Calling all stoats - your flight is about to depart

By Peter Russell

Ferrets, stoats and weasels belong to the mustelid family. All have characteristic long, slim bodies, short legs and sharp pointed faces. The colours of all three animals vary, with generally blackish-brown upper bodies and creamy, white underparts (as opposed to a draft version of the 1996 Waikato Regional Pest Management Strategy, which stated that they had .... creamy white underpants!) So, how do you tell naked mustelids apart? One’s ‘weasily distinguished’, the other, ‘stoatally different’...but you’ll need to ferret out the difference for yourself!

To enable a new research project to start in late 2012, Dr Carolyn (Kim) King from the University of Waikato needed to obtain some captive stoats. She had hoped to purchase freshly captured animals from local trappers and contractors, but that proved to be too difficult. She learnt of a study that had just concluded at Landcare Research at Lincoln using captive stoats for behavioural observations. By January 2013 the project had finished and the stoats were no longer needed. Maintaining them in captivity for no specific purpose was becoming expensive so they were about to be euthanased. Fortunately, Kim heard about this before the deed was done.

Kim was especially keen to buy the Lincoln stoats that would otherwise have no future. Landcare Research for their part were willing to hand them over. But then the question arose, how could they be transported from Lincoln to Hamilton? Driving down to collect them and bring them back, two days each way, was out of the question, and not only because of the expense. Imagine turning up at a motel in Picton, asking for overnight accommodation for two adults and ten stoats.

Fortunately, Landcare knew all about this problem and how to deal with it. When they needed stoats they brought them from trappers around the South Island. A system of secure transport had evolved for them. Each stoat was put in a separate metal carry box with one mesh side, a sliding door, lots of bedding and a chunk of rabbit meat. Three of these boxes fitted into one cardboard box, unmistakably labelled “LIVE ANIMALS”.

Landcare had an arrangement with Air New Zealand for transport of these boxes in the same manner as shipping dogs or cats in carry cages. The stoats cannot see out and people cannot see in, and freak out at the notion of such unusual travelling companions. Landcare were willing to box up the stoats and deliver them to Christchurch airport. The only remaining hurdle was that Waikato University was to pay the air fares. However, the University was rigidly required to buy air tickets through a travel agent in Hamilton .... they had never been asked for air tickets for stoats before! They simply didn’t have a box to tick that their computer would recognise or understand.

In the end, Landcare Research paid the fares themselves and claimed back the costs. Reimbursements, the University could handle. Ten e-tickets for un-named, four-footed, furry passengers with aggressive tendencies, no. With thanks to the Lincoln team, the stoats arrived safely, the research work was done and the results duly submitted for publication. Gladly, they did not live happily ever after, ..... along with badger, moley and rat. Their tickets were strictly one-way.

Epilogue: The stoats were studied to further understand their swimming abilities, particularly finding out how far they might be able to swim. They were quickly put to work and ‘invited’ to swim in long water tanks with currents of water set at various speeds. Their swimming actions, body and paw positioning and stamina were observed, measured and filmed to simulate a made up passage to a fictitious, offshore island teeming with native birds. One female swam non-stop for almost 2 hours in a valiant effort. Swimming is natural to stoats, even their paws are partially webbed to get maximum go-forward in water. Interestingly, Waikato University were keen to use real stoats and fit them with radio tracking collars and trial them under real marine conditions. Alas, DOC red tape meant that idea stayed dead in the water, just like the stoats would have been had they looked like getting away.