Weasels

(This column was first published in the March 15, 1999 Buffalo News.)

     Weasels have "a bad press"; that is, their image is relentlessly negative.

     They seldom appear in children's literature, but when they do they are universally thieves or cut-throats.  Recall, for example, how in The Wind in the Willows the gang of weasels took over Toad Hall.  Another writer identifies them as "the villains of any nature story."  But this character assassination goes much further.  I recall an old gangster movie in which the hapless mobster's sidekick is called Weasel.  We now use the word "weasel" as synonymous with "betray secrets" or "squeal."  This is a derived meaning; in England "to weasel" earlier meant "to extract race-track tips."  "Weasel words" are those whose meaning is twisted, usually for self-serving purposes, like "popularly priced" -- popular to the seller probably. Carolyn King believes that this expression came to us from Shakespeare's reference to weasels sucking eggs.  Thus weasel words are words with their normal meaning sucked dry.  (Note that weasels neither suck eggs nor blood -- another negative piece of folklore -- because they lack the jaw musculature to do so.)

 Charles Dickens used "cunning as a weasel" in The Old Curiosity Shop and you can be sure that "cunning" in that context means "sly" and not "cute."  Today in England it remains popular to refer to weak beer as "weasel pee" and one pub that I saw there carried the sign "100% weasel-less!"

    And as if their fictional portrayal is not bad enough, consider one varmint hunter's comments: "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."  Notice the words "sinister" and "serpentine" in that quotation.  Other words often used to describe weasels are vicious, bloodthirsty, savage and cruel.  Weasels are, of course, killers.  They are carnivores, meat eaters like most of us, and they are instinct driven to kill things that move, thus their tendency to wipe out a chicken farmer's entire flock.  But they are welcomed on other kinds of farms where they quickly reduce the rodent population.

     Although weasels are widely distributed through this area, I have only seen one in a lifetime of outdoor activity.  It was fifty years ago, but the image remains as vivid as when I saw the animal scarcely a dozen feet from my window.  It was wintertime and the weasel was all white except for the tip of its tail, remarkably handsome in that soft, pettable ermine coat and with a sleek body obviously built for speed.  Everything about it seemed miniaturized: tiny ears, tiny beads for eyes, tiny dachshund-like legs; in fact, its entire body, tail included, was perhaps ten inches long.  It stopped only briefly, rose erect on its hind legs and then bounded off.  In its summer pelage, its back would have been a lovely chocolate brown.

     A man who kept a pet weasel describes some of its antics: "He'd roll, turning cartwheel after cartwheel like an acrobat going round the circus ring.... From his dynamic camouflage, he could dive onto 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....  Then he'd gradually relax, until he was licking the tips of my fingers, and croon his high-pitched little purring love song."

     It is hard to believe that these are the same disreputable beasts that we met at the beginning of this column.

     As I hope to write more about weasels, I invite readers to communicate to me their experiences with these interesting animals. -- Gerry Rising


Note: A fine reference on these difficult to study animals is Carolyn King's The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats. Although Ms. King's own work has been in England and New Zealand, her perspective and her study are inclusive and she has much to say about North American weasels and more about weasels in general that is appropriate to our species as well as those living in other countries.