Fishers, mistakenly called Fisher Cats, are probably the most misunderstood, maligned species in New England. They are not related to felines in any way, and are the second largest member of the weasel family found in Massachusetts. The largest is the River Otter. Fishers lead a shy, elusive, solitary lifestyle, rarely seen by people.
In the 1700s and 1800s, in New England, when farmers and loggers cleared the forests and practiced unregulated trapping , fishers populations were critically decreased. In the late 1800s, farms were abandoned and the land became reforested which led to an increase in Fisher numbers. In the 1950s, logging companies saw the unique value of Fishers: they are the only animals that successfully prey on porcupines. The loggers reintroduced them into Northern New England to control the porcupines from destroying seedlings planted to reestablish trees.
Fishers weigh 4-12 pounds, with the male being the larger of the species. It is considered a medium-sized mammal that is long and thin and low to the ground. The fur is dark brown to black and changes among seasons. It has a long, bushy tail and a muzzle similar to a dog. They live in forests and dense lowlands and avoid open areas. They do not want to be near humans, but can be seen out both day and night. They are opportunistic omnivores and have a diverse diet that includes birds, reptiles and insects as well as carrion, berries and nuts. They can kill small mammals such as squirrels, mice, chipmunks and porcupines. Fishers give birth from March to May and usually have 3 babies. They generally live to be about 10 years old.
Myths about Fishers:
They will attack people and little kids. There is little worry about a Fisher attack on humans. Their jaw size is that of a chihuahua.
They will kill dogs and cats: Fishers can kill small domestic pets, but it is not their primary choice of food. Free roaming cats are much more likely to be hit by a car than to be attacked by a fisher.
Fishers scream at night. They actually are pretty quiet creatures, and most of the time people believe they are hearing a Fisher, it might actually be a red fox, barn owl, rabbit or raccoon.
The best way to keep Fishers off your property is to not keep out items that will attract the prey they seek. This includes bird feeders, and bird food on the ground, and unsecured garbage. To protect cats from not only Fishers but many dangers, they should be kept indoors. Outdoor cats cause tremendous damage to many forms of wildlife while at the same time putting themselves at risk for injury, disease and death.
This past summer we had the opportunity to work with a wildlife agency in Kingston Rhode Island who had an orphan Fisher whose mother was killed. This baby was found by the side of the road. We also had an orphan Fisher in our facility being raised as a singleton. Most mammals thrive better with siblings when they are young, so through the cooperation of both State Wildlife Agencies, the Rhode Island Fisher was brought to live with ours. They are both benefitting from being together for companionship and also for learning skills. At our facility we keep our animals as wild as possible so they have very little interaction with staff. Being released with a buddy helps with the transition into the wild and adulthood. These Fishers have had daily enrichment in their outdoor enclosure to teach them how to hunt for food, climb expertly, and to keep their minds active and busy. They will both be leaving us within the next few weeks to start their adult lives in the wild.
To learn more about the Cape Wildlife Center or help in their mission, visit www.capewildlifecenter.com or call 508 362-0111.
Caryn Ritchie is the volunteer coordinator for the Cape Wildlife Center and holds both a Massachusetts rehabilitator’s license and a federal permit to rehabilitate migratory birds.