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 do some people leap to conclusion that they’re vicious without having 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 subjectively viewed and portrayed in media as either “cute” or “vicious” animals, with little to no focus on their overall complexity, diversity, or struggles. Arguably, “cute but ferocious” is one of the most clichéd and uninformative introductory statements about most members of the family Mustelidae.
Even though most people 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 and even scapegoated because of perpetuated myths and fallacious 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 non-human animals.
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Although not always viewed entirely negatively, many mustelid species have been frequently mischaracterised in media due to fabricated scaremongering and sensationalism—manipulative minds pandering to and exploiting the public’s knee-jerk reactions and herd mentality when it comes to rumours and fear of the unknown. It is unfortunately too easy to make these animals appear more vicious or threatening to human life than they naturally are, since many people do not think critically about seemingly shocking content they come across.
For example, if one films a wolverine behaving “savagely” (while stuck in a trap and agitated), shares a photo of an “angry” ferret baring its fangs (when the ferret is just yawning), or a fisher “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 in documentaries of rented wild and domesticated 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. These methods are often intended to provoke public interest or excitement by simply rousing and manipulating our emotions, rather than appealing to curiosity or reason.
In the age of the internet, this manifests itself into so-called “clickbait” on social media posts, videos, as well as online news articles with overdramatic headlines such as “Terrifying and Deadly Assassins” or “Most Ferocious Killing Machines”. Whether using figurative language or not, these irresponsible practises further perpetuate a series of unwarranted fear and fallacies about animal behaviour, since many people do not read beyond shocking titles and headlines. 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.
Occasionally even good intentions can be counterproductive
Sometimes researchers dedicated to wildlife education will resort to using sensationalism to capture an audience—mainly focusing on the animal’s aggression and predation habits. Are wild carnivorous mustelids feisty and have formidable hunting skills? Of course. Like any mammalian predator, they must hunt and defend themselves to survive. The problem is when these traits are exaggerated or remain the sole focal point of the discussion, we continue to present an oversimplified view of their complex nature.
When it comes to carnivorous animals, sensationalism and overanthropomorphising go hand in hand. So let us dive more into the subject of the latter.
Anthropomorphism, by definition, means attributing (or projecting) human traits, emotions, desires, or intentions to non-human entities.(1) We often intentionally (sometimes subconsciously) anthropomorphise animals to make them seem more interesting, entertaining, relatable, or to mobilise support for a cause. Much of the legendary myths and misconceptions surrounding mustelids and other animals has stemmed from this common practise.
Depending on the intent, context, and level of it, anthropomorphising animals can be harmful, supportive, or more or less neutral. An example of overanthropomorphising, would be to judge if an animal is inherently “good” or “wicked” based on its visual appeal, sociability, tamability, or what prey it eats to survive. It goes without saying that weasels, the wolverine, and other mustelids are subjected to many double-standards, especially when compared to more “majestic” predators like Pantherinae species (large wild cats), or their “cuter” and more widely admired mostly fish-eating otter cousins. To give another example, sometimes people will overanthropomorphise when drawing attention to acts they define as cruel or unethical, which can be controversial when said definitions are broad and largely assumed based upon attributing human emotions or desires.
Exaggerated and often misused labels have not helped their image
Labels such as “bloodthirsty”, “killing machine”, “psychopath”, and even “murderer” are sometimes used to rationalise the behaviour and psychology of certain mustelid species, especially those which are weasel-like. Some are even demonised as “cruel” or “sadistic” for their aggressive social behaviours. Most of these labels by their actual definitions are more appropriate when applied to us humans rather than wildlife.
In the case of these animals we must remember that abstract moral concepts of “right” and “wrong” do not exist—therefore their actions should not be deemed immoral. Some may misinterpret animal emotion for morality, because they are assigning what they perceive as positive behaviour to morality. The behaviour of wildlife is primarily driven by 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.
Anthropomorphising and realism can coexist, with balance
Many denounce anthropomorphisation of animals in general, especially in children’s literature, cartoons, games, and other media—believing young and impressionable minds are susceptible to the dangerous belief that wild animals are approachable or make good pets. Misinterpreting the actions of wildlife is another concern.(2)
While we agree excessive anthropomorphising and romanticising of animals can blind us from the realities of nature, 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 prior or subsequent education either side of creativity is a more balanced and realistic alternative. In fact, many people who contribute to this website became first aware of and interested in mustelids because of fictional media like the Redwall and Welkin Weasels series. It is possible to appreciate fantasy while still acknowledging reality.
All in all we have observed two extreme bubbles in this matter: Adults who are reluctant to acknowledge the realities of animals and rather construct a permanent fantasised view of them—thinking and looking upon reality through the lenses that fantasy, and those who seemingly discourage any form of creative anthropomorphising. Of course, outright demonisation of animals in media can be harmful and encourage spiteful actions by adults. While we may support creativity, we hope to discourage such content by helping people have a better understanding of mustelids.
Mustelids are not as well-known as canids and felids and as such are often misidentified, especially on social media platforms. This is usually reasonable owing the small amount of exposure the average person may have. However, we have encountered several instances of seemingly authoritative content on the internet mistaking the identity of species with vastly different characteristics.
For example, some journalists, YouTube content creators, and even “animal facts” articles and blogs have erroneously displayed a ferret (or other animals) while talking about a completely different mustelid.(3)(4) Some websites can appear to be primarily created by web crawlers and algorithms, typically copying text and using photos arbitrarily without attribution, as well as never providing sources for their information. Unfortunately, such inaccurate and misleading content is sometimes taken at face value, since many viewers are not aware of what the physical differences are between the species.
We should first try to perceive their differences before assuming they are indistinguishable
Mistaken identity may not seem like a big deal, but it can lead to fallacious generalisations—resulting in some species within the family Mustelidae being falsely accused of attacks on domestic animals or wildlife, or damage to property that is typically performed by a different relative or an animal of another family entirely. This is why it is important for us to always do our research and never adopt the ol’ motto, “It looks close enough,” or “Well, they’re all from the same family,” as excuses for misrepresenting species.
Admittedly, many mustelids can look similar (some even identical), but too often we hear people on social media seemingly just echoing that even species like the Eurasian stoat (Mustela erminea), European polecat (Mustela putorius), and Eurasian pine marten (Martes martes) superficially look too similar to distinguish from each other, before even trying to take notice of their clear differences. If many can agree that the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and grey wolf (Canis lupus) do not look identical or alike, we can try a little harder for these mustelids.
In order to better identify mustelids, we must first acknowledge and respect that nearly every species has distinctive characteristics—such as colour pattern, body size, snout length, and ear structure, and not solely focus on their elongated bodies. In many cases, one does not need to be an expert or even that interested in mustelids to notice their key differences, just take time to exercise a few basic perception skills. Sometimes behaviour or the location a mustelid was spotted can be even more telling than their appearance. We will attempt to make all these differences clear on this website. The most practical advice we can give for now is if one is unsure about an exact species it is best not to assume.
We should be clear what species we are talking about
Lastly, given that modern society is more connected than ever before, using vague 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. For example, in North America a “badger” may refer to the North American badger (Taxidea taxus), while in Europe the term usually applies to the European badger (Meles meles). They are completely different species with unique traits. It is best to be specific when possible by providing a mustelid’s scientific name, or at least their more distinguishing common name(s).
Sensationalists get a kick out of making others who are sheltered from nature afraid of animals they will likely never see, let alone come into close contact with. It is important to remember that just because an animal has sharp teeth and claws, that does not automatically mean it is “out to get us”. There are actually many animals that coexist with humans with both of these characteristics that are of no threat to us.
In spite of this, there are exaggerated claims on social media that some mustelid species will attack people, as though implying this frequently happens and for seemingly no reason. In reality, wild mustelids have a natural caution of people, often avoiding direct human contact and fleeing at the sight of us than going out of their way to cause harm without provocation. There would frankly be something severely amiss with our conduct if we managed to be regularly attacked by these elusive animals that want nothing to do with us. Similar to the exaggerated labels “bloodthirsty” and “murderer” mentioned earlier, we humans sometimes bizarrely describe these animals as though we are the ones on their main menu.
On the other hand, at times we forget that almost any animal (even a harmless-looking chipmunk) would become aggressive if someone were to corner or make the animal feel threatened. This is especially true for those protecting their young. In regards to mustelids, of course unprovoked attacks can happen if they are suffering from trauma or diseases such as rabies, but in most cases respecting their personal space and exercising common sense will prevent injury. Unfortunately, too many people are quick to allow isolated attacks to shape their opinion of the whole, and do not critically consider the circumstances that may have led to the incident.
Always read the full story, provided it is available
Sometimes a news report will give the impression that a specific wild mustelid was being aggressive towards someone, only to mention halfway into the story that the animal’s species was never actually confirmed.(5) Others will leave out this detail entirely, and even use headlines that misleadingly imply it is unnatural for the animal to exist in their habitat.(6) When there is a confirmed attack by a mustelid, sometimes the ensuing details clarifying the reason for the attack can go unnoticed by the public, because the viral initial story can overshadow the follow-up story. This was the case with a European badger named Boris in 2003.(7) As for incidents regarding a domesticated mustelid like the ferret, similar to any domesticated dog or cat, how the ferret was bred, trained, or cared for should always be taken into consideration.
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, since they have both a high basal metabolic rate (BMR) and short gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Unlike many larger animals, these mustelids cannot depend on long-term fat reserves—they must eat more frequently,(8) resulting in a relentless dietary struggle which is sometimes misconceived and overanthropomorphised as killing for sport.
This cycle can lead to what is commonly referred to as “surplus killing”, where many more prey are killed than the predator could possibly eat in a single sitting. This is often seen as beneficial to control rodent and rabbit numbers, though this is not always the case, since there are many factors to consider—such as predator versus prey reproductive rates, density of prey, and food resources for prey.(9) Throughout history humans have attempted to manipulate nature by introducing these mustelids to new environments in the hope of controlling rodent and rabbit populations. The results were rarely successful and have at times catastrophically backfired.(10)
On the other hand, in their natural habitat, the predation habits of some of the smaller mustelids have historically been troublesome to poultry farmers, backyard poultry owners, and gamekeepers—leading to a variety of measures being taken to prevent loss by those in the field. While we do not blame people for protecting their poultry, it is important to acknowledge that surplus killing 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 cache the carcasses for later consumption.(11)(12)(13) The exact reason for this behavioural phenomenon in some species may still be inconclusive, but it is presumably triggered by an evolutionary survival instinct, since food resources in the wild can be unpredictable.(11) In regard to mustelids, we do not claim that they are all innocent little angels, but that there is more to the truth than what many simply perceive as reckless carnage.
There is an old saying that unfortunately to this day still cannot be repeated enough: Do not believe every shocking thing you read, see, or hear on the internet. In this age of social media, too many people impulsively assume whatever rumour-of-the-month they come across on places like Twitter is true, or someone with a lot of views, likes, or followers is immune to inadvertently spreading misinformation. Mustelids are a very complicated family and we too occasionally make mistakes.
Whenever someone makes dramatic assertions (e.g., weasels suck blood or habitually attack humans) always ask for the source of their claims—indicating if they are coming from a publication, their own work, a random person on social media, 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 baseless rumours. If none of these details can be provided, it is best to remain skeptical of such claims and independently check them oneself.
Tips to avoid being mislead by seemingly authoritative educational content
When it comes to articles, blogs, YouTube, etc., avoid or be skeptical of those that do the following:
- Never give attribution for nonpublic domain images or videos they share.
- Never provide sources for any information they give. Wildlife documentaries rarely provide sources, but that does not necessarily mean they cannot be credible. Viewers may have to independently check for sources that agree or disagree with statements that were made during the film.
- Use content that appears automated (e.g., robotic grammar, descriptions of animals that do not match the photos they are assigned to, numerous different animal “facts” being posted practically 24/7, etc.). These may have been primarily created by web crawlers and algorithms and are typically offenders of #1 and #2.
- Constantly and subjectively express how “cute” or “vicious” a wild animal is by way of speech, music, or imagery—their content telling us what our emotional reactions should be by pandering to our biases, rather than being more about the animal and inviting us into their world.
- Oxford English Dictionary, 1st ed. “anthropomorphism, n”. Oxford University Press (Oxford), 1885.
- Milman, Oliver. “Anthropomorphism: how much humans and animals share is still contested“. The Guardian 15 (2016): 2016. Accessed 18 November, 2021.
- Mammal Age: Pet and Wild. “Search Results for: weasel“. Accessed 11 December, 2021.
- YouTube. 6 February, 2014. “Tierische Autofeinde | Marder, Katze & Co.“. Accessed 23 June, 2021.
- NBC Connecticut. 17 September, 2021. “Police Issue Warning About Aggressive Minks in Stonington“. Accessed 17 September, 2021.
- NEWS8 New London. 16 September, 2021. “Minks on the loose: Stonington police warn residents of aggressive minks“. Accessed 17 September, 2021.
- Worcester News. 13 May, 2003. “Stolen Boris pays final price”. Accessed 31 January, 2021.
- King, Carolyn M. “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Small Size to Weasels, Mustela Species”. Carnivore behavior, ecology, and evolution. Springer, Boston, MA, 1989. 302-334.
- Hanski, Ilkka, et al. “Small‐rodent dynamics and predation“. Ecology 82.6 (2001): 1505-1520.
- King, Carolyn M., and Roger A. Powell. “The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats: Ecology, Behavior, and Management“. Oxford University Press, 2006. p. 329-350.
- Mills, L. Scott. “Conservation of wildlife populations: demography, genetics, and management“. John Wiley & Sons, 2012. p. 148.
- Kruuk, Hans. “Surplus killing by carnivores”. Journal of Zoology 166.2 (1972): 233-244.
- Baldwin, Marc. Wildlife Online. “Does surplus killing represent a waste of energy for foxes?”. Accessed 19 July, 2020.