There is a common experience shared by mustelid enthusiasts which often raises the questions: “Why are so many mustelid species frequently demonised and physically misshapen in media?”, or “My pet ferrets are sweet; why are they accused of being vicious by people who haven’t met them?”. It is difficult to explain exactly why some species are more prone to stigmatisation than others, since their reputations differ depending on one’s culture, profession, and, dare we say, even politics. This could in part be due to mustelids often being simply viewed and portrayed as either “cute” or “vicious” animals, with little to no focus on their overall complexity, diversity, or struggles. In fact, “cute but ferocious” is one of the most overused, subjective, and uninformative introductory statements about most members of the family Mustelidae.
Even though most of us have never academically studied, cared for, or even seen a mustelid before, the elusive and predatory nature of some of the more well-known species have given rise to various negative—and often human-centric—assumptions. Despite our advances in ethology, these species continue to be broadly stigmatised because of perpetuated myths and unsubstantiated rumours from offhand or biased encounters. Even with the combined efforts of zoologists and wildlife biologists, there is still much we do not know about mustelids, and the methods used to study them continues to evolve. However, unlike myths and rumours, science is instead focused on objectively improving our understanding of these animals.
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Contributing factors for false or misleading information about mustelids
Scaremongering and sensationalism
Although not always viewed entirely negatively, many mustelid species have been frequently mischaracterised in media due to sensationalism—imaginative minds taking advantage of society’s fear of the unknown. It is unfortunately too easy to make these elusive predators appear more vicious or threatening to human life than they naturally are, since many people do not think critically about the content they come across.
For example, if one films an American marten behaving “savagely” (while stuck in a trap and agitated), takes a photo of an “angry” wolverine baring its fangs (when clearly just yawning), or a stoat “furiously” ripping tough meat apart with its bare teeth (despite having no other practical way of eating), an initial impression could be made that mustelids are nothing more than bad-tempered killing machines. Furthermore, there exist even examples of wild and domestic mustelids being trained to engage in (seemingly aggressive) behaviour they normally would not, along with taxidermy used in staged photography to completely fabricate an unrealistic scene or narrative. We hypothesise that these methods are intended to increase viewership by simply rousing and manipulating our emotions, rather than appealing to curiosity or intellect.
In the age of the internet, this manifests itself in so-called “clickbait” on social media posts, videos, as well as online articles with dramatic titles and headlines such as “Terrifying and Deadly Assassins” or “Most Ferocious Killing Machines”. Since many people do not read past titles or headlines, these irresponsible practises further perpetuate a series of unwarranted fear, anxiety, and fallacies about animal behaviour. Critically, we have also observed sensationalistic content not mention that the depicted predator in question can fall prey themselves, struggle with endangerment, or play an important role in their local ecosystem.
We do not believe mustelids require sensationalism to be captivating, yet unfortunately, even some researchers dedicated to wildlife education will resort to using it at times to capture an audience. It is true that most wild mustelids are feisty and have formidable hunting skills, but when these traits remain the sole focal point of the discussion, we continue to present an oversimplified view of their complex nature.
They are constantly misidentified
Mustelids are not as well-known as canids and felids, and as such are often misidentified. This is reasonable owing the small amount of exposure the average person may have; however, we have encountered many instances of seemingly authoritative content on the internet mistaking the identity of species with vastly different traits. For example, some content creators have misleadingly (at times knowingly) displayed a pet ferret while discussing some destructive habits of the beech marten, meanwhile others have shown a stoat after referring to American mink on mink farms. Unfortunately, these creators are often taken at face value, since most of their viewers are not aware of what the physical differences are between the species.
Mistaken identity may seem harmless, but it can lead to faulty generalisations, resulting in some members of the family Mustelidae being falsely accused of attacks on wildlife or damage to property that was performed by a different relative, or an animal of another family internally. This is why we must never adopt the ol’ motto, “it looks close enough” as an excuse for showing the wrong species, or misclassifying them.
Even when shock value is not the motive, it is not uncommon for any animal with a slinky body to be confused for a ferret or species of otter. Mustelids are also commonly mistaken for cats, foxes, small bears, mongooses, and even rodents. In order to better identify mustelids, we must first acknowledge and respect that every species has distinctive characteristics. Moreover, given that modern society is more connected than ever before, using generic local names in media to describe a particular species of mustelid (e.g., simply “badger”, “otter”, or “weasel”) can be confusing or misleading to an international audience. It is best to be specific when possible by providing an animal’s scientific name, or at least, their more distinguishing common name(s).
They are falsely believed to frequently attack humans
Just because an animal has sharp teeth and claws does not necessarily mean it is interested in attacking us. There are exaggerated claims on social media that many species of weasel, marten, badger, and other mustelids will “attack” people, as though implying this frequently happens and for seemingly no reason. In actuality, wild mustelids have a natural fear of people and typically avoid human contact; fleeing at the sight of us than going out of their way to cause harm without provocation. Frankly, there would be something severely amiss with our conduct if we managed to be regularly attacked by elusive animals that want nothing to do with us. As cliché as it may sound, we pose a greater threat to them than they do to us.
However, even if this is the case, sometimes we forget that almost any wild animal (even a harmless-looking rabbit) would become aggressive if someone were to corner or make the animal feel threatened. This is especially true for those protecting their young. Of course, unprovoked attacks can happen if an animal is suffering from trauma or diseases such as rabies, but in most cases respecting their personal space and exercising common sense will prevent injury. Unfortunately, many people are often too quick to allow an isolated incident to shape their opinion of the whole, and don’t critically consider the circumstances that may have led to the confrontation.
Anthropomorphism, by definition, means attributing human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. We often intentionally (sometimes subconsciously) anthropomorphise animals to make them seem more interesting, entertaining, relatable, or to mobilise support for a cause. Indeed, much of the legendary myths and misconceptions surrounding mustelids has stemmed from this common practise.
Depending on the intent, anthropomorphising animals can be either harmful or supportive. An example of harmful anthropomorphising, would be to claim that otters are morally “good” creatures compared to other mustelids, simply because they are “cuter” and primarily eat fish—mustelids like weasels, polecats, and martens are just “wicked” and “vicious” animals, because they are less appealing and eat “sweet” little birds and rabbits. These types of human-centric perceptions further contribute to oversimplified or erroneous beliefs about non-human animal psychology, and can even lead to inappropriate conduct towards wildlife.
Many denounce anthropomorphisation of animals, especially in children’s literature, cartoons, and other fictional media, stating young minds are susceptible to the dangerous impression that “cute” wild animals are approachable or make good pets. While we agree over-anthropomorphisation can be problematic, we also accept that there is more to life than “book smarts”. We believe it is unreasonable to deprive people of their creativity and imagination, and that providing education while coinciding with creativity is a better, more balanced alternative. In fact, many people who contribute to this website became aware of and interested in mustelids because of fictional media. In contrast, outright demonisation of animals in media can be harmful and encourage cruel actions by adults. While we may support creativity, we hope to discourage such content by helping people better understand and respect wildlife.
We often forget they are just trying to survive
Unlike most of us, wild predators do not have the benefit of purchasing a pre-killed meal when hungry, so they must be bold, proficient hunters and scavengers to survive. This is especially true for the smaller species of weasels, polecats, and the American mink, who have both a high metabolic rate and short gastrointestinal tract. Unlike many larger animals, these mustelids cannot depend on long-term fat reserves, so they must eat more frequently (especially during winter), leading to a relentless dietary struggle which is often misconceived as killing for sport. Just the same, it is this struggle which helps to keep both rodent and rabbit populations in check in some ecosystems.
This cycle leads to instances of “surplus killing”, where many more prey are killed than the predator could possibly eat in a single sitting. This is widely seen as beneficial to control rodent numbers, but can be harmful to poultry farmers and gamekeepers; leading to certain aggressive measures being taken to prevent loss by those in the field. Even so, this behavioural phenomenon is by far not unique to animals with a rapid digestive system, or even those within the family Mustelidae. Similar to how we humans tend to hoard more food than we can eat when we have the means, when presented with an abundance of food, many carnivorous animals will kill multiple prey and sometimes cached the carcasses for later consumption. This trait is also common among many dogs and cats. The exact reason for surplus killing in animals may still be inconclusive, but it is presumably triggered by an evolutionary survival instinct, since food resources in the wild can be unpredictable. In regards to mustelids, we do not claim that they are all innocent little angels, but that there is more to the truth than reckless carnage.
Nevertheless, demonising labels such as “bloodthirsty”, “killing machine”, and even “murderer” are frequently used to describe the nature of many mustelids. Some species are even perceived as “cruel” or “sadistic” for their aggressive social behaviours; matters which we as humans, frankly, are in no position to criticise. In the case of non-human animals, one must remember that abstract moral concepts such as “right and wrong” or “good and evil” do not exist in the way we perceive them. Their behaviour is based on instinct, as well as learning and thinking with the end goal of feeding, protecting territory, and reproducing; thus insuring the survival of the species. This is not to say that we humans do not share some of these qualities, since many of our behaviours derive from the same basic instinctual drives. However, in terms of non-human animals, they are not burdened with moral conscience.
How can we help reduce the spread of misinformation?
Ask questions and seek context. Whenever someone on social media makes dramatic assertions (e.g., weasels suck blood or attack humans), ask for the source of their claims, indicating if they are coming from a publication, their own work, or some other source which may or may not be credible. At the very least, they should be willing and able to provide compelling arguments beyond passed down myths or rumors. If none of these details can be provided, it is best to remain skeptical of such claims, and independently check them oneself.