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How I Hand Reared Two Tiny Stoat Kits Named Whisper & Stuart
As I sit at my easel painting, two playful stoats bound about on a TV monitor beside me. Far from a distraction, these happy animals lift my spirits and make the long days at my easel go faster.
Hand-Rearing a Tiny Stoat Kit
I have known and cared for both since they were tiny kits and even hand-reared one – a female, this one was just four weeks when she was referred to me by Mustelid Rescue, an organisation I work with to rehabilitate stoats and weasels.
So Quiet I Name Her Whisper
Her eyes were yet to open, and she could barely hold her own head up. As she wobbled about on the palm of my hand, squeaking feebly, she was so quiet I named her Whisper. In those early days, I fed Whisper every three hours – waking throughout the night for feeds.
How to Feed a Stoat Kit This Young
Feeding a stoat kit this young requires considerable skill. Just a drop of milk on the lungs could drown her or leave her at risk of pneumonia. I used a syringe, pushing the plunger in with the palm of my hand rather than my thumb so that I was able to control the flow of milk better. Sometimes, however, milk ran down her chin and I had to wipe it for her! Watch the video clip below to see her as I do this.
What to Feed a Young Stoat Kit
Whisper drank a formula made from Esbilac, a puppy milk powder, and ate tiny pieces of meat using needle-like teeth. I had discovered that stoat kits begin to eat meat at a very young age after watching wild stoat families in my garden.
Keeping A Young Stoat Kit Warm & Safe
Alongside Whisper’s strict feeding regime, it was important to keep her warm. Stoat kits are normally born into litters of up to seven or eight and curl up together to share body heat. I used a sleeping bag designed for small pets for her and placed a heat mat underneath it. It was important she had somewhere dark to retreat to because stoat kits in the wild spend a lot of time underground in tree roots, old rabbit warrens, or tucked away in the gaps under dry stone walls.
Why Stoat Kits are Often Found Alone
Whisper had been found alone and apparently abandoned. Wild stoat kits are remarkable among young mammals in that they possess the ability to drop into a torpid state when their mother is out hunting. Their heart rate drops, and they go into a deep sleep, a bit like the way an animal in hibernation behaves. This is one reason why so many kits that have been either dropped by their mothers or lost are found alive. The woman who found Whisper waited some time to see if the stoat mother would come back to find her before picking her up – something I would always recommend.
Whisper’s Tiny Stoat Eyes Open
By five weeks old Whisper was getting stronger. Her eyes opened one by one: the first eye a whole day before the second so that for a while she looked like a mini stoat pirate. It was good to see her put on weight too.
Whisper Becomes More ‘Stoaty’
By seven weeks her tail had developed its distinctive black tip and she had transformed from the tiny creature she was when she arrived, to being quite ‘stoaty’, biting and testing everything she came across with her mouth. Watch the clip below to see what I mean!
Social Stimulation for Stoats
But back then what she really lacked was a playmate. I added twigs and branches to her enclosure and would pull soft toys along to interact with her, but none of this was a substitute for the social stimulation a wild stoat receives from its siblings. Stoats learn essential survival skills such as how to fight and hunt through play and I felt that I was a poor substitute for these vital lessons.
A Stoat Playmate Arrives
Then my wish for Whisper came true. I was contacted by some people in Norfolk who had a stoat kit the same age as Whisper and it too needed rehabilitating. This was excellent news. It would do both stoat kits the world of good to have one another for company. But it was lockdown and I had to wait until the travel restrictions were lifted before I could drive to collect it.
When I eventually picked up the second stoat, from a car park in Lincolnshire, I discovered that it was a female – which was amusing since the people who rescued the kit had named it Stuart. Stuart, or Stuart-ette, arrived in a woollen hat which acted as a sleeping bag much like Whisper’s and ensured she felt safe in her new home. She was exactly the same age and size as Whisper and turned out to be an ideal friend. Watch the clip below to see the two bond.
The Stoat Kits Become Firm Friends
Although at first both kits were wary. When each had been rescued their eyes were still shut and so neither had seen another stoat before – not even their own mothers. Whisper, who you will remember I named because she was so quiet, was particularly vocal when she saw Stuart, squeaking in alarm at what she at first took to be an intruder. Watch her in the clip below:
But within in half an hour the two stoat kits had settled down to play and by the end of the day, they had already begun chase each other confidently through toilet rolls and into one another’s safety sleeping bag and hat. With each other for company and to learn from, they both developed fast which meant each now stood a much better chance of survival in the wild.
The Stoat Kits Go Outside
By 10 weeks old both stoat kits were ready to take the next step towards release. They were climbing, fighting, and playing with increasing confidence and so I moved them to an outdoor enclosure, furnished with branches and a drystone wall for them to explore. I had been as hands-off as possible after Stuart arrived, so catching them to move them to the new enclosure was a bit of trial.
Whisper, who had been hand-reared from a very early age, was easy enough, but Stuart hid away under the carpet that lined the bottom of the enclosure making it impossible to reach her. Luckily, she then hid inside her safety hat and I was able to gather her up along with the hat and move her that way. This was a relief because she was quite likely to bite me!
After their move outdoors, I became completely hands-off, just leaving food for the kits without intruding and only monitoring their progress via cameras hidden in the enclosure.
Stoat Models for My Paintings
It is now almost time to release the stoat kits. I will miss watching them on the monitors, but luckily, I have plenty of photographs and film studies to paint a portrait to remember them by.
I have learned a lot about stoats after studying them for my paintings. Click on the links below to read more.
Author: Robert E Fuller