ferret, name for a domesticated polecat, Mustela putorius, common in the Old World. It has been used for centuries to hunt rats, mice, and rabbits. Domestic ferrets are found in many color types including albinos, brown, and black. The name is also applied to a related wild species, the North American, or black-footed, ferret, M. nigripes, which inhabits the Great Plains. Once extremely rare, its population is recovering due to captive breeding. Its range nearly coincides with that of the prairie dogs, which constitute most of its diet; it is often found in prairie dog burrows. The severe reduction of the prairie dog population by ranchers is probably partially responsible for the decline of the black-footed ferret, although it was apparently not numerous when the West was first settled by Europeans. Near extinction in the early 1980s, the remaining wild population was captured by 1986 and a successful breeding program begun. Animals were reintroduced into the wild beginning in 1991. Ferrets are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Mustelidae (weasel family).
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