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Oh, That Dreaded Fisher Cat! (A Look at Martes Pennanti)
But does it deserve its reputation?
“Something evil is lurking in the woods of Connecticut these days, something ancient and almost forgotten. You can hide your children and lock up your pets, but even then all may be lost. For there is no stopping the fisher cat!”
(Steve Frank, “Beware the Fisher Cat,” The Damned Blog)
Not long ago, I stood talking to Tony, a contractor who was working on my home. An avid outdoorsman, he told me of his plans for the next weekend which would include traveling to his family house in Vermont with his rifle and the goal of killing rogue fisher cats. “Have you ever seen them?” he said. “Those things are nasty. If they have the chance, they’ll even kill a dog.” I glanced past Tony to my two 80-lb. plus dogs and felt a chill. I’d seen the pooches stand their ground against a coyote, but was this a new threat to fear?
Martes pennanti, commonly known as the fisher cat, has been given quite the unsavory reputation in local lore, here in the Northeast. The internet is rife with stories, pictures and videos, with common adjectives for this animal including “vicious,” “ferocious” and “killer.”
In one account, a single fisher cat was tagged as having killed 69 turkeys:
PLAINFIELD — It was near midnight Tuesday when Elena Hermonot heard intense barking from her two dogs and she knew something was wrong on the farm.
She headed outside to investigate and when she looked into the cage where she and her husband, Rick, keep their 1,200 turkeys at Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Sterling, she saw a fisher running away and dozens of turkeys savagely killed.
"She saw one, then two, and by the time she was done, she counted 69," Rick Hermonot said. "If she hadn't gone out there, it would've kept killing and killing."
(Dustin Racciopi, The Norwich Bulletin, October 12, 2007)
In another story, a fisher cat was reported to have attacked a small child at a school bus stop:
HOPKINTON, R.I. (WPRI/AP) - Department of Environmental Management Officials are searching for a fisher cat that attacked a 6-year-old boy on Karen Drive in Hopkinton Monday. Police say the boy was waiting for the bus with his mother and other kids, when the 20-to-25 pound animal appeared. The mother told the animal attacked when the group started walking away. The mother kicked the animal off her son, and another child threw a backpack at the fisher cat. A neighbor eventually chased the fisher cat away. The boy was taken to Westerly Hospital, and treated for bites on his leg. (Foxprovidence.com, Fisher cat attacks boy waiting for bus, June 23, 2009)
In still another account, a pair of fisher cats was said to have taken down a deer: The animals have a reputation for being fierce, but will not generally attack people. They are, however, aggressive hunters of rodents and mammals. Two fisher cats, hunting together, "took down a deer" in a yard, [Animal Control Officer Rochelle] Thomson said. (Milford Patch, “Fisher Cats on the Rise and Prowl,” April 12, 2012)
Would a fisher cat kill 69 turkeys for sport? Would a pair hunt together to take down a deer? With these stories and many more in mind, I decided to investigate more to discover what we really know about martes pennanti.
While the common name for martes pennanti is fisher cat, it is neither a fisher nor a cat. There are a number of theories about the origin of the nickname “fisher cat,” including several that arise from its reported resemblance to polecats which were given a number of nicknames by Dutch settlers based on the root “visse,” meaning vicious: fittchet, fitche and fitchew.
Martes pennanti is actually the largest member of the genus martes, the weasel family. A medium-sized mammal, its body is fairly long and thin and set low to the ground. Its fur is dark in color, and it has a wedge-shaped face. Males are much larger than females, weighing 8 to 16 pounds, while females are more likely to be about 4 to 6 pounds. The males grow to about 3 feet in length, while the females are closer to 2 feet in length. The tail of martes pennanti accounts for about a third of its length. Its claws are somewhat retractable, but do not retract as completely as seen with the felids.
This animal is found in the wild solely in North America, with origins believed to have been in the northern forests. The species was nearly extirpated in the northeast and Canada due to overhunting and trapping in the 1800s and into the early 1900s. It was reintroduced into the Northeast in the last few decades, and populations have been on the rise ever since.
Martes pennanti generally breeds in the spring, but exhibits delayed implantation at about 10 to 11 months, occurring between January and April. The timing of implantation is believed to be influenced by daylight, as is the case with other members of the weasel family. Post-implantation lasts about 30 days. The average size of the martes pennanti litter is three, but they have been known to give birth to as many as six. Kits are born helpless and blind, nurse for about 4 months and stay in the maternal den until the fall. This animal has few natural predators, and has been known to live as long as 10 years.
Martes pennanti are known to be solitary animals. While they are most active during the day, it is not unusual for them to be active at night, as well. Their range is extensive, and they have been known to travel long distances in short periods of time. They are adept at climbing trees. This species will use a wide variety of dens, from hollow logs and brush piles and rockfalls to abandoned squirrels’ nests in trees.
The martes pennanti is a hunter and an omnivore. While it has been known to consume nuts and berries, its diet consists mainly of small mammals, birds, eggs and carrion. It has been known to chase prey in a zig-zag pattern. It will generally attack by biting prey around the head, with killing bites to the neck, and it will consume most of its kill within a day or two, discarding only the intestines. Martes pennanti is one of the few animals that can successfully hunt a porcupine, with its tree-climbing skill giving it a unique advantage. The porcupine will generally put its head against a tree when threatened, forcing predators to deal with its quills. However, martes pennanti will hang above the porcupine in a tree and repeatedly attack its head until the porcupine falls over from exhaustion. This leaves its belly exposed for the martes pennanti to attack.
So given the facts, how much of the “fisher cat’s” fearsome reputation is deserved? Because martes pennanti’s natural prey is small animals, it will certainly attack small pets in the wild, including house cats, rabbits and small dogs. Most animal control authorities recommend not allowing domesticated animals to roam, and the threat of predation by martes pennanti is just one reason why this is so.
Could one of these animals have been responsible for the killing of 69 turkeys described earlier in this paper? We know that martes pennanti hunts birds, and according to the fact sheet published by the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, “[martes pennati] will raid chicken coops and can kill numerous chickens at a time.” While this would seem to indicate that raiding a coop would be something martes pennanti would do, a turkey is a larger animal than a chicken. I did find a reference to members of the weasel family killing turkeys in the wild, (Ebroch, Mammal Tracks & Signs), but I could not find any evidence to either support or disprove the possibility of one animal killing but 69 turkeys at once. While a martes pennanti was seen running from the site of the killing, this animal is also known to feed on carrion – so we may never know whether it was responsible for killing the turkeys or whether it was an opportunistic feeding.
Regarding the story about the martes pennanti attacking the boy on his way to school, this was the only account I could find of an attack against a human. Since the offending animal appears to have never been found, we can only wonder whether this was errant behavior by an outlier or merely a case of mistaken identity.
How about the story of two fisher cats taking down a deer? Since I could only find accounts of martes pennanti as a solitary hunter, I would say this is unlikely. Surely pack hunting behavior is much more consistent with members of the canid family. I did find accounts of martes pennanti feeding on deer carrion, however.
Finally, are my 80-pound dogs safe from this “vicious killer”? If this video is good evidence of the balance of power in nature, I would say the answer is “They probably are”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCQovXYVJfI
Any good pet owner should realize that it is always risky to allow domesticated animals to roam – animals in nature will hunt and feed without regard to the sentimental significance of someone’s pet. However, I did not see any evidence in my research to suggest that martes pennanti is any more of a threat to domesticated animals than other natural hunters. I suspect that the notion that martes pennanti is relatively “new on the scene” due to its reintroduction to the northeast in the last few decades may add an extra “edge” to how it is perceived by the public at large.
Sources: Elbroch, Mark. Mammal Tracks & Signs: A Guide to North American Species. 2003, Stackpole Books.
______________. “Living with Wildlife: Fisher in Massachusetts.” Publication of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, November 2009.
Powell, Roger A. “Martes pennanti.” Mammalian Species, No. 156, pp. 1-6, published 8 May 1981 by The American Society of Mammologists.
Numerous internet blogs, articles and news stories, including: