Another View Of The Weasels

Weasels have not always been viewed entirely negatively. In early Europe and in cultures not concerned with the preservation of game birds, the weasels have been much appreciated for their willowy elegance and for their services in killing rodents. Many of the traditional vernacular names for the common weasel in Italy and Spain are complimentary, such as donina (little lady or little graceful one), bonuca-mona-muca (pretty little one), and comadreja (little godmother). The ancient Egyptians apparently used to keep tame weasels (species unknown) in the period before the domestication of the cat, and the modern common weasel in Egypt is still so often found in houses that it is described as "almost completely commensal" (Osborn & Helmy 1980).

The indigenous people of the Chugache tribe of Cook's Inlet in Alaska regarded the capture of a least weasel as a piece of great good fortune, and they told F. L. Osgood that, since he had caught one, he must be destined to have great wealth and power (Hall 1951). Members of the plains tribes (Cheyenne, Lakota, and others) held weasels in high regard, especially those that were captured in their white winter coats. They decorated dress clothing, head dresses, pipes, and even their hair with ermine skins (see Figure 3.7).

Weasels certainly do kill to live, but they are neither vicious nor insatiable. At least in their native range in the northern hemisphere, the old attitudes toward weasels are simply wrong: Death is not a tragedy in nature; it is part of life. Unfortunately, the "instinctive hatred" that Wood talked about has filtered down the generations so subtly that the average person's knowledge of weasels is still influenced by old folk-stories of dubious accuracy. The effect of cultural attitudes can be demonstrated when very young children (in early primary school), whose parents and teachers have not yet indoctrinated them with negative ideas about predators in general and weasels in particular, react more positively than do older children when introduced to weasels (Powell & Powell 1982).

More recently, weasels as literary characters have been somewhat better treated. Occasionally, they have starred as heroic figures, as in the novels Kine and its sequel Witchwood (Lloyd 1982; Lloyd 1989). In Kine, set in rural Britain, where weasels are native and minks are introduced, it is the minks that are cast as the villains, not the weasels. (After being rebuked for this insult by mink biologists, Lloyd transferred to rats the role of the villains of Witchwood.) Modern nonfiction books for children that portray the elegance and intelligence of weasels, such as A Bold Carnivore (Powell 1995) and the Native American and related stories, such as Crow and Weasel (Lopez 1990), are well received and widely read (Figure 1.2).

Trappers in North America sometimes shared their camps with weasels. One fur trapper who accidentally caught a live long-tailed weasel took it home and kept it for a week. "If lightning is any quicker than a weasel, the margin is of microscopic breadth," he concluded, after watching it rocketing around its cage and eagerly fronting up to a terrier through the bars. When he released it, it hopped off in a leisurely way, so sure of itself that "its calm . . . movements gave no suggestion of the electric potentialities embodied within the elongated anatomy of this testy little carnivore" (Edson 1933).

Manly Hardy reported in the early 1900s of sharing his trapping camp with a weasel, showing that even hard-bitten trappers were not beyond enjoying the company of a small companion (Seton 1926:605).

Figure 1.2 Native American peoples honored wildlife, including weasels, and frequently incorporated animals into their names (e.g., Standing Bear, Little Wolf). The story of Crow and Weasel is told in the Native American tradition by Barry Lopez and illustrated with paintings by Tom Pohrt. (From Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez, with illustrations by Tom Pohrt. Text copyright © 1990 by Barry Holstun Lopez. Illustration copyright © 1990 by Tom Pohrt. Reprinted by permission of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.)

Figure 1.2 Native American peoples honored wildlife, including weasels, and frequently incorporated animals into their names (e.g., Standing Bear, Little Wolf). The story of Crow and Weasel is told in the Native American tradition by Barry Lopez and illustrated with paintings by Tom Pohrt. (From Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez, with illustrations by Tom Pohrt. Text copyright © 1990 by Barry Holstun Lopez. Illustration copyright © 1990 by Tom Pohrt. Reprinted by permission of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.)

October 30, Sunday: Still blows and spits snow. Although alone in the camp, I have company; as, soon after we got settled, a Weasel came to us. At first his back was 'malty'—as we often call a blue-gray—but he soon changed to pure white. He is very tame and seems to like company, as, on our coming home, we sometimes see him running toward the camp. Often when I am alone cooking, he will come halfway out of a knot-hole in the floor, and look me in the face, letting me talk to him as I would to a Cat or a Dog. We have not seen a Mouse, Mole, or Squirrel near the camp.

One day, Hardy began to set a trap for minks:

This was some 50 yards from our camp, but our weasel must have seen me go with the trap and bait from our camp, as I had hardly begun to set the trap behind a large spruce before the Weasel came. When I was on my knees fixing the trap, he would look me in the eyes, not 2 feet from my face. As I knew he would be at the bait as soon as I left, I purposely set it too hard for him to spring, for I would not have caught him for the price of several Mink.

R.A. Powell (unpubl.), while doing research with his wife Consie in Upper Peninsula Michigan, had a stoat join his household. The basement of the house was reached either via internal stairs from the living room or stairs outside that were usually covered by a large door laid flat to the ground. Roger stored snow-shoe hares and other bait for live-traps for fishers in that outside stairwell during winter. One day, Consie entered the stairwell from the basement and noted a perfectly round nest made of white hare hair, and the perfect size for a stoat. A few evenings later, she looked again at the nest and found the fellow sleeping, a white weasel curled in a nest of soft, downy, white hair. He could leave the stairwell at the top by sneaking through a crack between the door and the ground. He could also enter the basement because the door to the stairwell from the basement did not fit well. That winter, the Powells were raising lab mice to feed their fur-farm ferret, and mice had escaped into the basement. The resident stoat kept the mouse population under control in the basement.

Another winter, this time in northern Minnesota, a stoat took up residence in the big log cabin at the Kawishiwi Field Lab, a research lab for the U.S. Forest Service where Roger was working. The stoat would venture into the living room in the evening, while researchers sat around the fire in the fireplace. He would take strips of venison from their fingers. Roger observed that,

If I did not release a strip of meat when he pulled with his teeth, he would push against my hand with his feet. If I still held firm, he would let go of the meat and feint an attack on my hand, sometimes hitting my fingers with his teeth but never biting. When he first tried this trick, I dropped the meat. Thereafter, I held firm. Ultimately, he would eat the meat while I held it.

Allan Brooks reported a similar experience when he shared his camp with a stoat (Seton 1926:606):

I have brought one to eat out of my hand within three hours of making its acquaintance, and this without confining it in any way. This was a female, and later she became a great nuisance. She generally showed up a little before midday and left about three o'clock to continue her rounds. If I happened to be skinning birds, she became greatly excited, and would rush in and try to drag the body from my fingers. A male which used to visit my cabin in the early morning never became so tame. He was a fine specimen of his kind and amazingly strong. He could drag a grouse several times his own weight a long distance over the snow.

Val Geist (1975) also shared life with a weasel while living in a remote cabin in Alaska, studying mountain sheep. He wrote (in the third person) of his daily routine in winter:

On a winter day ... he would take the saw and cut a slab off the frozen quarter of moose that he took from the meat house. The meat would rest and melt on a plate on the window all day from where [he] would pick it up in the evening, unless of course the weasel came first, in which case [he] would pick it up from underneath his bed—the meat, that is, not the weasel. As [he] sawed through the meat, the whiskey jacks would come and land on his shoulders or head, or wait beside him, then dart forward to pick up a bill full of meat meal, or a piece of meat the man handed to them. By tradition, the meat trimmings were theirs, as well as the scraps of fur and sinew or whatever else [he] handed them. A few scraps of melted meat were kept for the weasel, if and when it chose to show up and run to him for a free handout. It came often.

Anyone fortunate enough to know a weasel at close quarters soon becomes captivated by its charm (Figure 1.3). In England, Phil Drabble (1977) described his common weasel as "a sprite ... a golden leaf on the tongue of a whirlwind"; and David Stephen (1969) had two that were an "intriguing, entrancing, entertaining pair of will o' the wisps . .. doing a wall-of-death act round my sitting room." Weasels are difficult to observe in the wild, and although with luck one may witness some fascinating glimpses of their activities, seldom can one get so

Figure 1.3 One never knows quite what will happen next when sharing one's home and life with a captive weasel. Roger and Consie Powell with Lew (Leweasel), a male long-tailed weasel, who treated them like part of the furniture.

good a view as Drabble had of his tame Teasy. His description conveys a vivid impression of the delightful character and restless energy of weasels:

From whichever retreat hid him for the moment, a wedge-shaped head and wicked pair of eyes would appear. Then out he'd roll, turning cartwheel after cartwheel like an acrobat going round the circus ring. He moved so fast that it was impossible to distinguish where his head began and his tail finished. He was like a tiny inflated rubber tyre bowling round the room. Sometimes we thought this game was purely for exercise, since we could distinguish no pattern. . . . Sometimes the weasel used his dance as a cloak for attack. . . . He usually chose me for his victim, and his cartwheeling twisted this way and that, over the carpet and up on to the settee beside me. The fabric . . . was cut and ragged. ... It made a perfect foothold for the weasel, who could run up and down the perpendicular arms of the furniture with the ease of a squirrel.. . . When his gyrations fetched him up on the seat beside me, I always knew what the next act would be. .. . The tiny scratching of the pen and the movements of my fingers were irresistible. From the cover of his dynamic camouflage, he could dive on to my hand, grasp my first finger in his forepaws with the strength of a tiny bear, and bite the fingertip with mock ferocity but, in reality, as gently as a kitten. . . . If I tickled his belly he'd roll on his back and attack as if his very life depended on it. Then he'd gradually relax, until he was licking the tips of my fingers and croon his high-pitched little purring love-song.

Modern research has rapidly increased our knowledge of the lives of weasels, especially since the 1960s. Rigorous, systematic observations have replaced the more casual, subjective accounts, and experiments have replaced the verbal descriptions, which used to be all we had to go on. Something will be lost if the objective approach is taken too far, but it does help to interpret the old stories, field observations, and anecdotes collected by lucky chance, and to eliminate longstanding fallacies. The modern weasel-watcher needs to move in both worlds, that of systematic, critical analysis of data and that of hours of patient fieldwork, waiting for the occasional, exciting glimpses of undisturbed weasels behaving naturally in the wild. We have tried to integrate both in this book.

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