What are fishing cats, the animals with the most misleading names?


One of the more obscure animals, fishing cats (Pekania pennanti) or “fishermen”, in short, are predators endemic to North America. Despite their name, these animals are not cats and they do not fish. However, they are increasingly moving into many urban and suburban areas across the United States.

Image credits to USFWS Pacific Southwest Region/Flickr.

Fishing cats are slender, short-legged mammals that resemble weasels or small wolverines. They can reach around 145 centimeters in length (4 feet 9 inches), including the tail. They are covered in dark brown fur, which is shiny and thick in winter, and more mottled in summer. They have rounded ears and overall they look quite cute and cuddly. But make no mistake: Fishing cats have vicious, retractable claws and are pretty formidable predators for their size.

The species is endemic to various regions of North America. New England, Tennessee, the Great Lakes region, and the northern parts of the Rocky Mountains are all home to fishing cat populations. Smaller populations have also been reported in California, the southern Sierra Nevada, and the west coast of Oregon. Canada’s boreal forests are also excellent homes for these mammals.

The cat that isn’t a cat

Taxonomically speaking, fishing cats are closely related to martens, being part of the Mustelids family. It is the largest family in the order of Caniformia (dog-like animals) and the largest order Carnivorous (meat eaters). As such, they are among the most successful and wealthy group of predators on the planet.

Despite this taxonomic allegiance to the group Carnivorous, fishing cats are omnivores. They will happily hunt a wide range of animals of comparable size to themselves. They are among the few animals that even attempt to hunt porcupines, and do so successfully, but prefer to hunt hares. However, they are not above scouring the forest floor for plants to eat. They usually forage around fallen trees, looking for fruits, mushrooms, nuts and insects. Somewhat surprisingly, given their name, fishing cats very rarely eat fish.

It is unclear exactly how the animal got its name. Folklore says that fishing cats stole the fish that early settlers used to bait traps in the Great Lakes region, but this is completely unconfirmed. More likely, the “fisherman” in “cat fisherman” comes from “fisse”, the Dutch equivalent of the word “fitch”, from the early settlers of the area. It is also possible that it has its roots in the French term ‘fishe’. These words refer to the European Polecat or its skin, respectively; since the fur trade was an important source of income for early settlers, it is likely that fishing cats were prized and sought after for their pelts, and the species became associated with the polecat, which was bred for fur in Europe.

It’s easy to see why their skins were so prized. Image via Wikimedia.

However, due to this association, fishing cats have been hunted to extinction in some parts of their natural habitat. Due to a decline in pelts hunted since the Americas were first settled by Europeans, the animals are making a comeback and their populations are recovering and returning to the areas they previously inhabited. Despite this, legal harvesting for fur, through trapping, remains one of the primary sources of information on their numbers available to us today.

A baby fishing cat is called a “kit”. Females tend to give birth to litters of one to four kits at a time in the spring and nurture them until late summer. Kits are blind and quite helpless at first, but become well able to care for themselves in the summer and go in search of their own mates.

How do they live?

Fishermen spend most of their time on the ground and have a strong preference for woodlands over other habitats. They are most commonly found in boreal or coniferous forests, but individuals have also been observed in transitional forests, such as mixed deciduous and coniferous forests. They seem to avoid areas where air cover is not very thick, preferring at least 50% cover.

Fishing cats also make their dens in medium-sized and tall trees when they give birth and raise their kits. Due to these factors, they are more likely to be seen in old-growth forests, since heavily logged or young forests do not seem to provide the habitat that anglers like to live in.

Towards the west of the continent, where fires regularly clear forests of fallen trees (the most favored feeding environments for fishermen), these animals tend to gravitate towards forests adjacent to bodies of water (riparian forests). They also seem to dislike areas with heavy snow, regardless of their geographic location.

Despite their habitat preferences, fishing cats have been seen encroaching deeper and deeper into urban landscapes, most likely attracted by the prospect of easy food. Although it is still unclear whether fishing cats hunt pets such as house cats or small dogs, such activities would be within their abilities. However, they are most likely looking for food discarded in garbage cans.

Fishing cats stay away from humans most of the time and avoid contact. However, they will fight back if they feel cornered. They are quite small, so the chances of a deadly encounter with an Angler Cat are slim, but if you ever come across one, don’t be fooled by their cuddly exterior. Give it space; their claws and fangs can be quite nasty, and there is always a risk of infection when it comes to wounds from wild animals.

Today, these furry mammals are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; they are making a fairly successful comeback from their all-time lows. Yet habitat destruction and human encroachment remain serious problems for the species. Their increasingly frequent sightings in cities and cityscapes across North America are a harbinger of a problem facing wildlife everywhere: humans are taking up more space than ever, so they’re also coming visit our cities. Depending on what we do in the future, they might be forced to settle here for good.


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