When I traveled to South Dakota in 2005 to write a story about black-footed ferrets, I never imagined my words about the little weasels would one day appear in a trashy romance novel. I just wanted to write an informative and entertaining piece about these endangered prairie carnivores.
Three years later my story ("Toughing It Out in the Badlands") is at the center of 2008's sexiest plagiarism scandal.
It all began when a mysterious e-mail arrived in my inbox last week with a link to a romance novel blog, www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com. While reviewing a novel by best-selling romance writer Cassie Edwards, the self-proclaimed "smart bitches" had discovered passages that matched, word for word, my ferret story.
In the Internet age, every freelance writer fears that his or her words will be appropriated without compensation. First I was angry. Then I had to laugh. To see my textbook descriptions of ferrets in a bodice-ripper, as dialogue between a hunky American Indian and a lustful pioneer woman who several pages later have sex on a mossy riverbank, is the height of absurdity.
I rushed out to buy a copy of the book. The cover of "Shadow Bear," $6.99 in paperback, features a shirtless, dark-haired hunk in a loin cloth with a machete strapped to his belt. His abdominal muscles ripple, and wind blows through his long mane. Set in South Dakota in 1850, the book is a tale of forbidden love between a pioneer hottie, Shiona Bramlett, and a Lakota chief, Shadow Bear. "With a passion that is undeniable, they must learn to put their mistrust aside and share their secrets before all is lost," reads the jacket.
The prose is standard romance-novel shlock. Bramlett's bosom heaves. Shadow Bear feels a longing in his loins. On page 195, after several false starts to stoke the furnaces of readers, Bramlett and Shadow Bear finally get down to business. They have sex in his teepee on some animal pelts. Hungrily, their sinuous bodies rock and quake until both explode in rapturous pleasure. When the teepee flaps are rocking, don't come a-knocking.
Then, a few pages later, as Bramlett and Shadow Bear bask in their postcoital glow, my ferrets arrive on the scene.
Bramlett hears something rustling in the bushes and recoils in fear. Could it be the evil Jack Thunder Horse, come to steal the map that reveals the secret location of the gold discovered by her late father?
It's just a family of ferrets. Phew. Let's put aside for now that ferrets live on the prairie, where there are no bushes—never mind the forest where Edwards has set her characters. Seeing the cute animals, Shiona and Shadow Bear launch into a discussion about the cute little critters.
"They are so named because of their dark legs," Shadow Bear says, to which Shiona responds: "They are so small, surely weighing only about two pounds and measuring two feet from tip to tail."
Shiona then tells Shadow Bear how she once read about ferrets in a book she took from the study of her father. "I discovered they are related to minks and otters. It is said their closest relations are European ferrets and Siberian polecats," she says. "Researchers theorize that polecats crossed the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska, to establish the New World population."
Ohmygod that is so hot.
Shadow Bear responds: "What I have observed of them, myself, is that these tiny animals breed in early spring when the males roam the night in search of females." As the ferrets bound off into some distant bushes, he continues: "Mothers typically give birth to three kits in early summer and raise their young alone in abandoned prairie dog burrows."
Shiona: "I read that ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets suffocate the sleeping prey, an impressive feat considering the two species are about the same weight." Shiona shivers, upset by the thought of the cute animals locked in mortal combat.
Sensing her vulnerability, Shadow Bear knows just what to say: "In turn, coyotes, badgers, and owls prey on ferrets, whose life span in the wild is often less than two winters … They have a short, quick life."
Wow, that is some bad dialogue. It stands out as clunky and awkward even by the standards of romance novels. That's because Edwards didn't write it. I did.
I traveled to South Dakota in the spring of 2005, flying into Rapid City airport, renting a car and driving to Wall, where I checked into a dumpy motel overlooking an industrial yard. It was as unromantic a location as you could imagine. At night I went out looking for ferrets with biologist Travis Livieri, one of the nation's foremost experts on the species.
Nocturnal, ferrets come out after dark to hunt for prairie dogs, their main source of food. With Livieri at the wheel of his pickup truck, we bounced down rutted dirt roads alongside the prairie dog colonies that fill the Conata Basin—a federal grassland near Badlands National Park. Researchers find ferrets by shining a spotlight on the moonscapelike setting of a prairie dog town. From dusk until nearly dawn we sat in Livieri's truck—two dudes looking for weasels. Nobody said science was sexy.
After three days in Wall, where the highlight is visiting the famous Wall Drug Store, I could hardly leave town fast enough. I returned home and wrote the story for the Summer 2005 issue of Defenders magazine, which detailed how ferrets in the Conata Basin were being threatened by a federal effort to poison prairie dogs.
Had I known that my text would one day appear in a romance novel, I might have sexed up my story: "Hot-loving polecats do it in prairie dog holes." Instead, here's the passage where I detail the life history of black-footed ferrets. You may recognize it.
"Black-footed ferrets, so-named because of their dark legs, weigh about two pounds and measure two feet from tip to tail. Related to mink and otters, they are North America's only native ferret (and a different species than the ferrets kept as pets). Their closest relatives are European ferrets and Siberian polecats. Researchers theorize polecats crossed the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska to establish the New World population. The animals breed in March and April, when males roam the night in search of females. Mothers typically give birth to three kits in June, and raise their young alone in abandoned prairie dog burrows.
"Ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets clamp a suffocation bite on their sleeping prey—an impressive feat, considering that the two species are about the same weight. Coyotes, badgers and owls in turn prey on ferrets, whose lifespan in the wild is often less than two years. 'It's a tough and quick life,' Livieri says."
Edwards even has Shadow Bear mouth the quote by Livieri—who is a nice guy but by no means a loincloth-wearing love machine. I called Edwards at her home in Mattoon, Ill., and reached her husband, who told me neither would make any statements about the situation based on the advice of an attorney and editors. Absent an explanation from Edwards, I can only guess at how my words ended up in "Shadow Bear." I surmise that, looking for some description of the animals of South Dakota, Edwards did a Google search, found my story and simply cut and pasted. Such cut-and-paste plagiarism is rampant in college and high-school research papers, according to teachers and professors. Just how widespread it is in nonfiction remains to be seen.
As a victim of plagiarism, I am left wondering how many other works of mine have been purloined? And what does Edwards owe me? Does she owe me anything, aside from an apology and maybe a free, autographed copy of her book with an "attaboy" on the passage in question? My words did not enhance her novel. They were filler. I can imagine frustrated and horny readers cursing the ferrets and skipping ahead in search of the next nipple.
I'm no longer angry with Edwards. In fact, I feel sorry for her. The blogosphere is buzzing with irate calls to boycott Edwards's books and appearances. According to an interview she did with the Associated Press, she did not know she was supposed to quote source materials. Ignorance of law and ethics is no excuse, however. Plagiarism victimizes writers. It betrays the trust of readers. It tarnishes the craft of writing.
But there is another victim here that has been lost in the discussion: the ferrets.
About 1,000 black-footed ferrets exist in the wild. They were thought extinct until a small population was discovered in 1981. Eighteen survivors were taken into a captive breeding program that has yielded all the black-footed ferrets alive today. About 300 of these live in the Conata Basin, one of the largest and healthiest wild populations. Even here, however, these endangered species have no sanctuary.
Prairie dog colonies are being poisoned to protect drought-stricken grasslands for cattle, which compete with the rodents for grass. Ferrets, which are utterly dependent upon large prairie dog colonies, are on the brink of extinction because their prey has been largely eradicated.
Back in 1850, when ferrets existed across vast swaths of prairie, Shadow Bear and Shiona Bramlett never could have comprehended that those cute critters would one day face such troubles.
As a wildlife writer, this strikes me as a sin worse than any plagiarism.