I’ve been lucky through my whole life to have remarkably close encounters with wild animals. Now in the British Isles, this is rarely a dangerous thing. We have one venomous snake, rabies is unheard of and the largest indigenous mammal is a vegetarian. I can’t imagine what it might be like for those in countries where the wildlife is potentially or actually dangerous. I’ve handled various critters and the only thing ever to bite me was a house mouse, rescued from a mauling by one of my cats. I must be poisonous because it died shortly after biting me!
I’ve had a number of encounters with the mustelid family; that’s the family of animals to which the weasel, stoat and badger belong to, among others. If you’ve ever seen or handled a ferret, most mustelids are variations on that theme. Now, apart from jokes about ferrets down trousers, the most famous thing about ferrets is the teeth and their willingness to use them. Bearing in mind the allegedly “tame” nature of the domestic ferret, you can imagine the fearsome reputation of stoats and weasels.
However, weasels were semi-domestic animals in Roman times; Catullus refers to a pet bird having been eaten by the house weasel. It makes sense; a weasel will fit down most mouseholes, even if it has to diet to get out again when it has eaten all the inhabitants. My personal experience of the weasel backs up the fact that beyond the usual caution most animals(even domestic ones) have of humans, generally speaking weasels are more curious about us than afraid. They are very nosey creatures!
My closest encounter with a weasel was about four years ago. I was walking my dog along the banks of the river where we used to live in the Midlands. The River Soar is partially canalised and I was passing one of the locks when something in the water caught my eye. At first I thought the small swimming animal was a rat, then I thought it was a water vole (Ratty from Wind in the Willows) and finally as I got close enough, I saw it was a weasel.
Now weasels are tiny, not much bigger in fact than mice, and this one was desperately trying to get out of the water. The built up banks made of wood gave no purchase to little claws and even though it leapt out of the water to try and climb out, Weasel was stuck. The river continued with these canal sides for a considerable distance, and there was also a weir close by. This animal was going to drown.
I could see she was tiring by the shorter and shorter leaps. I knelt by the water side and called. Believe me, I don’t think I expected a response.
“If you swim over here, I will get you out,” I called.
It was as much desperation on my part to even think the weasel might pay attention, let alone understand.
As soon as I spoke, the weasel turned its head and looked at me and immediately began to swim to my side of the river. Now I was in a fix. I said before that mustelids are famous for their teeth and now I needed a way to lift this little animal out of the water without her sinking her teeth into me.
It only took about ten seconds before she was near me, treading water and chittering impatiently at me. The water level was quite low so I had to lean quite a long way and lower my sleeve(my hand tucked up further inside it) for the weasel to scramble up. As soon as I felt the slight weight on my, I carefully raised my arm and sat back on my heels.
Like some sort of weird jewellery, I now wore a wet weasel as a bracelet. Clinging to me with claws like needles, and still chittering loudly, the weasel eyed me entirely without fear. Scarcely six inches long, this animal was the one in control, not me!
I walked to the verge where the undergrowth began, and slipped off my jacket and lay it on the ground, expecting the weasel to vanish like a streak of ginger lightning. She didn’t. She sat there, watching me, and then began rolling around all over my jacket, drying herself. I stared in fascination as she rolled and preened.
At this point, my dog suddenly noticed and I had to grab her collar. Brave and strong as the weasel was, one good bite and she’d just be a scrap of fur.
“I think you’re dry now,” I said.
The weasel rolled a few more times, chittered again and bounced off and into the undergrowth. I could hear her chittering for some minutes before finally, all was quiet again.
I still don’t quite know how to explain what happened. The animal was drowning, and took a chance that I was benign, but how did she know what I was offering?
I can only conclude that there is more going on in a skull the size of a hazel nut than there is in many the size of a coconut.