This story originally appeared on Simcoe.com on November 3, 2017.
Cover photo borrowed from Bethany Weeks via USFWS.
Despite a striking resemblance to the titular character of the TV series ALF, fishers in Simcoe are probably not responsible for a number of missing cats across the region.
It’s likely a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Fishers, part of the weasel family, resemble a stumpy cross between a bear and a raccoon.
“They certainly are capable of (eating cats),” said Brent Shirley, a management biologist for the Ministry of Natural Resources. Despite high-level predator status, the region offers a wide variety of more appealing fare including snowshoe hares, rabbits, mice, voles, in addition to fruits and mushrooms. The fisher is also one of the few predators capable of dining on porcupine, but despite the name, rarely eats fish.
There are parts of Ontario where forest cover is actually increasing. We see more fishers now than we would have seen in the 1980s“We have done various types of studies with fishers, including diet studies, but we have not observed fishers eating cats,” said Jeff Bowman, a research scientist for the MNRF, but said there is some anecdotal evidence.
Bowman said it was no coincidence there are more sightings, in recent years the fisher population has been on the uptick.
“They were a species distributed all the way through Ontario and down through the Great Lakes states,” said Bowman.
Increased forestry and agricultural activity reduced the fisher habitat, forest, in Ontario to Algonquin Park and areas north of Lake Huron by the 1930s. The population began to recover in the 1970s and 1980s with improved management.
Conditions in Simcoe are increasingly more welcoming to fishers.
“There are parts of Ontario where forest cover is actually increasing,” said Bowman, “We see more fishers now than we would have seen in the 1980s.”
Climate change also plays a role in their bolstered numbers. The fisher’s small, hairy feet are best suited to areas with light snow cover. The marten, a smaller cousin of the fisher, has bigger feet better suited to deep snow.
“As these shallow snow winters happen, fishers are more successful than they might have been in the past,” said Bowman.
It’s also the perfect season for fisher sightings. Between September and December, young fishers are gaining independence from their mothers and finding food on their own.
While it’s not likely the fisher is responsible for a rash of missing cats, other predators, like coyotes, won’t turn their nose up at an easy meal, so preventing small pets from crossing paths with hungry wildlife is crucial to their safety.
Melissa Kosowan, spokesperson for the Ontario SPCA, said it’s important to keep dogs on a leash and to keep cats and other small pets indoors.
She also said pet owners could reduce the risk by eliminating food sources from their property to make it less attractive for wild animals.
Shannon Lawless, a clerk at the Midhurst MNR office, said it was also important to eliminate feces from yards, especially in rural areas, that may attract wildlife.
While a trapper can be hired to protect a person’s property, prevention is the best protection for pets.