Sunday, January 20, 2008

Peaceable Kingdom?

Another major ethical dilemma for the Womerlippi policy think tank: The critter that
has been heard rummaging about in the garage turns out to be a she-weasel in ermine.

I had caught a flash of white fur a few weeks ago, and had assumed a stray barn cat. We set out food one night in hopes of seeing the cat, but had no luck. Now we know why.

I finally saw it tonight, while putting a log in the wood furnace. Watched it for quite a while, spellbound. And I have a blurry, Area 51-type photo that proves absolutely nothing. You'll just have to take my word. The whitish flash above the cardboard roll towards the bottom is the weasel.

This little girl must have gotten used to having me go back and forth in her adoptive home, and so she decided she could safely stick her head out. Either that, or she's rabid.

I know it's a female because of the size. Most likely a long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata). I remember from my mustelid biology that the females of this species are larger.

So, this will pose a dilemma, but one with which we are somewhat familiar.

Weasels are terrifying predators of chickens. The last time a weasel got into our chickens, it was a serial murder scene. And a very cruel one. Night after night, one-by-one, each chicken was bled while alive, for the nutrient value of its blood. All were eventually killed. We like our chickens, so this was an emotional disaster. And our ethical responsibility as livestock farmers is clearly to prevent this carnage, and if we knew that this weasel was a chicken predator, we'd trap it and kill it or remove it. But this one has been living peaceably in our shop now for at least three weeks, as far as we know. Living, no doubt, on the pellets of spilled dog food,the gleanings from inside the dog food can recycling, and hopefully, the mice.

Could we let it be safely? What if it has pups? Maybe it will get the squirrel that also inhabits both the shop and the attic system.

Maybe it will get our chickens.

The secret and inalienable ethical problem of livestock farming is, you're going to have to kill something, or something else will die. The herd itself must be culled for its own good, and for the pot. The predators must be deterred, trapped or killed, in that order of priority (deterrence is the cheapest in effort and the most stable strategy, which is why we like our dogs and cats) and you will very likely have to do all three.

What to do with the weasel? I expect that when the other member of the think tank wakes up, we'll have a summit meeting. And then go get a trap. Last time, when all the chickens were killed one-by-one, we trapped the weasel and took it to biology class, show and tell, then released it in the college woods. That worked out well for everyone, including the students, and the weasel got off lightly.

Although you may well say it was amnesty for a deranged murderer.

Don't worry. the chickens are safe. We learned our lesson from the last time, and made a completely weasel-proof coop, using hardware cloth instead of chicken wire.

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