A fisher cat is not a feline and it does not catch fish, but this weasel relative is one of the most powerful hunters in North America.
Found in the forests of Canada and the northern United States, the fisher cat is a unique sight to behold. A member of the weasel family, this creature is known for being elusive and shy. And people who are able to spot the secretive fisher might assume that it’s a sweet, innocent animal.
But beneath its seemingly charming exterior lies the heart of a true predator. Though it doesn’t catch fish — despite its deceptive name — the fisher cat has been known to prey on rodents, flightless birds, amphibians, small reptiles, and insects. It’s also one of the few mammals brave enough to go after porcupines. And fishers have few predators besides humans.
Here’s everything you need to know about the fascinating fisher cat.
A Unique Animal With A Misleading Name
The fisher cat is neither a fisher nor a cat. Instead, it’s a weasel relative that only eats fish that are already dead and washed up on a shore. The fisher likely got its name from European settlers in North America, who thought it was similar to the European polecat, known as the “fitche” or “fichet.”
Measuring up to 40 inches long, the fisher cat has a slender body with a notably lengthy tail (which makes up about one-third of its total body length). According to Mass Audubon, the animal can weigh up to 20 pounds and has short yet agile legs with partially retractable claws, which allow it to quickly climb forest plants and leap up to seven feet between trees.
It boasts a glossy fur coat that ranges in color from grayish brown to dark brown to brownish black. About 100 years ago, the fisher’s pelt was considered so valuable in the fur trade that the animal was nearly hunted to extinction in some regions of its home range in North America. And considering the rampant deforestation that had already taken place years prior, it seemed like the creature was in danger of disappearing forever.
But luckily for the fisher cat, it’s nowhere near extinction today. According to Live Science, successful reintroduction and habitat restoration has ensured its survival in Canada and the United States (especially in the Northeast and Northwest). On top of that, animal fur has fallen out of fashion in modern times, making it less likely that fishers will be trapped for their pelt.
Though this is great news for fishers and the environmentalists who’ve fought to keep them around, it’s far less exciting for the many animals that the predator eats — which might just include your pet cat or dog.
The Voracious Appetite Of The Fisher Cat
Despite its relatively small size, the fisher cat has a big appetite. According to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, this carnivorous creature preys upon snowshoe hares, squirrels, mice, moles, chickens, amphibians, and insects. It also eats nuts and fruits if it can’t find animals to hunt.
Notably, the fisher cat also enjoys dining on porcupines, which are notoriously tough to kill. To accomplish this, the predator attacks the only parts of the porcupine that are vulnerable: its face and underbelly. Once the porcupine is wounded, the fisher cat kills it and then eats the animal starting from the head, neck, or underbelly to avoid getting poked by the quills.
But even if a fisher cat does get jabbed by a quill — or if it swallows a quill while eating — it doesn’t seem to harm the creature much. It’s able to fight off infections from quills that would be fatal for most other animals.
Thanks to the fisher’s impressive hunting skills, terrifying rumors have spread that this animal eats small children. But according to Live Science, these rumors are just that — rumors. Wildlife ecologist Michael Joyce says that he’s not aware of any cases of fisher cats attacking humans. But while your kids might be safe from the grasp of a fisher, your pet cat sure isn’t.
Fishers have been known to go after domestic cats when they wander outside, and some of them even view pet dogs as food. According to The New York Times, one woman named Kerry Beaudry recounted a particularly vicious fisher cat who attacked her German Shepherd in Rhode Island in 2007. The fisher in question dug its claws into the dog’s neck and gnawed at its face until Beaudry’s husband chased the predator off with a broom.
Unfortunately, what happened to Beaudry’s poor pooch wasn’t an outlier. In recent years, fishers have become infamous for attacking domestic pets and farm animals, especially in the Northeastern United States. What’s more, the fisher cat can kill several animals at a time in a small space, which can be troublesome if it finds its way into chicken coops or other farm pens. And since the fisher is nocturnal, it’s not easily spotted by potential prey.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has led to frustration and anxiety among many pet owners and farmers in areas where the fisher cat roams.
What The Future Looks Like For The Fisher Cat
Though the fisher cat may have been in danger of vanishing decades ago, that’s far from the case today. Conservation efforts and reforestation have ensured that the animal will be thriving in North America for the foreseeable future. Stricter trapping regulations have also helped its numbers.
Since the fisher has few other enemies besides humans, it has very little to fear in the wild — even when it encounters larger animals. In fact, according to National Geographic, the fisher cat can successfully take down animals twice its size, including the fearsome Canadian lynx. It’s believed that it’s able to do this by fatally biting the wild cat’s neck or head.
“A fisher really doesn’t have any boundaries in the size of the animal it’s willing to attack,” explained Scott McLellan, an assistant regional wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “We know that fishers are very opportunistic. They are just a ball of fury.”
Though this may aggravate some pet owners and farmers, they’re probably best off taking the advice of conservationists and other experts in order to keep their animals safe in areas where fishers might be on the prowl.
Protective measures might include bringing domestic cats inside at night, ensuring that chickens are secured inside their coops, and keeping a close eye on pet dogs. And it’s also good to remember that while fishers can be annoying, they also play an important role in the environment, particularly when it comes to keeping mice and vole numbers under control.
All in all, humans will need to learn how to live with the fisher cat instead of working against it. It’s clearly not going anywhere anytime soon.