What Are the Issues?

Bear with us, there are many

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?”.

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 clichéd 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.

Contributing factors for false and misleading information about mustelids

Scaremongering and sensationalism

People commonly use photos of animals yawning or playing to falsely portray them as “angry” or attacking. Critical thinking is imperative to not be misled whenever there is a lack of context. (photo source)

Although not always viewed entirely negatively, many mustelid species have been frequently mischaracterised in media due to fabricated scaremongering and 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” (whilst 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 rented 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.

People commonly use photos of animals yawning or playing to falsely portray them as “angry” or attacking. Critical thinking is imperative to not be misled whenever there is a lack of context. (photo source)

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 dramatic titles and headlines such as “Terrifying and Deadly Assassins” or “Most Ferocious Killing Machines”. Since many people do not read past shocking titles and 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.

Personally, we do not believe mustelids require sensationalism to be interesting, yet unfortunately, even some researchers dedicated to wildlife education will resort to using it at times to capture an audience. Are wild mustelids feisty and have formidable hunting skills? Of course—like any mammalian predator, they must eat and defend themselves to survive. The problem is when these traits remain the sole focal point of the discussion, we continue to present an oversimplified view of their complex nature.

In contrast, some animal rights activists will use sensationalism and excessive anthropomorphising to bring attention to animal cruelty. This can make both undecided people and supporters of animal rights feel they are being psychologically manipulated—motivating them to focus more on questioning the sincerity of the content, and less on the indented message.


They are constantly misidentified

Mustelids are not as well-known as canids and felids, and as such are often misidentified, especially on social media. 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 displayed a European pine marten or ferret whilst discussing destructive habits of the beech marten. Meanwhile others have shown a stoat after referring to the treatment of 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 not seem like a big deal, but it can lead to faulty generalisations—resulting in some species in 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 entirely. This is why we must never adopt the ol’ motto, “it looks close enough” as an excuse for showing the wrong species.

Even when shock value is not the motive, it is not uncommon for people to assume that all small, brown/white animals with long slinky bodies are the same. In fact, many have trouble distinguishing a ferret from a wild species of weasel/polecat, or polecat-ferret hybrid—which has contributed to misinformation surrounding these increasingly common household companions. To make matters worse, mustelids are also commonly mistaken for cats, foxes, small bears, mongooses, civets, and even rodents. In order to better identify mustelids, we must first acknowledge and respect that every species (regardless of their similarities) has distinctive physical characteristics, such as size, including snout, skull, and ear structure.

Lastly, 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

Some people get a kick out of making others who are habitually 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”. In truth, there are many animals that coexist with humans with these traits that are of no threat to us.

In spite of this, there are exaggerated claims on social media that species of weasel/polecat, badger, and other mustelids will attack people, as though implying this frequently happens and for seemingly no reason. In reality, wild mustelids have a natural caution of people; avoiding direct human contact and often fleeing at the sight of us than going out of their way to cause harm without provocation.(1) 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.

On the other hand, sometimes 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. 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, 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.


Anthropomorphising

Anthropomorphism, by definition, means attributing human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities.(2) 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 judge if an animal is “good” or “wicked” based on its visual appeal, sociability, or what it eats to survive. It goes without saying that weasels, the wolverine, American mink, and other mustelids are subjected to many double-standards, especially when compared to more “majestic” predators like Panthera species (large wild cats), or their “cuter”, more widely accepted fish-eating otter cousins.

Many denounce anthropomorphisation of animals, especially in children’s literature, cartoons, and other 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 and excessive 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 education whilst 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 spiteful actions by adults. While we may support creativity, we hope to discourage such content by helping people better understand and respect all mustelid species.

We often forget they are just trying to survive

Although not the primary regulators of rodent control, small mustelids (when not irresponsibly introduced by humans) play their part in keeping the ecosystem balanced.

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, who 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, so they must eat more frequently (especially during winter), resulting in a relentless dietary struggle which is often misconceived as killing for sport.(3)

Although not the primary regulators of rodent control, small mustelids (when not irresponsibly introduced by humans) play their part in keeping the ecosystem balanced.

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.(4) Throughout history, humans have attempted to manipulate nature by introducing these mustelids to new environments, in the hope of controlling both rodent and rabbit populations. The results were rarely successful, and have at times catastrophically backfired.(5)

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.(6)(7)(8) The exact reason for this behavioural phenomenon in some animals may still be inconclusive, but it is presumably triggered by an evolutionary survival instinct, since food resources in the wild can be unpredictable.(8) 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.

Nevertheless, demonising labels such as “bloodthirsty”, “killing machine”, and even “murderer” are frequently used to describe the nature of several mustelids. Some species are even regarded as as “cruel” or “sadistic” for their aggressive social behaviours… which seems a bit hypocritical coming from us humans. In the case of these non-human animals, one must remember 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.

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.

References
  1. Pester, Patrick. Live Science. 12 July, 2021. Humans are practically defenseless. Why don’t wild animals attack us more?. Accessed 12 July, 2021.
  2. Oxford English Dictionary, 1st ed. “anthropomorphism, n”. Oxford University Press (Oxford), 1885.
  3. 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.
  4. Hanski, Ilkka, et al. Small‐rodent dynamics and predation“. Ecology 82.6 (2001): 1505-1520.
  5. 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.
  6. Mills, L. Scott. Conservation of wildlife populations: demography, genetics, and management. John Wiley & Sons, 2012. p. 148.
  7. Kruuk, Hans. Surplus killing by carnivores”. Journal of Zoology 166.2 (1972): 233-244.
  8. Baldwin, Marc. Wildlife Online. “Does surplus killing represent a waste of energy for foxes?”. Accessed 19 July 2020.

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