You Can Call Him ‘Cute’ or You Can Call Him ‘Hungry’

The much-maligned weasel is always on the lookout for something to eat, and the rest of us should be grateful he usually finds it

"There is something enormously satisfactory about a weasel," writes wildlife biologist Carolyn King in her book, The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats. But you would not have a clue what she means from our popular culture. In most traditional animal stories, weasels are the archfiends — laying waste to the "poor faithful creatures" of Toad Hall in The Wind in The Willows, for instance. Uses of "weasel" as a reference to humans are commonplace and almost never flattering, not when Washington Irving wrote of a "meagre, weazel-faced Frenchman" nor when a TV critic for the Washington Post summed up David Letterman's estimation of TV executives as "shifty, gutless vacillating network weasels.'"

 Carolyn King calls such slurs character assassination. Having studied weasels for nearly 30 years, first at Oxford University and then in New Zealand, she has become one of the world's experts on the creatures and is determined to see them get their due. Far from being "gutless," she points out, weasels are "bold and confident out of all proportion to their size," taking on prey — and predators — larger than themselves. (In one case, a hawk swooped down to pluck up a weasel and soon was seen falling from the sky, dead, with the weasel's teeth sunk into its breast.)

While weasels suffer an exaggerated reputation for raiding henhouses and bird nests, they are much more likely to attack rodents (including the rats that are the real henhouse villains). In fact, says King, that is the exact purpose for which they evolved some four million years ago. Their small size and long, sinuous bodies make them perfectly designed for following rodents right into their burrows. Carolyn King has devoted her career — and author Richard Conniff has devoted this article — to uncovering all the nifty tricks that allow the much-maligned weasel to survive in a cold and hostile world despite having short fur, little fat and, as Conniff writes, "the metabolism of a hip-hop dancer on a caffeine bender."

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