Herman my Ermine
Michael C. Pennington
A Cesna one-eighty outfitted with landing skies roostertailed onto the six foot of snow pack of Sockeye Lake. My wife and I were on the bravest adventure of our lives to stake up to forty acres of homestead land. We snow-shoed across the larger lake, and the adjoining two smaller sister lakes that formed a descending chain into a stream that fed the Talkeetna River. Each of us towed a sled of supplies we would later be very grateful for.
On the most eastern shore we climbed up on a bench of land well after dark that looked attractive to us. I’ll admit the three dead spruce trees standing tall and dry in that six feet of snow, looked awful tempting as a means of starting a quick fire. I unpacked my saw and dropped the beetle killed trees to build a roaring fire. We built a shelter for the night and settled into the location that became our new home. Our family stayed busy over the years, and we eventually built up a small farm we grew comfortable with.
My son didn’t have many friends to play with that far out. The nearest were Raven’s three children, four miles away and all uphill. When he went to play with the neighbor kids the trip was an overnight stay. Returning from such a trip, Isaac and my wife Joan found the two day old ermine in the trail. My son, raised out in some of the most beautiful, but remote territory in Alaska, had a wild fascination for nature. When the two arrived at home, Isaac ran up breathless to show me his newest find cupped in his hands.
“Dad, can we keep him? Please Dad!”
“I don’t know? He might have Rabies,” and I took the ermine up in my own hand.
“What? Do you really think so?” Joan leaned in.
I hesitated to tell the truth, and sternly looked at my son. “No. But you never know. You can’t just be picking up animals Isaac. Its mother would have been back for him. You probably just scared her off coming down the trail.”
“She wasn’t around Dad.” Isaac insisted, trying to distract me from my usual speech.
“When you picked the little guy up,” I noticed after rolling him over in my hand, “you put the human smell on him. The mother probably won’t have anything to do with him now.”
Isaac hung his head. He had heard this same speech before, but with birds last time. “Sorry Dad.”
“Well, are you going to let us keep him?” Joan asked, obviously determined to support her son.
When Joan’s maternal instinct took over, I knew I had lost the argument. With that tone of voice, if I abandoned the little guy, I figured I might as well move out myself. “Okay, we’ll keep him.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. He’s probably going to die,” I warned.
“Hmm!” My wife obviously harbored a different opinion. Joan, a registered nurse, handled the responsibility of healing and nurturing on our homestead. In fact, I never saw a kinder soul with the animals than my wife.
I remained skeptical of the little hairless varmint with his eyes still closed. Snuffling around blindly in my palm, I eyed the unlikely beast. He looked harmless enough, all pink and cuddly, but I knew what kind of creature he would grow up into. However, I hoped he might come in useful.
“I wonder if this guy would make a good mouser?” I mused.
In my opinion our dumb cat wasn’t much use for anything. Certainly not to play with, our cat never wanted anything to do with us mere humans. Except complain, when his water or food bowl’s level drew low. The shrews had hit us hard lately, and the few mouse traps we brought were not doing the job, or the dang cat. I secretly made plans to trade his sorry backside away on the next trip to town.
The journey was seventeen air miles to Talkeetna, by foot the added miles of the winding river made it impossible for a strong person to ski out in a single day. We could use our radio, if we had an emergency and a plane would fly in to meet us on the upper lake. The journey took all day on a good snowmobile if the river froze hard enough. I would never want to make the trip on foot in the summer, crossing the river and the joining tributaries would be next to impossible most of the time. There were no bridges, and hip waders did not quite help that much, when the water’s force knocked you off your feet or the depth was well over your head. In my opinion, the upper Talkeetna was too dangerous for boats, not that I could afford one.
Joan fed the baby ermine goat milk with an eye dropper for a couple of weeks, until he graduated to his own baby-doll bottle. His fur began to grow in after the first week, snowy white and silky to the touch. I loved to hold him, because I liked the feel of his fur. Joan used to joke about her live fur coat, when he draped himself over her shoulder.
Not long after his teeth came in we fed him moose burger. All three of us soft fingered humans, learned quickly not to hold raw meat in our hands. The varmint didn’t care if you wore shorts, or not, when he dug his sharp claws into climb up your leg. Not to mention what Herman did to your fingers when he reached the meat.
Yes, my son named the ermine, Herman. He became a white tiger, a ferocious hunter and the scourge of the cabin. I don’t think a shrew came anywhere near the outside either. Not with my Herman on the job. That winter, I experienced a true symbiosis with a wild animal. My adopted second son grew into a natural shrew deterrent.
Shrews! I hated the nasty little… nope I won’t say it. Just know I don’t care for them. They will get into anything, if you’re not careful. They can chew through wood, plastic and a few other things you won’t believe. Sneaky. The worst thing is they leave their scats and mark wherever they’ve been. They can spread viral disease and bacteria that can be very unhealthy to us humans. Joan claimed Herman was a gift from God.
Young Herman, earned his keep, and I was willing to overlook a nip or two every once in awhile. He never really meant to hurt anyone. He actually tried being very gentle with us. I’m amazed at how intelligent the ermine grew to be. I once saw him testing how hard he could bite his own paw, almost human in shape, before getting in a mock brawl with my own hand. What I didn’t know at the time was he had set himself on a course for gladiator school.
Herman didn’t get along with the cat, because the cat kept trying to eat him. The black tom, a Persian and Manx mix. Well that’s what the man told me, who convinced me to take the dang cat. Personally, I believe that cat was ninety-nine point nine percent Persian. He acted like a gourmet taste tester.
Those first few months, I kept a close eye on the cat when he came in the house. He tried every scam in the book to get the ermine. I like to think Herman was too smart for him. The cat was just spitting jealous, and would act up for sure if Herman came around during his dinner time. When Herman turned six months old the feud accelerated in earnest.
Herman was unmerciful, and faster than the cat. Even though I noticed that he never let the cat get him cornered. Because of the cat’s previous behavior of trying to kill Herman and marking, I never let the cat stay in the house at night anymore. He didn’t hunt the shrews anyway. I put his stub-tailed backside out the door come bed time. I don’t know why I thought an un-neutered cat would be tougher and a better mouser. Sometimes, I just have to learn the hard way.
As Herman grew older, he began to lay ambushes for the cat. Perched on a shelf, hidden under a chair, or just plain launching himself from my shoulder attacking the cat’s hindquarters; where his bobbed tail did little to protect his exposed backside. Truthfully, I don’t believe the ermine even meant the cat any real harm.
I could tell the cat wanted to kill the ermine. The only reason he didn’t get away with his contemplated murder was the fact we watched the cat so close.
I eventually saw Herman back the cat down more than once. He wouldn’t even let the cat get to his food bowl if he was feeling spunky. Later, when Herman was full grown that cat wouldn’t be caught anywhere closer than fifty yards of the cabin. The cat needed that long of a head start to run for tall timber when Herman was outside. The cat never came back in the house again. He would sit out on a fence post and complain about the good old days back when he had it so fine.
Herman had a sense of humor too. A devious mind must have been crammed in that furry brain case. That or my son was giving him lessons on how to get dad’s blood pressure up.
We had a sure fire trick that would keep Herman busy. The ermine my wife discovered liked silk. He would loll around on those silk sheets in total bliss. Although, if the little ham thought you were watching him, he would scoot across the bed on his belly like a swimming fish. Herman had a streak of clown in him and was good for some fun entertainment. If you got bored watching one antic, soon enough, he would find something else to get your attention.
One day, I was fixing lunch, when Herman was about a year old. We usually tried to be quiet about the food preparation, because he was so voracious. Forgetfully, my slapping the skillet on the burner didn’t help much to keep him out of the kitchen. The chow hound was a royal pain sometimes. Hanging off my shoulder with his hind claws dug in, he reached out trying to steal my sausage every time I turned it over. I had long since taken to wearing a thick shirt or sweater.
He was so persistent that I finally gave in, and sliced off a piece for him. Otherwise, I knew I wouldn’t get any peace. People with dogs that beg think they have it bad.
Of course, the little booger-head nipped my finger as he grabbed it from my grasp. Disdainfully, he went to chewing away while perched on my shoulder. He had been getting rough with my wife too, so after I quit shaking my finger. I unthinkingly, gave him a little pop with my index finger launched from my thumb.
I don’t think Herman could have been more surprised. The ermine was devastated at my transgression, and went off squeaking in a total pout. I was totally shocked at the reaction. Just how smart are ermines? I can’t tell you, but I know they are not dumb.
I felt kind of bad, because he never even broke the skin on my finger, and I knew that I had over reacted. However, no way was I going to go after the little guy. I figured he would be back.
Sure enough, I was almost finished with my sausage, when I heard him headed my way.
I broke the ice first, “Decide to come back and act like a gentleman, have you?”
Herman kind of scurried around my easy chair, hesitant and acting shy. Ah, heck, I felt like a heel. I would be shy, too, if some jerk popped me in the head. The little guy didn’t even take interest in the last piece of sausage that I held out.
“Come on boy, you can have it.” I decided that I really must have hurt his feelings, because he hesitated and wouldn’t take the sausage, and that really surprised me.
He finally climbed up the chair, with his sharp claws mounting the back to nuzzle at my ear. He had away of doing that which drove my wife insane with giggles. With me it generally just tickled, and I figured he was trying to make up for biting me.
“Yes, that’s okay,” thinking I had won a major battle. “I know you’re sorry.”
Herman was smart in some ways that I believe could be compared to a young kid when the time came to figuring things out. I never thought about those quarter-inch long, curved fangs near my jugular.
“Well, kid. I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
Herman nuzzled some more, and I continued talking to him. I assumed he wanted to make up, and I wasn’t expecting what happened next. The little varmint climbed up through the hole in the back of my ball cap. Now it’s true, I do have a big head, and it felt weird as could be with all those little claws circling around on my scalp. I couldn’t help but laugh at the feeling. My second child was always coming up with something new.
Herman paused for just a moment, and then tore out of the back of that ball cap. Faster than when, he jumped off my shoulder after I stung him with my finger. He chattered his laughter as he hauled paws for elsewhere.
I sat there like a dummy, trying to figure out the reason why for that little drama. Then I grew suspicious of the little jokester. Reaching up under my hat, I felt the warm goo he left behind, to find the little varmint had pooped on my head.
I don’t ever remember him biting me after that. But I never raised a finger against him again either. Some critters just don’t turn the other cheek. The moral of this story is that sometimes in nature even the littlest guy can be the toughest and have the last laugh.