the least weasel

the least weasel

Mustela nivalis and skull of Gulo gulo

 

back in 1999 or so my mother called me from her desk at the cornell synchrotron and said, you better come up herei’ve got five baby-somethings in my pockets and they smell pretty bad.

our relationship had been rocky for the past year or so, and we were not speaking much: i took this call as a kind of peace offering in the form of five helpless beings whose problem had a clear-cut solution, unlike ours.

i arrived to find my mother typing at her computer, the breast pockets of her button-down shirt bulging, and a faint skunky smell obscuring her rose perfume. they were so cold, she said. i thought if i kept them near my body, it would keep them warm.

one by one, she handed them over: they were hairless, eyes still sealed closed, skin translucent. their organs and bones were visible, and fine blood-red capillaries, like leaf veins, spread in webs across their bodies. they could have been anything: raccoons, skunks, woodchucks. the only clue was their musky smell.

one of the crew found them on the floor of the new tunnel this morning, my mother said. he thinks they fell out of a nest and the mother couldn’t get to them. construction on a new stretch of tunnel for the particle accelerator had been going on for months. my mother liked to call it the atom smasher in front of the physicists, because it bugged them.

i left the lab with the creatures folded up in a sweatshirt. nothing had been settled, nothing resolved, but there was something immediate i could do.

for three weeks i carried the creatures around in a fanny pack, feeding them every three hours with canine milk replacer and an eyedropper, and stroking their bellies with a q-tip to make them urinate. normally their mother would lick them to stimulate their bodily functions. i was dedicated, but not crazy.

my best friend and i talked in the evenings about what they could be. because of the smell, we had settled on skunks or weasels. when their bellies began to show a fine down of white, and their backs a russet stubble, we had our answer. it also came time to make a decision: did we want to keep them as pets? once they opened their eyes, they would probably imprint on us and could not be returned to the wild. even now we might have done permanent damage in saving them and handling them. so i’ve already done the wrong thing by interfering with nature, I said.  but aren’t we  part of nature? my best friend countered. how is it natural to just sit back and watch things die? these were the kinds of things we talked about. we still do.

the decision, for both of us, was clear: do our best to discover what it is to be a wild weasel, and try to keep our weasels, these weasels, wild. by this time, we’d identified our five creatures as least weasels, the smallest member of the family that includes skunks, otters, and the wolverine. we set up a box in the kitchen sun room where the weasels lived. once their eyes opened, we tried to be sure they never saw our faces, and we never touched them. with sight, they moved from milk to solid food in the form of pinky mice- as vulnerable and hairless and blind as the weasels had been when they were discovered. so one life was sacrificed for another in a necessary, mixed morality.

puck, our cat, would watch from the safe perch of my shoulder, his eyes dilated to black discs, as the weasels tore the pinky mice apart. at least they did it quickly. by this point, there were only three weasels left: two had died from an upper respiratory infection only a week after i’d taken them in, their noses filling with mucus faster than i could suction it out, and their breathing growing more and more faint until it stopped. the three survivors were voracious and fierce, especially the lone female. she was half the size of the males but always killed her food first and then tried to take theirs. at two months old she was fearless, insatiable, and so aggressive she drove puck off when he once became curious enough to stick his nose in the box. she was enormous in personality. in stature, she could curl her body nose to tail and fit perfectly around the outside of a penny.

when the weasels could no longer be contained by the box, it was time to transition them to the outside. we had read up on their habitat, the things they ate, their reproductive lives, everything we could find in a world before all the details were on the internet. i chose an eroded area underneath the barn to set them up: there was a water source and shelter nearby, and an empty field full of bugs and small animals right behind the barn. if they were going to learn to hunt, this was the perfect place.

each day, in the afternoon, I brought a can of wet cat food out to the barn and left it for the weasels. i couldn’t know if they were learning to hunt- all of their meals had come, if indirectly, from my hands. within a couple of days of doing this, they knew to expect me, and would form a greeting party, consisting of a mad weasel dance punctuated by vicious lunging at my ankles from all sides. i learned to distract them with a long stick, dragging the tip behind me through the grass. they chased it, striking and dodging and circling it at high speed. puck and i would watch from a safe distance as they took turns eating and chasing each other around the can.

after a week, one of the males was gone. only two weasels came to meet me for the daily can of food. about a week later, only the female appeared: as fearless and insistent as ever, but so small i only knew she was coming by the swift-moving line of parting grass headed in my direction from the barn. not long after that, i emerged with the can and only puck showed up. together, we searched the ground near the barn, but the weasels were gone.

many years later, my best friend confessed that she was afraid puck had eaten the weasels. tearfully, she told me she thought it might be her fault they had disappeared. it’s possible that this is what happened, but it’s also possible that one or more of them survived. it’s also possible that it was wrong to take them in, to try to change the outcome of their story. it is possible that they died in the jaws of a larger animal or a bird of prey, or when the winter came.

it is also possible that they could have been left to die on the cold floor of that tunnel, before they had ever opened their eyes, their bodies left to decay to bones, over which invisible particles would fly near the speed of light, being accelerated in order to answer other questions: not more important questions, just other questions.

Mustela nivalis and penny