There’s a common experience shared by mustelid enthusiasts which often raises the questions: “Why are so many mustelid species frequently demonized 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’s 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 portrayed as either “cute” or “vicious” animals, with little to no attention given to their overall complexity or diversity.
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’s still much we don’t 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.
Sensationalism & misinformation on social media
Although not always viewed entirely negatively, many mustelids like weasels, polecats, and the wolverine 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. For example, if one films an agitated, scared wolverine in a trap, takes a photo of a yawning marten revealing its teeth, or a mink “furiously” ripping tough meat apart with its bare teeth (despite having no other practical way of eating), an initial impression could be made that all “members of the weasel family” are one-track-minded killing machines. Furthermore, there exist even examples of taxidermy (often disturbing-looking) used in staged photography to completely fabricate an unrealistic scene or narrative. We hypothesize 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” online articles and videos with dramatic or misleading titles and headlines such as “Terrifying and Deadly Assassins” or “Most Ferocious Killing Machines”, and are better at spreading unwarranted fear than serving to educate. Critically, we have observed many of these sensational articles to not mention that the depicted predator in question often fall prey themselves, struggle with endangerment, or play an important role in their local ecosystem. We believe that mustelids don’t require sensationalism to be captivating, yet sadly, even researchers dedicated to wildlife education will resort to these tactics at times to capture an audience. It’s true that most mustelids are feisty and have formidable hunting skills, but when these traits remain the sole focal point of the discussion, we present an oversimplified view of their complex nature.
They’re prone to mistaken identity
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, all presumably in the name of delivering shock value or clickability. For example, some content creators have misleadingly (at times knowingly) displayed a pet ferret while discussing traits 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 aren’t aware of what the physical differences are between the species, or think critically about the information they are receiving. Mistaken identity may seem harmless, but it can lead to faulty generalisations about species behaviour, with some mustelids being falsely accused of attacks on wildlife or damage to property that was performed by a different relative. We mustn’t adopt the ol’ motto, “it looks close enough” as an excuse for showing the wrong species.
Even when shock value isn’t the motive, it is not uncommon for any animal with a slinky body to be confused for a weasel or otter. Mustelids are also commonly mistaken for cats, foxes, small bears, mongooses, and are very often called rodents. In order to better identify these animals, we must first acknowledge and respect that every mustelid species has distinctive characteristics.
No, they do not frequently attack humans
There are exaggerated claims on social media that mustelids like weasels, martens, and badgers will “attack” people, as if implying this frequently happens and for seemingly no reason. In actuality, mustelids typically avoid human contact, and would much rather flee at the sight of us than go out of their way to attack without provocation. 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.
Sometimes we forget they’re 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 like weasels, polecats and the American mink, who have both a high metabolic rate and short gastrointestinal tract. They must eat more frequently, 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 has been harmful poultry farmers, leading to certain aggressive measures being taken to prevent loss. Even so, this behavioural phenomenon is by far not unique to the family Mustelidae. Though the exact reason for this behaviour is inconclusive, when presented with an abundance of food, multiple prey are killed and sometimes cached for later consumption. This is presumably triggered by an evolutionary survival instinct, since food resources in the wild can be unpredictable. We do not claim that these predators are innocent little angels, but that there is more to the truth than reckless carnage.
Nevertheless, demonizing labels such as “bloodthirsty”, “killing machine” and even “murderer” are frequently used to describe their nature. Some species are even perceived as “evil” or “sadistic” for their aggressive social behaviours in the wild; matters which we as humans, frankly, are in no position to judge. In the case of non-human animals, one must remember that abstract moral concepts such as “right and wrong” or “good and evil” don’t 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 isn’t to say that we humans don’t 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.