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The Folsom Zoo is home to a variety of small mammals such as ferrets, rabbits, raccoons, opossum, prairie dog, and grey squirrels.

Ferrets - Mustela putorius furo

Domesticated ferrets, like their cousins the black-footed ferrets, are members of the weasel family. Being carnivores, wild individuals depend on small game such as rodents and birds. Domesticated animals often eat cat food or commercially available ferret foods. Domesticated over 2000 years ago, ferrets were used for hunting and rodent control and are now popular pets throughout the world.

California and Hawaii are the only states that prohibit having them as pets. Some people are concerned that a domesticated animal will revert to its wild instincts if put in the wild and compete with native species. Studies show, however, that escaped ferrets usually succumb to dehydration, exposure or starvation within only a few days. There are no confirmed cases of feral ferrets surviving in the wild.

Pet ferrets are generally neutered. In male ferrets (hobs) their aggressive behavior during the breeding season is reduced. Intact males also secrete an unpleasant odor on their fur and mark their territory with a slimy, foul smelling substance. Females (jills) must be spayed if they are not used for breeding. Known as an “induced ovulator”, females will stay in heat for months if not bred. This can result in severe anemia and often leads to death.

Groups of ferrets are known as a “business of ferrets” and youngsters are called “kits”. Nocturnal in habit, these lanky critters are often found piled together in a heap–one body hard to distinguish from the next.

Rabbits - Oryctolagus cuniculus

From the jackrabbit of the desert regions to the snowshoe rabbit of the north, different species of rabbits and hares are found in nearly every type of habitat in the world. Domesticated rabbits were developed from the wild rabbits of Europe. There are over 50 different breeds of domesticated rabbits and, depending on breed, their life expectancy is from 5 - 10 years.

Hares and rabbits differ in that rabbits are born hairless with closed eyes and hares have open eyes and fur. Rabbits require nests for their helpless young (kits or bunnies) while hares give birth in the open. Their young are ready to run within minutes. With a gestation period of about a month, does (females; males are bucks) can have as many as eight litters a year, bearing 3–8 young per litter. Rabbits reach sexual maturity at 6 months of age–do the math, rabbits are prolific!

In the wild, rabbits are part of large social groups that live in underground burrows called warrens. Individuals within a colony can warn others of danger by thumping their hind legs and recognize one another through smell. Hares live primarily solitary lives.

Mostly nocturnal, rabbits will come out at dusk and spend the night searching for food. Their diet is usually plant based including grains, leaves and even tree bark. Domesticated rabbits are most often given commercially prepared pellets, vegetables, fruits and hay. Being members of the rodent family, chewing is essential to wear down continuously growing teeth.

Raccoons - Procyon lotor

From the Algonkin word 'ah rah koon em" (meaning they rub, scrub, scratch) comes this opportunistic creature with the familiar bandit’s mask. Found from southern Canada to northern South America, raccoons have adapted to live in a wide variety of habitats including urban areas.

Raccoons hunt at night, searching for small rodents, birds, fish, frogs, eggs and insects. They often add nuts and wild fruits to their diet as well. With incredibly dexterous hands, they are capable of getting into even the smallest crevice and will eat nearly anything they find. Considered omnivores, raccoons can depend mostly on plant products if that is the only food available. Dousing, or washing food is a behavior seen in most raccoons. It is still unclear exactly why they do this. Some researchers believe it is an instinctual fishing or shellfish-hunting maneuver. Others believe the water intensifies sensitivity to touch, making it easier to clean food of unwanted debris.

Curiosity is another trait found in these little charmers. This can bring them into homes where they can be very destructive. People living near raccoons learn to keep windows and doors closed and locked up, and garbage cans, pet food bowls, etc. out of reach.

In the wild raccoons generally avoid one another, coming together only during mating season. (A group of raccoons is called a “nursery”.) Females (sows) will have 1 – 7 cubs (also called kits). These little ones will stay with her for a year. As they get older they become quite independent, hunting and spending extended periods of time on their own. Males (boars) do not participate in rearing the young.

Despite their shuffling gait, raccoons can move at speeds up to 15 miles per hour. They are excellent swimmers but prefer staying near shore, as their fur is not waterproof.


There are 65 different species of opossums but the only one that lives in the United States is the Virginia opossum. It is the largest of all opossum species and it is also our country’s only marsupial. The opossum is considered one of the longest surviving mammals with evidence of existence about 67 million years ago.

Opossums will “play dead” if threatened although this does not seem to be a voluntary response but an instinctive response to fear. If severely frightened, they can actually go into a near-coma. At this point they are lying on their sides, eyes open, tongue hanging out, and expelling a foul-smelling green liquid from their anus. Although they have the smallest brain-to-body ratio among mammals, they have other characteristics which serve them well in the fight for survival.

Female opossums may produce as many as 22 young in a litter. Unfortunately, a female opossum only has 11 to 13 nipples in her pouch. The young that do not immediately locate a nipple will perish. Baby opossums have no suckling response so must actually attach themselves to the mother by swallowing one of her long teats.

Prairie Dog

Prairie dogs are burrowing rodents native to the grasslands of North America. They got their name not only from where they live (prairies) but from their warning calls which sound like a dog’s bark. Highly social, they live in large colonies called towns (or dog towns). Many families may live together in towns covering hundreds of acres.

Prairie dogs are capable of communicating a wide range of information via their barking alarms. And family members react differently based on what kind of alarm has been sounded. An alarm indicating a diving hawk will cause those in the path of the dive to scurry into their holes while those out of the path stand and watch. All prairie dogs rush into their burrows upon hearing the alarm that a human is present … while the alarm for coyote is met by a move in the direction of the burrow entrance with continued cautious observation.

Eastern Gray Squirrel and Western Gray Squirrel
Sciurus carolinensis and Sciurus griseus

Western gray squirrels are common throughout the west coast, scurrying around the treetops and offering hours of entertainment to those who watch them. Eastern gray squirrels are found from the mid west, eastward to the Atlantic states. Both species feed on various seeds, nuts, and acorns as well as fruits, tender shoots, leaves, and fungi. Unlike their cousins the ground squirrels and chipmunks, tree squirrels have no cheek pouches in which to store and carry food. Food must be stored and hidden for immediate as well as long-term consumption. Because they do not hibernate, adequate stores of food are critical to make it through the winter. Squirrels can be a mixed blessing in the forests. New trees may grow from a forgotten cache, but in some regions squirrels are considered a pest, destroying the bark off young trees.

Squirrels are active during the day and will build nests high in the trees (a minimum of 20 feet off the ground) to avoid predators. Winter quarters are generally in tree cavities.

Females, known as does, produce 2 to 7 pups in early spring. Sometimes a second litter comes in late summer as well. The males (bucks) are not involved in caring for the young, who will stay with their mothers for 8 – 10 weeks. Squirrels live solitary lives, though there may be many living in close proximity. (A group of squirrels in known as a scurry or dray of squirrels.)