With rare exception, the short-tailed weasel leaves no doubt that it has not the slightest intention of striking up a friendship. If the warning is not heeded, tiny, needle-sharp teeth may be clenched suddenly in an unsuspecting finger. On the other hand, to call these small carnivores "blood-thirsty killers" or "demons," as some people do, is to unjustly characterize them.
Toward the end of March 1965, I caught a pregnant short-tailed weasel in a live trap. As soon as I saw "Weasel," as I came to call her, I knew she was different from her kin with whom I had so often had encounters over the years. I say this because weasels are not only feisty mammals by nature but also prone to hissing and try immediately to escape. But Weasel did neither of these things; she was calm, seeming somehow centered within her being, and simply blinked at me.
So, going against my basic principle of not keeping wild animals in captivity unless it was absolutely necessary for study, I put her in a large cage and made her as comfortable as I knew how. I even gave her a live deer mouse to eat, a normal item in her diet.
By morning, Weasel, who was about eight inches long and, were she not pregnant, would have weighed about an ounce, had made a nest of the cotton and fine, dry grass I had put in her cage, and she had interwoven some of the deer mouse's hair into it. I gave her clean water, some ground beef, and left her alone.
I visited her again in the evening, when she was out and about. I was surprised, however, that she watched me calmly without trying to hide, or escape, or even bite me when I opened the cage and put in food. She did not even spit or hiss.
Each day I put my hand into Weasel's cage. On the third day, she came up and sniffed my fingers. I fully expect to be bitten, as every weasel I had ever known would have done, but nothing happened. By the end of a week, she was eating out of my hand, and I felt an incredible love for her. We developed a bond of trust, the likes of which I have never known with a weasel of any kind.
Then, one morning, I opened her cage while she was asleep. She awakened, blinked her dark eyes at me, yawned, and stretched her head toward my hand. So I began, gingerly at first, scratching her on the top of her head. She liked it; so each day I scratched her head a little longer. After a few days, she moved her head to where she wanted it scratched, frequently around her ears. Our wonderful trust grew continually stronger, and my love for Weasel exceeded all bounds.
As Weasel began to look like she was nearing term and would soon give birth, I became as nervous as an expectant father whenever I went to visit her. Then one day Weasel did not raise her head and yawn at me. She did not lick my finger. She did not even move. My heart stopped, and I got a cold, sinking feeling throughout my body.
I gently opened the top of Weasel's nest, and there she lay. Hesitantly, I touched her. She slowly lifted her head and laid it in the palm of my hand. I knew something was drastically wrong as I petted her. She lay still, looking up at me, and I watched the light slowly begin to fade from her bright, beautiful eyes. Then her eyes gently closed, and her head sank a little deeper into my hand as her spirit winged its way back from whence it came.
I was sick at heart. Our time together had been so very short, yet full of love. I stared at her for a long time with tears running down my face. What happened? Had I done something wrong? Instead of babies, there was only the cooling body of my beloved Weasel. Her babies die with her.
I couldn't bring myself to bury Weasel. I had to know if somehow I had been the cause of her death. This was particular important to me since I had knowingly violated my basic principle in caging Weasel, a wild animal--just to be with her because I had felt such an instantaneous bond. Had I been wrong? Yes! But I still needed to know why she had died. So I froze her body and sent it to Murray Johnson, a friend of mine who was an eminent student of mammals by avocation and a surgeon by profession.
The wait seemed interminable. Day after day I went to her empty cage and wondered what had happened. At last I heard from Murray. Weasel had died of an internal hemorrhage caused by a tiny piece of mouse's bone that had gotten wedged into and had finally penetrated the side of her colon.
Weasel had given me a kind of love I cannot to this day explain. She seemed somehow ethereal, as though she held within her tiny being a wisdom one seldom finds in life. She touched my life for a brief moment and in that moment touched me forever. Would she have lived to deliver her babies, I wonder even today, if I had honored my basic principle of not caging wild animals? I will never know.
© chris maser 2003 (From "Mammals of the Pacific Northwest.")