might be represented by the software she uses. But Willa and Elizabeth Ann share an uncoded kinship, a berserk in genetic spacetime: sisters once removed. Or rather, they are sisters once removed from a cryotank — thawed and shipped, duplicated and injected, transferred and born again — not exactly sharing the same tier on the family tree. “But I am a blasted tree,” says Victor in Shelley’s Frankenstein. “The bolt has entered my soul.” Elizabeth Ann’s existence is multidimensional, perhaps best represented as a twig floating spookily mid-air.

And, speaking again of the soul, in his article, “Questioning Cloning with Genealogy,” Emmanuel Ifeanyi Ani asked: “What is the status of a cloned being? Will it possess spirit or soul?” What becomes of a society sorted into clones and non-clones? Will natural beings regard artificial beings as superbeings or second-class beings? Such thought experiments might apply more readily to the dilemma of human cloning, but they still raise — on principle — the question of how Elizabeth Ann and the clones-to-come will negotiate kinship within their colony.

“What is the status of a cloned being? Will it possess spirit or soul?”

Meaning that when I asked, “So, how’s Elizabeth Ann doing today?” it’s kind of a loaded question.

“She’s doing really well,” Bortner replied. “If you put her on the floor with every other ferret in my building, I’d have to look very closely to tell her apart.”

The morphometrics are within range of other black-footed ferrets, and she’s of a typical size and weight.

“What about her behavior?” I asked.

“Ah, that’s the big one,” Bortner said. “I mean, she’s on the curious end of the spectrum — one of the more curiouser individuals, for sure. But even when she was very, very small, her nature was outcompeting her nurture.”

“How so?”

“Oh, when we came around, she would use a burrow as a refuge while her foster siblings popped up to say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ ”

Elizabeth Ann is in the main building, the one with the backup generator and the best HVAC, where she’s exposed to other ferrets, getting used to the routine of managed care. Because of her offset birthdate, she was too young to cycle into estrus during her first spring, and so mating was delayed until spring 2022. To state the obvious, Elizabeth Ann was born to breed. Technically, all the jills here were. The species’ studbook keeper is poring over genetic possibilities now, nearly ready to assign her to a surefire hob, a union that will create the most genetically differentiated BFF litter on the continent.

Technically, though, the best genes for hers are still in Southern California in an enigmatic vial that Revive & Restore can’t wait to get its hands on. After spending over 30 years together, frozen side-by-side in a carousel in a cryotank, as genes in cells in vials, it seems that cellular Willa and her cellular beloved are destined to meet again. The clumsily named “Studbook 2” (SB2) is the ninth and last of the potential founders of the species. Together, the two might just be the ones to find a way through the bottleneck.

It’s entirely possible that they met in life, zigzagging toward the same prey in Meeteetse, c. 1985. Maybe even in spring, when SB2 left his scent for her sensing, rubbing pelvis or dragging anus on prairie substrate. Did Willa’s nose ever lead her into a burrow only to find a randy SB2? Did they sniff at parts or just part ways? Whatever the case, they both died kitless, and notches of their ears were pulverized and preserved inches apart in Escondido in the hopes they’d one day reanimate and consummate, making viable progeny to be released in Meeteetse or whichever reintroduction site would have them.

It is, in my opinion, the greatest genetic love story never told.

If only it was as easy as pouring the vials into a cocktail shaker, mixing those genes up manually rather than technologically. Instead, SB2’s cells must be cloned in an intricate process resembling the one last year, but with an added hurdle: His genes tested positive for canine distemper, the signature bacteria and virus that killed him and so many ferrets over the years. According to Revive & Restore, a pharmaceutical company has been enlisted to test methods for the removal of infection from SB2’s culture.

Beyond her supervision of the husbandry team, Bortner also raises the kits, coordinates daily-care duties, including training them in pre-conditioning pens, at which point they might be ready for life in a zoo or, wilder yet, one of 30 reintroduction sites across North America. “It’s a lot of effort,” I said, “keeping these things alive.”

Bortner agreed.

“Is it worth it?”

She reminds me that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with conserving resources (endangered species) for the American public. “And it’s not just the ferrets that benefit from this work,” she said. “To save ferrets, you need ferret habitat. Ferret habitat means prairie dog colonies. It helps out the entire prairie ecosystem.”

“So why not just focus on prairie dogs if they’re the keystone species? Is it a PR issue? Nobody will rally to save varmint?”

“You know, you could just say that the prairie would be fine without BFFs. And it might,” Bortner said. “Other predators might take its place. But it can be dangerous to let one species slip through the crack like that. If ferrets can’t survive on this prairie, then the ecosystem is missing a piece of its puzzle.”

Of the 203 kits born in Carr this year, a limited number will be suitable for the prairie. With clones and their kits entering wild ecosystems, it shouldn’t be long until this genetic windfall comes to a prairie near you. Or me.

I think of the countless entrance mounds that stretch to the prairie’s horizons, punctures of earth where ferrets go to eat, sleep, die and give birth.

For a ferret, there are thousands of ways to vanish. And as many ways to return.   

Lawrence Lenhart is the author of The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage and the forthcoming essay collections Backvalley Ferrets and Of No Ground. With Will Cordeiro, he is the author of the textbook Experimental Writing. He is associate chair of English at Northern Arizona University where he teaches fiction, nonfiction and climate science narratives. Lenhart is a founding editor of Carbon Copy and president of the Northern Arizona Book Festival.

Additional reporting by Sam Yadron.

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This coverage was supported by contributors to High Country News.

Note: This story was updated to correct that SB2 tested positive for plague. His genes tested positive for canine distemper only.