Eleven ferret kits are shipped from the zoo to the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Wellington, Colo., where biologist Paul Marinari runs a sort of ferret "boot camp."
"It's a big day for them. It's kind of like sending your kids off to school," Marinari said.
The ferrets will learn critical survival skills here, like how to kill and eat live prairie dogs. They'll get practice on hamsters.
"We get a lot of flack sometimes, you know, like, 'Why are you feeding them something that people may have as pets?' Well, they're carnivores," Marinari said. "Our job is to do the best job we can to take these guys off the endangered species list." Timid ferret kits grab their mother, trying to pull her back into the safety of their metal box. Soon, however, they begin to explore -- and even dance.
"We call it the ferret happy dance," Marinari said. "Just happy to be around, not extinct."
Ferrets that make it through Marinari's boot camp get the ultimate graduation present -- a road trip to freedom.
"It's about a six-hour drive. We'll be heading up to Wyoming, then cutting across the plains into South Dakota," Marinari said, as he loads pet carriers into a white minivan.
Three hundred and thirty miles later, the animals arrive at their new home, in Badlands National Park in South Dakota. They're greeted like celebrities as bystanders and ferret enthusiasts snap dozens of photos.
"He's anxious to go and get some dinner," Marinari said, as he walks into a field holding a pet carrier with a young male black-footed ferret inside.
Once he reaches the middle of a prairie dog colony, Marinari sets the carrier down and opens the metal door.
"It's always great to get animals out of captivity. Hopefully in springtime, male meets female, and 42 days later we have a litter," Marinari said, who now works as a curator at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.
Black-footed ferrets are still endangered, but today the wild population has grown from only 18 to about 1,000.
"That green eye shine just gets your heart racing a little bit," Livieri said, walking in darkness toward a black-footed ferret he just trapped.
He hopes ferrets will one day sustain themselves here on the prairie, effectively putting the captive breeding program out of business.
"Your water won't be any cleaner to drink. Your air will not be any purer to breathe if black-footed ferrets exist on this planet. So why should we save them?" Livieri said. "We were one of the causes as humans to the endangerment of ferrets. And I believe that because we were a part of it, we owe it to the species to try to recover it."