Life Here: Curiosity Kills an Ermine

For the Valley News
Sunday, January 01, 2017

On the list of life lessons I’m accumulating for my future grandchild I’ve recently added a new one: never leave a bucket of water outside without some kind of lid.

This fall, I was emptying out four buckets of water that had held chicken manure, and that I’d left half full in an attempt to avoid cleaning them (another life lesson there).

As I poured out the second bucket I saw a small, dead weasel with a tuft of fluff on the tip of its tail. It was sort of white-gray, and at first I wasn’t sure what it was. The black fluff at the end of the tail clued me in: ermine.

You know how kings wore ermine stoles, and in the midst of the white there would be numerous wee black spots; the tips of the tails.

Right away I could picture what had happened. The ermine had smelled the ripe odor and had climbed from the raised bed into the bucket. It was then unable to get out, and swam and swam in circles till it got too tired to swim and drowned. It seemed a horrible way to die.

The thing is, I’d never seen an ermine in the flesh before, and had only recently seen a picture a friend had taken of an ermine in its full white phase, peeking from a stone wall.

So, of course, I looked up ermine on Wikipedia and found out they are abundant in Vermont and are also called the short-tailed weasel. I think giving the scientific name always adds a touch of class to an essay, so here it is: Mustela erminea.

Though they are small they are ferocious and can even kill a rabbit, though they usually prey on mice, voles, birds and insects. In the summer they add berries and frogs.

Like all members of the weasel family, the ermine has a long, thin body, stubby legs, and a long neck. They can grow to a length of 7 to 13 inches and a weight of 1 to 7 ounces.

They breed in late spring and early summer but the egg does not implant till the following spring, so the kits can be born at the most advantageous time in terms of availability of prey.

Ermine was once the preferred fur for royalty, and the most utilized fur for court presentations and portraiture. Ermine became popular with Western European courts due to a legend stating that an ermine would “rather die than be defiled.” Thus royalty used it to symbolize “moral purity.”

This didn’t make me feel any better about having been the author of one ermine’s dreadful death. In fact, it left me temporarily bereft of “moral purity.”

I have the kind of mind that will hold onto gruesome images, and for days after I would suddenly see the ermine swimming and swimming, trying to climb the edge and falling back down, growing weak and sinking; all as the world went about its merry business.

The only comfort I find is to know its suffering is over.

I left the ermine on the dirt of one of my raised beds, covered with a board. Once the flesh rotted I would add its skull to my collection of otter, fox and hawk.

No longer a symbol of purity, it represents nothing except another life lesson for my grandchild: being too curious can get one into trouble one can’t get out of.

Sybil Smith lives in Norwich.