The Endangered Species Act, which President Richard Nixon signed into law 40 years ago Saturday, was created to protect animals and plants on the verge of extinction — and the habitat on which they lived.
"It's one of the best things we've done for our environment," Santymire said. "We have to preserve the habitat to save the species."
Santymire said without the ESA, the black-footed ferrets likely would be gone forever. The ferrets, which were once thought to be extinct before a small group was discovered in Wyoming in 1979, number about 400 in the wild, Santymire said. About 200 born from captivity are reintroduced to their natural habitat each year at 20 sites in eight states, Canada and Mexico, she said. Santymire oversees the ferrets at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana.
"I'm totally spoiled because I get to see these animals in the wild," she said.
Jim Robinett feels similar excitement toward his profession. Robinett, of Ravenswood Manor, has worked at the Shedd Aquarium for 36 years. For much of that time, he has overseen the aquarium's animal collection, which includes several that are endangered or threatened.
Robinett also sits on the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board, which reviews what plants and animals are on the endangered or threatened list. The term endangered indicates that the species might go extinct in the wild due to a variety of reasons, including habitat destruction. Threatened is a notch less serious than endangered, meaning if actions aren't taken, those species could wind up as endangered.
"We're trying to prevent them from disappearing," said Robinett, currently Shedd's senior vice president of external and regulatory affairs. "These species are part of the ecosystem. They have a role. I'm amazed how far we've come, but we still have a ways to go."
Shedd features 14 animals on the ESA's threatened or endangered list, including five — the alligator snapping turtle; lake sturgeon; hellbender; redspotted sunfish; and Iowa darter — that make their homes in Illinois.
Lincoln Park Zoo displays 29 animals on the list, while suburban Brookfield Zoo has 31.
"Hopefully by coming [to a zoo or aquarium], people will develop an awareness for these animals," Robinett said. "And I hope it's something we try to do at Shedd, that we give a feeling of respect or passion or caring that our plants and animals need to be protected.
"The natural world is what sustains us. The Endangered Species Act is critical for us to maintain that natural state. Anyone who ventures out West or to nature preserves can see that right away."
For Santymire, that notion is her daily reality.
"The black-footed ferret is the flagship species for the ESA," she said. "We've produced over 8,000 black-footed ferrets. This is a species that serves as an example of how successful the ESA can be."