The mink and the mystery

Mink. w/Olmstead &quotkocol1125"
Mink. w/Olmstead "kocol1125"
Posted Nov. 25, 2010, at 7:58 p.m.

I am sitting coatless on the front porch, catching the last warmth of autumn as I read in the afternoon sun.

I had moved my Havahart trap from the garage to the porch after seeing squirrel traffic there, but I had not noticed the trap was sprung.

Now I see the flaps are down, but the trap is silent. When I creep over and bend down to look, my chocolate lab Lucy beats me to the trap.

“SQUALK!”

The ball of fur that had been curled up next to the bait pan is suddenly awake, either frightened or furious, or both. I put the dog in the house and lift the trap out of the shade and into the sun on the edge of the porch.

“SQUALK!” the little animal repeats. I recognize the fur. This critter has to be a mink — a marten or a mink. Too dark for a marten. It’s a mink.

I know they can be vicious and worry it might come back to bite me if I let it out. No need for the 8-mile trip to the dump road to deposit this catch with my squirrels. I will release it right here in my own woods. It is beautiful.

I take pictures and admire the creature. I go inside and observe it through the window. It licks its back and paws like a cat, curls up and goes back to sleep in the sun. I wish I could keep it, but ponder just how to let it go.

My friend Cindy arrives. I know she will have some ideas. She lives in the woods. And a bonus: She’s a nurse. She will know what to do if the thing bites me.

Cindy recommends covering the trap and moving it gently to the edge of the yard near the woods. The towel I find doesn’t provide complete cover and makes it difficult to grasp the handle on top of the trap, but I manage to move it from porch to woods’ edge.

I stand behind the trap and slowly open the flap on the opposite end. No action. The towel conceals the mink from my view. What’s it doing in there? It must be confused.

It doesn’t want to leave. The trap is silent.

I close the flap and open it again. Cindy stands about 20 feet behind me, at the ready. No action. I tip the trap and set it down. A little head with pointed nose and round dark eyes curls itself over the top of the trap, looks at me and goes back inside. It likes it in there. Now I really want to keep it.

I lift the flap again and rattle the trap. The little critter moves beyond the metal, feels the moist ground and joyfully bounds over the carpet of leaves, a dark shadow among the trees.

I return to the porch and compare the droppings left beneath the trap, where it must have spent the night, to the pictures in my “Scats and Tracks” book. Bingo. A perfect match. And the drawing of the animal duplicates the head that peered over the trap and the shadow that disappeared into the woods — “pointed flat skull with small ears, dark brown with white spots on chin and chest.”

I wonder if this small treasure could have anything to do with the two dismembered paws I just found on the trail, or rather that Lucy found, during two different dog walks. I study the book to identify the paws. They look so familiar, but the illustrations show the track, not the paw itself.

I have seen that paw, with its slender “fingers” and sharp nails. The black, wrinkled skin of the pads looks almost human. Then I realize, it is the paw I have seen in a photograph on the cover of my own Aroostook County magazine. My suspicion is confirmed. It is the paw of a raccoon. But who killed it? Can a tiny mink take down a burly raccoon?

I am describing the random paws to a friend at the kitchen table when our eyes catch movement outside the window. Galloping along the edge of the yard about 15 feet from the house is a long, dark creature. It’s not the mink. It is considerably larger, like a fat cat. It could not have fit into my Havahart trap.

I take my friend out onto the trail to show her one of the two paws and we see the animal again. (It must be the same one — same size, same color, same gallop.)

Back to the book. Not a mink. Not a marten. It can only be a fisher. Can a fisher take out a raccoon? I read the details: “Larger than a domestic cat, but slender, 7.5-12 lb., pointed flat skull with small ears … dark brown, long bushy tail.”

“That’s our animal,” I think, especially when I read, “scat that frequently contains porcupine quills.” Porcupine quills! No wonder that fisher was fat. Compared with a porcupine, that raccoon must have been, well, a piece of cake — except for the feet.

Kathryn Olmstead is a retired University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She may be reached by e-mail at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu.

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