Weasels In Literature

Few animals, except maybe snakes and spiders, are as widely misunderstood as are weasels. An early description, phrased with all the vivid imagery that was still allowed in scientific writing in the last century, gives an idea of their reputation:

A glance at the physiognomy of the weasels would suffice to betray their character. The teeth are almost of the highest known raptorial character; the jaws are worked by enormous masses of muscles covering all the side of the skull. The forehead is low and the nose is sharp; the eyes are small, penetrating, cunning, and glitter with an angry green light. There is something peculiar, moreover, in the way that this fierce face surmounts a body extraordinarily wiry, lithe and muscular. It ends in a remarkably long and slender neck in such a way that it may be held at a right angle with the axis of the latter. When the creature is glancing around, with the neck stretched up, and the flat triangular head bent forward, swaying from one side to the other, we catch the likeness in a moment—it is the image of a serpent. (Coues 1877)

At least since the mid-nineteenth century, weasels have had a bad image that invites all sorts of negative responses. As Wood (1946) put it,

Most of us have an instinctive hatred of weasels. There is something decidedly sinister about their looks; something serpentine that makes us shudder. . . . Weasels look like killers and they are killers, and many of us get a self-righteous feeling when we shoot one.

Predators such as bears and foxes are favorites of children's literature, and they often take positive roles (Powell & Powell 1982). But weasels appear only rarely in animal fiction stories for children, and they are usually treated as thieves, robbers, or other bad characters. They are the villains of traditional nature stories—as in, for example, The Wind in the Willows (Figure 1.1).

The character assassination of weasels extends even to their common name. "Weasel words" are those whose meaning is bent or twisted for unearned gain; to "weasel out" of some responsibility or tight situation is to escape by cunning but unfair means. Such uses of the word "weasel" have a long history. Shakespeare noted that weasels suck eggs, and Dickens used the phrase "cunning as a weasel" in The Old Curiosity Shop. And in New Zealand, "weasel pee" is a derogatory description of weak beer (hence the sign once seen on the door of a local pub: "100% weaselless"!).

In addition to this moralizing and emotional reaction to the physical appearance of a weasel, the rise of game management in North America and Europe in the late-nineteenth century initiated a war against all predators that eat birds or their eggs and ensured that weasels were generally labeled as "vermin." Gamekeepers systematically persecuted them for the next hundred years. The

Figure 1.1 The traditional, popular, "bad guy" image of weasels is captured in this drawing by Ernest Shepard from The Wind in the Willows showing stoats armed with guns jeering at Mole dressed as a washerwoman. (Reproduced with the permission of Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Copyright © 1933, 1953 Charles Scribner's Sons; copyright renewed © 1961 Ernest H. Shepard.)

Figure 1.1 The traditional, popular, "bad guy" image of weasels is captured in this drawing by Ernest Shepard from The Wind in the Willows showing stoats armed with guns jeering at Mole dressed as a washerwoman. (Reproduced with the permission of Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Copyright © 1933, 1953 Charles Scribner's Sons; copyright renewed © 1961 Ernest H. Shepard.)

observations of early naturalists were liberally mixed with prejudice, fiction, and misinterpretation, and led to uncritical conclusions. Accounts of weasels in the older natural history books—and even in some modern ones—tell us more about the writers and the attitudes of their times than about their subjects.

Where weasels of any species have been introduced into countries outside their natural range, such as New Zealand, they enter natural communities as destructive aliens. Native species that had never previously met a weasel or a stoat are very vulnerable to them, and in these places negative attitudes to exotic species are warranted (Chapter 13). Even so, conservationists battling against the depredations of introduced stoats in New Zealand often admit a grudging admiration for the energy, speed, and skill of their little adversary.

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