There’s a common experience shared by mustelid enthusiasts which often raises the questions “Why are so many mustelid species frequently demonized and misshaped 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 reputation can differ depending on one’s culture, profession, and even perception of what a “weasel” is or does. 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 complexity.
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 stigmatized because of perpetuated myths and exaggerated, baseless rumors. Even with the combined efforts 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.
Sensational journalism and viral misinformation on social media
Although not always viewed entirely negatively, many mustelids like weasels, polecats, and the wolverine have been frequently misrepresented media due to sensationalism; imaginative minds taking advantage of society’s fear of the unknown. It doesn’t take much to make these elusive predators appear more threatening to human life than necessary, if we photograph or film them while they’re being purposely agitated, exposing fangs when simply yawning, or “furiously” ripping tough meat apart with their bare teeth, despite having no other practical way of eating. There are even cases when a disturbing taxidermy is used in staged photography to fabricate an incriminating scene or narrative. These methods are intended to appeal to our senses and not necessarily our intellect.
In addition, online articles and videos with dramatic titles and headlines such as “Terrifying and DEADLY Predators” or “Most FEROCIOUS Killing Machines” are better at conveying fear and shock value than a comprehensive view of nature; especially if their content fails to mention if the predator in question fall prey themselves, struggle with endangerment, or play an important ecological role. Mustelids don’t require sensationalism to be impressive, and while it’s true that most are feisty and have formidable hunting skills, we’re presented with an oversimplified view of their nature when these traits are made the focal point of discussion.
They’re prone to mistaken identity
Sometimes delivering shock value has even come at the expense of showing the correct animal being discussed. For example, some content creators have misleadingly (at times knowingly) displayed a pet ferret when discussing some destructive traits of the beech marten, while others have shown a stoat when referring to American mink on mink farms. Unfortunately, these creators are seldom corrected by their audience, since most people aren’t aware of what the physical differences are between the species. Mistaken identity may seem harmless, but this can lead to a false, generalized sense of species behaviour; with some mustelids being falsely accused of attacks or damage to property that was performed by a different relative.
Even when shock value isn’t the motive, it is not uncommon for many to assume that every creature with a slinky body is a weasel or ferret. Mustelids are also commonly mistaken for cats, small bears, and even 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 regurgitated 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. Alas, sensationalism has also helped fuel this exaggerated belief. 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 by entering their territory. This is especially true for those protecting their young. Of course, unprovoked attacks can happen if an animal is suffering from rabies or other trauma, 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, which must eat more frequently, due to having both a high metabolic rate and short gastrointestinal tract; 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 communities.
When unwanted, the act of “surplus killing” in these species can be harmful to both poultry owners and some endangered prey; which understandably leads to certain measures being taken to prevent loss. Even so, this behavioural phenomenon is by far not unique to the mustelid family, or for the human concept of mere pleasure. Though the exact reason for this behaviour is inconclusive, when possible, surplus prey is sometimes cached for later consumption; presumably triggered by an evolutionary survival instinct, since food resources in the wild can be unpredictable.
Nevertheless, demonizing labels such as “bloodthirsty”, “killing machine” and even “murderer” are frequently used to describe their nature. Some species are even perceived as “sadistic” for their aggressive social behaviours in the wild; matters which we cannot rightly 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. Their behaviour is based on instinct, as well as learning and thinking with the end goal of feeding, defending 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.
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