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Weasels: Why build a better mousetrap?

Rick Sinnott

My yard is infested with weasels. Working on my winter wood supply, I have to watch where I step. Out of the corners of my eyes, as the splitting maul rises and falls, I see flashes of brown fur. My woodpile rustles.

Last winter a short-tailed weasel in its snow-white winter pelt, an ermine, visited our bird feeder to ferret out salmon skins and, after Thanksgiving Day, to worry the turkey carcass. We often found its distinctive tracks, like a series of colons, punctuating the snow around our home.

The kinetic creature, driven by curiosity and high metabolism, occasionally disappeared into the chassis of my parked pickup truck. After watching several funny episodes of this series, I had a worrisome thought: do weasels chew on rubber hoses and plastic-coated wire? I called a friend who owns a ferret. Ferrets are members of the weasel family. In fact, after centuries of domestication they are the family’s couch potato, judging from their pear-shaped physiques. I asked if her ferret chewed things. Oh yeah, she said, we had to cover all the electrical cords in our house.

My truck still starts. The brakes haven’t failed. So maybe the ermine had other things on its mind. Perhaps only bored weasels chew wires. Wild weasels, I think it is safe to say, never get bored. And vehicles are not bad places for stashing dead rodents, as someone named Lee from Homer found out last winter.

Bloodthirsty neighbors

We haven’t seen that weasel since the snow melted, but recently three weasel kits made themselves at home in our woodpile and several stacks of lumber. They are about three months old, almost full-sized, the female about two-thirds the size of the two males.

Not much is known about weasel vocalizations, possibly because adults don’t socialize much. The three kits often communicate with one another. I’ve heard a fast chatter that seems to signify excitement or warning. There’s a low-intensity trill, when they meet out of sight under the woodpile or a tarp, that sounds like the synthesized chitter of the Captain and Tennille’s lovesick muskrats, only less musically inventive. I heard a loud, high-pitched squeal when two siblings fought over a window-killed chickadee. And the kits bark a sharp, two-note chitter, like an Arctic ground squirrel’s warning call, when I surprise or frighten them.

The siblings are in their sleek summer pelts: medium brown with creamy undersides. The only immutable feature of their ensemble is a black-tipped tail that, paired with the ermine’s white pelt, is a fashion accent sought after by furriers. The petite female is wary of me, and I haven’t seen her play with her boisterous siblings. In a month or so, she’ll be ready for breeding and, by next spring, rearing kits. In comparison, the two males behave like you'd expect boys to behave, playing tag under, over, and around a sheet of plywood. They tumble and swap ends in their enthusiastic floor exercises like gymnasts. They pounce, bounce, hide, and tussle like kittens. My dad used to call this activity grab-ass, as in “stop playing grab-ass.” My brothers and I never discovered an acceptable way to play grab-ass, but it’s different with weasels. The male kits won’t breed until next summer, at the earliest. Until then, their most serious concerns are learning how to kill and not be killed. Play-chases and hide-and-seek hone those skills.

The playful behavior and social intercourse of the three kits don’t jive with the weasel’s reputation for bloodlust. Mention weasels to someone and they may screw their face into a funny expression. People have a notion that weasels are bad, but they aren’t sure why. Oh yeah, they’re bloodthirsty. 

Like other hard-wired predators -- great-horned owls and snakes come to mind -- short-tailed weasels can focus so intently on a prey animal they seem to ignore other sensory input. A person can entice a weasel into approaching, repeatedly, like a moth to a light, by making a squeaking sound that impersonates the squeal of an incapacitated mouse. Sucking the back of my hand to make a bloodcurdling squeak, I’ve had weasels run across my boots. Is this curiosity, rather than bloodlust?

I’m not dangling a shiny object or a feather. I’m imitating a seriously injured or pinned mouse. It’s not simply curiosity.

'Thug of the Wild World'

But it’s also obvious that these complex and highly evolved predators have gotten a bad rap. Words that refer to a weasel’s ways are embedded in our language. A sly or sneaky person is a weasel. “To weasel” means to be evasive. A “weasel word” is a modifier, like “probably,” used to neutralize a more definitive word. The origin of the expression refers to a weasel’s ability to remove the contents of an egg without crushing the shell. Grammatically speaking, a weasel word sucks the sense from an otherwise wholesome noun, leaving an empty container.

The weasel’s character is smeared from one end of our culture to another. In pop culture, weasels have been cast as the bad guys in cartoons, like Walt Disney’s version of "Wind in the Willows" or the Toon Patrol in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" But the typecasting goes way back in recorded history.

Naturalists and scientists have thrown their share of sucker punches. For example, in "Life-histories of Northern Animals: Flesh-eaters," a 19th century naturalist and one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America, Ernest Thompson Seton, calls the short-tailed weasel “a wandering demon of carnage” and “Thug of the Wild World.” He cites as a character reference a well-respected zoologist, Dr. Elliott Coues, who likens the “flat triangular head,” “penetrating” eyes, and long neck to “the image of a serpent.” Seton and Coues spent many years observing wild animals in natural settings, but their scientific opinions were strongly influenced by their culture.

Digging deeper into the roots of Anglo-Saxon culture, gamekeepers in the British Isles have shot, trapped and poisoned thousands, almost certainly hundreds of thousands, of weasels or stoats since the Middle Ages to protect grouse and other wild animals valued for sport hunting or food. Before that, medieval bestiaries and allegories warned of the uncanny powers of weasels. Their very name, weasel, seems to have come from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “vicious bloodthirsty animal.” Collective nouns, for a group of weasels, include gang, sneak, confusion, and boogle. I don’t know what boogle means either, but the Urban Dictionary has two definitions that seem pertinent. It could be East Lancashire slang for barfing. Another definition of boogle, probably not in common use in the Middle Ages, is “to be shocked or repulsed by what you find out about a person you have just Googled.”

Even the Bible warns us about weasels. They are on the list of “unclean … things that creep upon the earth.” If you follow the letter of that law, you’re not supposed to touch them. Other untouchables -- eagles, owls, swans, even ravens -- have charmed their way off of God’s black list. But weasels can’t shake all the bad publicity.

The largest member of the weasel family, the wolverine, has an even greater reputation for ferociousness, gluttony, and downright orneriness. Imagine my surprise when I recently learned wolverines can be sociable, as Steve Kroschel demonstrates to tourists with his hand-raised wolverines in Haines.

The perfect mousetrap

So why the bad publicity? Why are cats considered cute and cuddly, while weasels are condemned as vicious killers? Will the people who sold us millions of images and effigies of Hello Kitty ever market a Hello Weasel?

Maybe it’s the beady eyes. Cat eyes are attractive, even luminescent, albeit largely inscrutable. But have you looked into Hello Kitty’s eyes? The cartoonish Kitty, embraced by legions of little girls all over the world, has beady weasel eyes.

Nope. Their bloodthirsty reputation must stem from the weasel’s seemingly single-minded proficiency at killing. In "The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats: Ecology, Behavior, and Management," Carolyn King and Roger Powell call them “hair-trigger mouse traps with teeth.” Weasels are much more competent mousers than cats. The long sleek body, short legs, and slender head are adaptations for following small rodents, like a heat-seeking torpedo, into their burrows and under the snow, often a target-rich environment riddled with rodent highways. And weasels don’t pin a mouse like a cat, they tackle it, wrapping their legs around its body until they can sink teeth into its throat or the base of the skull. 

A weasel’s high metabolism is necessary to maintain the trappings of a deadly mouse-killer -- primarily their long body and short pelage, requiring more energy to keep warm than a stubby body with longer hair -- but the engine must be stoked with lots of prey, as much as a third of its body weight every day. Small rodents like voles are the meat and potatoes of a weasel’s diet; however, they also eat insects and young ground squirrels, rabbits, and hares.

They also consume eggs, including chicken and duck eggs, although when mice are in season, a weasel can live in a hen house without molesting the feathered occupants. Rats and other small rodents eat eggs, so a barnyard weasel might have been a boon, up to a point. Was it the occasional egg-sucking that earned weasels a bad reputation with our subsistence-farming progenitors? When almost everyone owned a few domestic fowl, any animal that ate chickens, ducks or their eggs was the bane of the barnyard.

The weasel's bum rap

Here, I believe, we tug at the taproot of our ancient animosity toward weasels and other wild predators. It’s not just that they are very good at killing – so are we – but sometimes they killed our personal property. Weasels have been branded as psycho killers ever since. In our relationships with domestic and wild animals, we still retain the biases of farmers and herders even though most of us don’t own livestock anymore. Chicken good: weasel bad. Cow good: wolf bad. 

Unlike herders and farmers, hunting societies appreciated the skills of a hunting animal. Not many true hunting societies have survived. Some of us -- modern Nimrods and Artemises -- still hunt for sport or meat. But many of my fellow hunters consider predators to be unnecessary competition. They’ve grafted the attitudes of farmers or herders to the more primeval act of securing red meat directly from nature itself. It’s one reason why fish and game agencies call sport and subsistence hunting “harvesting” instead of “killing.” If you believe in “harvesting” game animals, other predators are weeds in your wheat field.

Instead of being a gift, often the belief of primitive hunters, some modern sport hunters consider the killing of a moose or caribou to be a right, as if wild animals belong to us like chickens and sheep. Did you get your moose last year? While many primitive hunting cultures attributed a successful hunt to the wishes of the animal itself, many of today’s sport hunters participate in ritualistic ceremonies, such as board of game meetings. Here they ask their state fish and game agency or other governmental entities to intervene, to spend millions of dollars to subsidize their “harvest” by increasing populations of the “good” animals at the expense of the “bad.” Thus, Alaska’s century-long campaign against wolves and more recent efforts to reduce numbers of black and grizzly bears, which eat “our” moose and caribou.

I’m not trying to argue that all predator control is wrong, but let’s wrench the idea back in alignment. Let’s question the conventional wisdom about predators. Let’s look beyond immediate gratification or profit, at the big picture. Few of us are so dependent on what we can grow or gather that the loss of a few eggs, or even a moose in the freezer, is likely to raise the specter of starvation. Killing a bear because it killed a few of your hobby chickens is overkill. I like fresh eggs as much as the next person, but I’d rather have three weasels in my yard than three chickens.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist.