Beady-Eyed Bandit – A story about the Alaskan ermine

Living in Alaska for a long time, you get to see a lot of things, but this was certainly a new one for me. As often happens in the winter up here, in the cold and dark of January, I had a car parked in the freezing cold outside. I decided to bring it into the garage to thaw it out overnight. In the morning, as routine as always, I walked up to the driver’s door and and was ready to open it when, to my surprise, I saw a beady-eyed little bandit stowaway staring at me from inside, snowy white, with paws and claws perched on the window sill, wondering why I would might even consider encroaching on his new-found property. Meeting such a determined and macho stance from this little beast, I found myself agreeing with his dominant stare. It would be unwise to attempt any forceable entry to his new domain.

I considered my options, but soon realized there was no way I was going to get in the car and try to drive off, having taken special notice of the proportional size of his claws to that of his body, and that of my own. Not ever having seen this creature before, and not knowing what he was capable of, I determined it best to try to scare him out of the car. So I opened the door. He skittered down below the front seat, and disappeared, but he had not abandoned his new domicile. Indeed, I couldn’t find him anywhere, but I knew he hadn’t left. He was somewhere between the carpets and the gaps below, likely plotting some violent revenge (at least that was my immediate concern). I parked the car outside again, quickly exited, grabbed the other family car and left, thinking I had scared him enough that he would want to find a new home.

Oh, how naive.

Upon returning, I parked the car inside again, only to find our friend had indeed considered his options, and had determined that a home once found, is one worth keeping. Over the next few days, we would play this game, until he found out that there were other advantages that he had heretofore not experienced. Within the broader walls and agreeable temperatures of the garage, he could find booty more valuable to a fiend than a place to sleep. It became clear to us that, though we could not see him, he was there, ever present. The small holes showing in the bottom of the potato sack, the carrot peels strewn from a garbage bag we had lazily placed in the garage overnight, and the small traces every true defiler leaves when he has claimed a place for himself laid not so carefully around the edges of the walls along his secretive paths through the night.

One day, he even hid behind a garbage can waiting for the right moment. When my wife went to put the trash away, he grappled with her, gripping the bag with a determined fury. As she wrestled it away and ran into the house, he proceeded to follow her and nearly got in, only to be stopped at the threshold, having had the door rudely shut in his face. Alas, he would not be dismayed. No, he started to scratch at the door, sensing that must be more treasure for a hungry soul behind these wooden barricades. Resolved though he was, we realized this was something we could not live with. We also had real concerns that he would get himself stuck somewhere in the crooks of the car he had been traversing, and that we would in turn be stuck with a remnant stench of a decomposing guest.

We moved the car outside more permanently and  noticed that within a few days he had found himself a temporary space under our shed, just behind the house. We started feeding him small scraps from the porch to encourage him to stay out there, rather than trouble himself with the effort required to sneak inside. As with all moochers, he eventually realized this was the better deal. When dinner was late or inconsistent, he would venture out, stretch up to the porch window and see if his chefs were preparing something special, explaining the delay.

We named him Philly, in honor of a favorite cartoon Mousekewitz, and honestly came to enjoy his little skittering around the back yard. He became a sight for our little children, noses pressed to the glass, looking for where he might be.

I came to find out that Philly was an ermine, a ferret-like mammal, closely related to other weasels, having turned a camouflaged brilliant white for the winter. Ermine are found throughout Alaska, and are carnivores that hunt mainly smaller rodents and insects. Though I had never seen one in the wild before, they are plentiful enough, and are actually pretty handsome little creatures. This one was particularly smart too. Early on, we tried to trap him with a humane trap, and relocate him, but he was able to get out, weaseling his way through the trap door. These creatures live a year or two long, so we hope the several months he spent in our backyard was enjoyable enough.

We were careful not to support him too much, or to allow him too close, and he remained wild.

The last we saw of Philly, he was bounding happily in the backyard in the spring, probably chasing some lunch, slightly less white with some brown coming back in. He didn’t come back after that. The kids hoped he had found better hunting grounds, or maybe a misses Philly, or at least that he hadn’t been eaten by a raptor. I, however, am pretty sure he simply found more luxurious transportation somewhere around the neighborhood that would better suit his pirate nature. After all, once a pirate…

For more information on ermine in Alaska, go to the State of Alaska Department of Fish and Game and search under ‘Species’. Here you can find information, as well as see videos of what these curious creatures look and act like.

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