Mammal: Fisher Cat
Length: up to four feet
Mass: up to fifteen pounds
The beast was previously unknown to me. It was small yet large. It was cute yet hideous. It was shy yet it took what it wanted and attacked without provocation (see: Reddit). No one had ever seen one, but it was everywhere, this beast, nesting in forests, stalking rows of corn, circling homes and gardens, feasting on everyone’s pets. It seemed to be composed of parts appropriated from other animals: a toylike head with round ears, a snout stuffed haphazardly full of hook-like teeth, a pointlessly long and supple body, anodyne peg-like limbs nevertheless festooned with claws. It was solitary and, according to legend, at night let out a keening wail—an apoplectic demon-child in search of blood. I knew it lived near me.
I do not remember how I first learned its name: fisher cat. Or, more properly, fisher, as it is not a cat. Or: pékané (Abenaki), Pekania pennanti (classification), Pennant’s marten (English, after Thomas Pennant, a Welsh naturalist), otchoek (Cree), tha cho (Chipewyan), otochilik (Ojibwa), uskool (Wabanaki). Fishers do not fish, and it is thought that early American immigrants mistook them for polecats, a.k.a. fitches or fitcheau, in Old French, terms allegedly related to the Dutch visse, meaning “nasty,” and the Middle English fulmard, a “foul marten.” The French word for the pelt of a polecat is fiche, another possible source for the word, given the North American fur trade.
Perhaps someone said, You’ve got a lot of fishers up there, meaning where I lived: that is, in the woods, two hours south of the Canadian Border. Maybe it was a whole table of people speculating about this, about them, the fishers. I don’t know if the fascination was first someone else’s or if it was always my own; I don’t know which happened first: the googling and the YouTube-ing, or the live appearance, which occurred shortly thereafter, and which, I was later informed, perhaps by the same tableful of people, and thus, perhaps erroneously, is extremely rare.
Here are a few things I do know.
● The adult female fisher is almost always pregnant. She mates in the spring (females are the instigators of this activity). Over the next eleven months, the fertilized embryos remain dormant in the blastocyst phase until the following February, when the increase in daylight hours is believed to trigger implantation, leading to a brief, six-week gestation. Then the female gives birth and breeds again in short order.
● Edwin Eugène LaBeree, author of a 1941 guide, Breeding and Reproduction in Fur Bearing Animals, describes sex between two fishers in the following way: “Such noise! Such yowls! Such howling! No thousand cats caterwauling on a backyard fence at midnight ever could make such a noise…. Once the pair mated there was not a sound. And the moment the mating was over, the female insisted on getting back to her pen immediately.”
● Both male and female fishers have round patches of fur on the central pads of their paws. These patches enlarge during the breeding season and are thought to be involved in mating negotiations.
● Cats and dogs walk only on their toes. Fishers, by contrast, step onto their entire foot. To get a sense of what this looks like, shorten your cat’s legs by half in your mind’s eye. Now imagine your cat (with its new, shorter legs) wearing a set of slippers about the length of the amount by which its legs have been shortened. This is the fisher’s setup. Its feet look like those of a cartoon character, when it is seen strolling across the snow on all fours, from the side. It remains above the snow, its weight well dispersed.
● Fishers famously consume porcupines, although they are not the only predators to do so: wolves, coyotes, sizable felids (bobcats, lynxes, mountain lions), wolverines, and great horned owls partake of porcupines, but with far less enthusiasm. Only the fisher seems to have been designed with this meal in mind. Fishers do well in trees, the porcupine’s preferred locale, and are skilled at delivering wounds to the face, the porcupine’s Achilles heel. Once a porcupine is dead, the fisher delves into the carcass through the chest, creating a hole by means of which it has access to tasty organs like the heart and lungs, as well as the meat of the porcupine’s legs.
● Prices for fisher pelts peaked in 1920, at $100 per pelt (over $1,000 today), and in the late 1970s, at up to $410 per pelt. The fur trade in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries significantly lowered the fisher population in the US. As the animal became rare or extinct, states closed their open hunting seasons, with California being the last to do so, in 1946. Habitat destruction further threatened the animal, and porcupine populations rose. Perhaps because porcupines were perceived to damage valuable timber, fishers were reintroduced in Canada and some American states beginning in the 1950s. Fishers are currently listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as one of the animals of “least concern.”
It is also the case that before I saw the fishers, I seem to have felt them. This was a little more than a year ago. August was getting late. As I walked back from the mailbox one afternoon, there was a twitching around the side of the house, a glimmer. I was on the porch when a fisher threw itself out of the arbor, just as another emerged from behind a lily. The emerging one froze, head rotating to watch as I retired, hastily, indoors.
Safely enclosed, I went for my iPhone. In the grass, the fishers shrugged. They posed and departed, and I have not seen them again.
One day my neighbor—let us call him M—comes by. He is both the builder of my house and a former resident. He tells a story about a (feline) cat named Effie he thought was falling off the roof one afternoon, but who was, in fact, in the process of being unzipped by a fisher. M emerged to find the remains of the cat and a feasting victor. Attempting to scare the predator off, M himself, as he tells it, became a body of interest. He rapidly bid farewell to Effie’s corpse.
There was another cat too: Marty. Marty was wise; he’d go on missions alone for days. M tells me about Effie’s fate and then about the wonders of Marty.
A month passes. I see M again. He’s giving me vegetables in advance of a long trip, and I say, “By the way, whatever happened to Marty?”
“Oh,” M says, “they got him too.”
Who? I ask, unnecessarily. I don’t know why it is so important to wait to tell me this, to break the news slowly, as M is clearly doing. A wobbling instant later, I realize: This isn’t for my benefit. M knows I keep my cat indoors.
Date: January 31, 2020
Publisher: The Believer
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of The Believer, February–March, 2020, Issue One Hundred Twenty-Nine.