Stoatally different? No, Weaselly distinguishable!

by Dr June McNicholas

When Julie Stoodley wrote about Koko the stoat, she couldn’t have imagined what was to occur in the near future. Not long after Koko had arrived and started to settle, another little mustelid arrived. This time it was a tiny baby, so young it wasn’t easy to tell whether it was a stoat kit or a weasel kit. It was an unusual time of year for kits, too, because most are born in the spring and this one, at just a few weeks old, must have been from a very late summer litter indeed.

Sadly, the kit was probably victim of someone doing the worst possible thing out of the best possible motives – picking up a healthy but seemingly abandoned baby. However, once it is done there is no going back, and Julie rose to the challenge of trying to care for a tiny baby, barely at weaning stage. Fortunately the baby was able to take a variety of soft foods and, thanks to Julie’s care and attention, thrived and grew.

I doubt Julie’s life is ever calm or easy going with the number of rescue ferrets passing through her hands. There was also Koko the stoat, various other animals, not forgetting husband and children! I offered to take the baby kit to ‘help out’. No, OK, I’ll come clean, I’d been positively envious of the chance to have close encounters with a stoat, so any remote chance of ‘persuading’ Julie to let me have the new baby was just irresistible! In fact, I didn’t even have to jam her arm up her back, and, a few weeks after arrival, the baby was on its way to Scotland.

Julie and husband Ben arrived. I think I greeted them before diving into the back of the car to see the new arrival. What blinked up at me was a breath-takingly beautiful little chestnut red face with a white throat. Once installed in the kitchen the little animal came out to inspect what was going on. The few weeks of growth now revealed that the kit was a baby weasel. Totally unafraid of handling, we were able to see that she was a little female and she was given the name ‘Wisp’ or sometimes ‘Wispa’.

If you think ferret kits are playful, you should see a baby weasel at full speed. Wisp is so fast it is almost impossible for your eyes to keep up with her, let alone your hands. Play-biting, tummy-tickling and toy-chasing are all part of her daily demands for attention. She is very, very human oriented. Jeff is her favourite play-thing and she gets very excited pouncing at his hands and ambushing his fingers through tubes, her little tail wagging furiously. We put up various dangling toys, too, for her to jump and swing on. This is not simply for entertainment ( hers or ours! ) as she is still at the age where play is a vital part of development. After all, if she was still with her siblings she would be playing with them and perfecting the moves needed to become a successful predator.

But what of Wisp’s future? It’s a difficult decision. Wild animals should not be in captivity, but could she survive in the wild now? If it were late spring or early summer we might have been tempted to try a rehabilitation programme, perhaps by giving her an enclosure where, ultimately, she could have come and gone as she pleased, perhaps with support feeding. However, with winter coming fast, even experienced predators will find things tough. I doubt Wisp, still at the play-learning stage, would have even a slim chance if we tried to release her now. So, for the time being at least, Wisp will remain a part of the family while she grows up. If it later seems her future should be in the wild, we will do the best we can for her. If she turns out to be so humanised that this would not be possible she will at least have an easy life and will certainly help in an education role promoting the work of the Highland Wildlife Hospital. In the meantime, it is an incredible privilege to have such close contact with one of our most beautiful, intelligent native creatures.

(First published in the December 2003 issue of the NFWS News)

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