When I was a child my family used to visit a large chicken farm owned by some relatives. It was a commercial operation with enormous rooms the size of football fields (or so it seemed to me at the time) that smelled vaguely bad. When we’d walk into the room the chickens would cluck and scurry away from us and into a corner, agitated.
I loved the relatives and even the idea of going to a farm. But I didn’t like those chickens. That antipathy didn’t keep me from feeling horror one day when I was about four years old and heard talk that a weasel had killed one (or several?) of them. The corpse of the chicken was placed in a large trash barrel, and as they carted it away I had the opportunity to look in and see.
Did I take a peek? Or did I just imagine it and decide it would be too dreadful? I don’t recall, which is in itself odd because I tend to have very detailed childhood memories. But I certainly recall that, ever after, the word “weasel” gave me the creepy shivers.
I probably was already primed to dislike weasels anyway, because I detested jack-in-the-boxes (jacks-in-the-box?). Vile things, popping up for the sole purpose of scaring children. It was impossible to prepare properly even if one were familiar with the genre; the thing always sprang up just a little earlier or later than expected. And those tunes! “Pop Goes the Weasel”—what did it even mean? Monkey? Carpenter’s bench?
Well, I’m all grown up now, and there’s Google and Wiki. And what I’ve found is: nobody really knows what the song is all about:
Perhaps because of the obscure nature of the lyrics there have been many suggestions for what they mean, particularly the phrase “Pop! goes the weasel”, including: that it is a tailor’s flat iron, a dead weasel, a hatter’s tool, a clock reel used for measuring in spinning, a piece of silver plate, or that ‘weasel and stoat’ is Cockney rhyming slang for “coat”, which is “popped” or pawned to visit, or after visiting, the Eagle pub.
Other than correspondences, none of these theories has any additional evidence to support it, and some can be discounted because of the known history of the song. Iona and Pete Opie observed that, even at the height of the dance craze in the 1850s, no-one seemed to know what the phrase meant.
So, why am I writing about this now? I have a cousin who raises chickens (lots of em, although not as many as our relatives long ago) at his country place as a sort of intense hobby. There are quite a few, plus ducks and geese, and he goes after it in a very scientific manner. He told me yesterday that a weasel (actually, in this case a mink, but they are part of the same family) had gotten into the coop and killed all the chickens over a period of a couple of weeks, despite his best efforts to stop it. The special horror of this was that weasels kill far more animals than they can eat, biting the head and neck and leaving a scene of seemingly senseless carnage.
Immediately that long-ago trash barrel came to mind. But my real question—and one I’m throwing out to the crowd here—is why? Why would a creature just kill and kill like that?
My guess: a sort of feeding frenzy, the purposeful killing instinct plus the weasel equivalent of steroids, as it were. A propensity that, once released, doesn’t easily turn itself off.
And there is some support for that idea here:
Weasels are very active. They are always moving and hunting. Because they are so active, their heartbeat and breathing rates are very fast. A weasel’s heart beats 300-400 times per minute, which makes their body temperatures very warm. Some smaller weasels have a body temperature of around 104 degrees Fahrenheit…
Weasels are carnivores, which means that they mostly eat meat. Weasels are not scavengers; they don’t usually eat meat that they find. Instead, weasels prefer to eat animals that they kill themselves. Weasels also drink the blood of animals that they kill.
Weasels are very strong for their size. They can kill animals much bigger than they are such as rabbits and chickens. Weasels usually kill by biting their prey in the neck.
Weasels spend most of their time hunting. Weasels scurry around trying to smell mice or voles to eat. They also eat rabbits, chipmunks, shrews, rats, birds, and the occasional insect or earthworm. Once they smell them, the weasel does not give up and follows the trail. Often they follow the trail right into the animal’s burrow or den. Weasels eat half their body weight every day. Most weasels are nocturnal (active at night), but sometimes they hunt during the day.
Weasels have to eat a lot because they are very active. Sometimes they kill more than they can eat, so they will bury or store the extra food. They mark their food with their musk, making the food smell bad so that other animals won’t eat it.
So there we have the answer—at least, sort of. It still doesn’t seem quite complete to me. But combine a high metabolism with a huge need for for food and the ability to save food for the future and that’s at least part of the answer.
Weasels are only, after all, just doing the weaselly thing that weasels do: being weasels. And I suppose it is true that the world would have a lot more mice scampering around if it weren’t for weasels, so they have their place in the great dance of life and all that. But they still give me the willies.