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An Adorable Rescue Weasel Named Twiz
For US readers: In my blogs, a weasel refers to your ‘least weasel’ and stoat is your ‘short-tailed weasel’. For more on ID and definitions: CLICK HERE
Twiz: The Story Of An Adorable Wild Rescue Weasel
When I first met Twiz she was two weeks old. She squirmed around in the palm of my hand with her head wobbling from side to side, squeaking in distress. She weighed just 10.6 grams, was roughly the size of a child’s finger and was blind, deaf and totally helpless. A fine coat of blond fur barely covered her pink body.
As a wildlife artist, I have devoted years to studying weasels for my paintings. I have watched a wild weasel raise her kits from birth and I follow their daily lives via cameras hidden in purpose-built weasel habitats in my garden. So, I have come to know a lot about this species.
In recent years I have used this knowledge to help rehabilitate orphaned weasels. But up until this point I had never tried to raise one quite so young.
Twiz was handed to me by Andrew Gray of Mustelid Rescue UK. She arrived at my home and gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire, UK, in June 2018.
Wild weasel kits ‘play dead’ to stay safe when their parents go hunting
Wild weasel 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 weasel kits that have been either dropped by their mothers or lost are found alive.
Twiz came with another unrelated male kit, who was around five or six weeks old. He was three weeks older than her, much larger and his eyes were already open.
Rehabilitation works better when rescued animals are surrounded by their own kind. They get to learn the same survival tactics by playing among themselves as a wild litter naturally would. It would be very difficult for me to replicate this natural interaction; however hard I tried! But the ideal situation is if you are able to put kits of a similar age together. So, I paired the new male arrival up with another five week old male weasel kit that I was already looking after. Twiz was too young and helpless to survive with these boys. She needed far more intensive care.
Keeping so small a weasel kit alive: regulating temperature
You would expect that providing food and hydration would the most significant part of caring for a tiny weasel kit. But in fact, keeping Twiz warm was of equal importance. A weasel as young as Twiz is incapable of regulating its own temperature without intervention. I had a prepared an incubator with a heat mat and a small folded blanket for Twiz’s arrival. I hoped that she would snuggle into the blanket to keep warm. Yet at the back of mind, I knew I had to be careful that she didn’t get too hot.
Maintaining a careful feeding regime for a wild rescue weasel kit
Soon after she arrived, I realised that Twiz was going to need 24 hour care. I contacted a nearby rehabilitation unit. It’s owner is highly skilled at raising small mammals and she and I often collaborate on rescue projects. Over the years I have helped her to put dozens of animals and birds back into the wild: including owls, kestrels, hedgehogs, stoats, and of course, weasels
So she took over this tiny weasel’s care for the next two and a half weeks – with admirable dedication. She fed her via syringe every hour during the day and every two hours at night – actually placing the incubator by her bedside and waking to feed the weasel every time she squeaked for food. It was this rehabilitator who affectionately named the kit Twiz, after the Yorkshire dialect for ‘weasel’: ‘Hedge Twizzle’.
What to feed a wild rescue weasel kit
Feeding a kit as young as Twiz requires considerable skill. Just a drop of milk on the lungs could drown her or leave her at risk of pneumonia.
The first few days were critical and I was happy to bow to Jean’s considerable experience at this precarious time – although I did have a go at letting Twiz suck milk out of my hand.
There isn’t exactly a glut of weasel milk on the market but the best milk we found was Esbilac, a puppy milk powder.
After a week on this new diet and regular feeding regime, Jean brought Twiz in to see me and we weighed her. She was now 11.4g.
She hadn’t put as much weight on as I’d expected but what was important was how content she appeared. She was clearly no longer as distressed as she had been when she arrived.
Twiz continued to develop well over the next five days, doubling her bodyweight to a healthy 22.6g. When I noticed that she no longer soiled the sleeping area of her incubation box, I decided she was ready for a larger enclosure and so I moved her into a cage designed for hamsters.
Even tiny weasel kits eat meat
The biggest change in Twiz, however, was that she was now eating meat. This explained the huge growth spurt. Many wildlife rehabilitators mistakenly keep baby carnivores on milk-only diets for too long. Since I had followed the lives of a family of wild weasels in my garden I knew that wild kits will suck on raw flesh as young as six days old. By two weeks old they are actively eating meat.
At just over a month old, the wildlife rehablitation centre’s owner brought Twiz back so that I could start the process of preparing her for a life back in the wild. Her eyes were now open and she was running around.
But, there was still a very high hurdle to jump before she was ready to be released. Twiz had been raised by hand from such a young age that it was going to be difficult to get her to separate from me and survive unaided.
Wild rescue weasels need to be stimulated
I decided to put her into a larger enclosure, and so I built a box for her out of wood and Perspex. It measured three feet by two feet. I kept her bedding and a cardboard roll that she used to play with so that she didn’t get distressed by the move.
I added branches for her to climb up and more tubes to tunnel through. I even gave her some small teddy bears to encourage her to pounce and grasp. Weasels are highly intelligent and in the wild they would be playing with a litter of up to seven siblings by now.
At this stage Twiz was eating dead mice. Instead of just placing these into her box, I pulled them along on a string. This would teach her that that food doesn’t stay still and that she would have to work to get it. A weasel needs to eat half its body weight a day so I had my work cut out.
The difficulty with weasels is that they are so intelligent they need a lot of stimulus otherwise they can easily go a bit stir crazy. I rehabilitated a female the year before who began to display obsessive behaviour patterns: chasing her own tail and then biting it over and over again.
I was careful to be as hands-off as possible, but sometimes when I heard her cry out or squeak for attention I couldn’t help but give in and go and see what she wanted. She would greet me with an excited chitter: it is one of the best sounds in the natural world.
I was due to go on holiday during July and ideally I wanted to release Twiz before I went, but she just wasn’t ready. So while I was away Twiz went back to the rehabilitation centre for two weeks.
Developing independence in a wild rescue weasel kit
The owner of the rehabilitation centre was very strict about not handling Twiz so that it would be easier to release her into the wild on my return.
But then Twiz’s behaviour took an alarming downturn. She stopped eating, lost weight and cried for attention every time she heard anyone approaching. This was surprising since although weasels grow up in tight family units, at between 9 and 12 weeks old they separate and go on to lead solitary lives. Twiz was almost 9 weeks old and I had expected her to be more independent by this stage.
On my return, I decided that a slow release back into the wild was the best option for Twiz and came up with the idea of first putting her in with the two older males I was rehabilitating.
Wild rescue weasels fare better in a litter
Twiz was now fully grown, but still very small at just 65 grams. Weasels are the smallest carnivore in the world and are so minute they can fit through a wedding ring. Male weasels are twice the size of females, and I knew that these kits could easily kill her.
Eventually, I settled on building Twiz a new enclosure alongside the male’s outdoor release pen. Wire netting separated the two enclosures. I installed cameras in both so that I could judge the weasels’ response to each other and I fitted a trapdoor that I could pull open with a string while standing some distance away.
The male that originally arrived with Twiz ran straight up to wire that separated them and greeted her, chittering. I couldn’t believe my eyes!
After a few days, I was confident enough to put all the kits into the same enclosure. I pulled hard on the string to open the trapdoor, standing with bated breath as the three kits met for the first time. It was like watching an awkward meeting between teenagers. One male rushed straight over to Twiz. He was so excited that he bumped right into her and knocked her into a small pond that I had dug in the enclosure to ensure they had a constant water supply.
It was soon clear that there was no animosity between them. To my surprise, a wild male weasel then appeared on the outside of the enclosure. He was chittering and whickering at all three kits. I was surprised at how friendly he appeared since two of the kits were male and technically were encroaching on his patch.
When to release a wild weasel kit
I left the rescue kits together in their new-found weasel-bliss for a week. By now I had been completely hands-off for 10 days, but Twiz was still displaying worrying signs of attachment and tried to get my attention every time I went into the enclosure to feed them.
I built Twiz her own nest with a 23mm entrance hole so that she could just squeeze in but the males could not. This kept them out if they got too boisterous. She chose to sleep here alone instead of with the males.
The euphoria of releasing a wild rescue weasel kit
Then the day came to release the weasels. It is difficult to decide when they are definitely ready.
Weasels are so tiny that there is a long list of animals that will hunt them down, including kestrels, owls, foxes, stoats (their closest relatives) and even cats. And of course, if they have been hand-reared, they don’t have the natural wariness that keeps their wild counterparts alive.
I opened the door to let the weasels out. It was an emotional moment. These tiny creatures had made up so much of my time during the last few months and I desperately wanted my efforts to have been worthwhile.
The first weasel, a male, tentatively ventured out and then rushed back in. Then it was out again. This time it was followed by the other male and then by Twiz. All three were so pleased to be out of the enclosure! They rushed around the garden, giddily exploring every nook and cranny.
How to recognise if the release of a wild weasel kit is not successful
I watched them all evening. They were still dashing around at midnight. Although they looked so happy, their carefree play unnerved me. I would have been happier if they were a little more wary about being out in the wild.
It was a long night and I lay awake for most of it, worrying. I was up early the following morning and checked the overnight footage from the surveillance cameras in my garden.
I spotted the two males on film, but not Twiz. I went into the back garden to investigate. As soon as I stepped outside I heard the birds’ alarm calling. I spotted the two males playing chase in the hedge and then, as I was topping up the bird feeders, I spotted Twiz. She was playing with some fir cones on a dwarf conifer.
I was so relieved that they had all made it through their first night. Twiz spotted me and rushed over, chittering around my feet. It was hard to walk away as she kept darting under my feet – only just dodging being accidentally trampled on.
But although I was glad she was alive, I was disappointed that she would still rather be with me than the two male weasels. I crouched down and she rushed into my hands whickering excitedly.
I walked her back to her enclosure and put her back in whilst I composed my thoughts. I didn’t feel confident about leaving her out for another night while she was still so attached to me.
When a wild weasel release is not successful
That evening I heard a weasel squeaking in distress. I rushed over to the meadow that adjoins my back garden. The tall grass was shaking. I knew that a weasel was being attacked. I rushed in, parting the grass to see if I could find out what was going on.
A streak of ginger caught my eye. It was a stoat, fleeing the scene. It had clearly attacked one of the weasels. The air was thick with weasel stink bomb.
After that, I only saw one male weasel in the garden. The other had obviously died from its injuries. I was gutted: he had only survived for 24 hours in the wild. The only consolation I had was that he would have died as a small kit if I hadn’t given him this chance.
But it was losing this male that made me decide in the end to keep Twiz. I was disappointed not to have succeeded in my task of releasing her into the wild, but I had an amazing companion in Twiz and I continued to learn a lot about weasels through her – and of course she made a stunning model for my paintings – see below:
Since writing this blog, Twiz has now passed. She lived a full 13 months – which is good going for a weasel!
Click on the links below to read more from my close studies of weasels
Barn Owl on Lookout - Glass Work Top Saver by Robert E Fuller
(Glass Worktop Savers )
Placemat: Hare Today Gone Tomorrow by Robert E Fuller
(Placemats and Coasters )
Lap Tray with Cushion - Red Stag by Robert E Fuller
(Lap tray with Cushion)