There’s a common observation shared by mustelid enthusiasts, which often prompts the questions: “Why are so many mustelids frequently demonized in media?”, “Why do weasels in animation often look sinister and nothing like weasels?”, or “My pet ferrets are sweet, why are they accused of being vicious by people who haven’t met them?”. Much of this can be rather frustrating, and leave the more impressionable feeling as though their love for certain animals is misguided, and not shared by others. Well, we’re here to tell you you’re not alone.
Even though most people have never academically studied, owned, or even seen a mustelid before, the elusive and predatory nature of some of these animals have given rise to many negative—and often human-centric—assumptions. Given our advances in ethology, it is unfortunate and concerning that some animals continue to be broadly stigmatized because of perpetuated myths, rumors, and even double-standards regarding what’s “acceptable” animal behaviour.
Even with the combined capabilities of zoologists and wildlife biologists, there’s still a lot we don’t know about mustelids, and the science used to study them continues to evolve. However, unlike myths and rumors, science is focused on improving our understanding of these animals in a less subjective manner.
Sensationalism in media
Many mustelid species have been subjected to a range of media sensationalism and scaremongering; imaginative minds taking advantage of society’s fear of the unknown. It doesn’t take much to make elusive predators appear more savage or threatening to us than necessary, if we photograph or film them while they’re being purposely agitated, exposing teeth while simply yawning; or “viciously” ripping tough meat apart with their bare teeth, rather than using proper knives and forks. In some cases, a wild mustelid that’s been tamed (or even a taxidermy) is used in staged photography to fabricate an incriminating scene or narrative. Mustelids don’t require sensationalism to be impressive, and these dishonest and misleading techniques are problematic for honest educators.
Unlike most of us, wild predators do not have the benefit of purchasing a pre-killed meal when hungry; therefore these animals must be bold hunters and scavengers to survive. This is especially true for the smaller mustelid species that must eat more frequently, due to having both a high metabolic rate and short digestive system; a relentless dietary struggle which is often misconceived as killing for sport. Admittedly, surplus killing can be harmful to both poultry owners and some endangered species, but this behavioural phenomenon is by far not unique to mustelids.
Unfortunately, sensationalized labels such as “assassin”, “bloodthirsty”, “killing machine” or even “murderer” have been repeatedly used to describe mustelids; which often derive from our habit of applying simplified human moral concepts such as “right and wrong” or “good and evil” to animals. In the natural food chain of survival, there’s no evolutionary benefit to predators being gentle or compassionate towards their prey. So not only are these labels redundant, but they also detract from the animal’s complexity and lesser-known traits and struggles. Many free-ranging domestic cats will also instinctively kill smaller animals—sometimes with no intention of consumption—yet you’ll rarely hear them described as vicious killing machines.
Mustelids are prone to mistaken identity
If you were to show a random mustelid to a group of people, chances are you’ll receive several claims that the animal is some type of cat, rodent, fox or small bear; just to name a few. It is also not uncommon to find social media posts and articles displaying the wrong mustelid species when referring to the animal, or assuming that every creature with rounded ears, short legs and an elongated body is a weasel. All in all, most people are not aware of how to identify mustelids or differentiate the species, which often leaves much to the imagination.
This may seem harmless, but mistaken identity has contributed to many behavioural and characteristic misconceptions; including false accusations of attacks or damage to property that was performed by a different animal. In order to identify mustelids, we must first acknowledge and respect that every species has distinctive characteristics. We will attempt to explain their differences on this website.
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