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The Story Of Wild Animals:
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 Story Of The Mungoose

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Story Of The Mungoose

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

To my mind the best all-around rough-and-ready fighter, of his size, in the animal kingdom is the mungoose. In India this little creature delights in nothing so much as to meet a cobra, the most deadly of all snakes.

The mungoose is about the size of a cat. It lies in wait for its hereditary enemy, or rather victim, for the fight always has one ending, and when the serpent comes into range attacks with a desperation born of the knowledge of the cobra's venomous bite. His mode of attack is to tease the snake into darting at him, when with inconceivable rapidity he pounces on the reptile's head.

Much has been written as to the combats of both the Egyptian and the Indian mungoose with venomous snakes, and also as to the alleged immunity of these animals from snake poison. The prevalent belief throughout oriental countries is that the mungoose, when bitten, seeks for an antidote, a herb or root known in India as manguswail. It is scarcely necessary to say that the story is destitute of foundation. There is, however, another view, supported by some evidence, that the mungoose is. less susceptible to snake poison than other animals. I have not seen many combats, but, so far as I can judge from the few I have witnessed, the mungoose escaped being bitten by his wonderful activity. He appears to wait till the snake makes a dart at him, and then suddenly pounces upon the reptile's head and crunches it to pieces. I have seen a mungoose eat up the head and poison glands of a large cobra, so the poison must be harmless to the mucous membrane of the former animal. When excited, the mungoose erects its long stiff hair, and it must be very difficult for a snake to drive its fangs through this and through the thick skin which all kinds of mungooses possess. In all probability a mungoose is very rarely scratched by the fangs, and, if he is, very little poison can be injected. It has been repeatedly proved by experiments that a mungoose can be killed, like any other animal, if properly bitten by a venomous snake, though even in this case the effects appear to be produced after a longer period than with other mammals of the same size.

In addition to being a benefactor to the human race as a destroyer of poisonous snakes, the Indian mungoose (like its Egyptian cousin) is equally valuable as an exterminator of rats, ships having more than once been cleared of those pests in a comparatively short period by the introduction of a mungoose. About twenty years ago the sugar-planting industry in Jamaica was threatened with annihilation from the damage inflicted on the canes by a particular species of rat, which absolutely swarmed in the island. After ferrets, toads and ants had been tried with more or less ill-success to stay the plague, the Indian mungoose was introduced. In the spring Of 1872 nine of these animals were imported and let loose in the island.

Within a few months young ones were seen about, and in less than six months there was evidence, clear and certain, that the rats were much less destructive than they had ever been known. Fewer rats were caught and fewer canes were destroyed, month after month. Within two years the expenditure in killing rats ceased almost entirely, and in another year the planters enjoyed relief and immunity; and ever since the losses from rats have been a mere trifle. Within a very short time neighboring islands found a similar benefit. The mungoose has been subsequently introduced, with equally satisfactory results, into Cuba, and America's new possession, Porto Rico.

The mungoose is easily tamed and in India is kept for the purpose of driving the cobra from the residences of the wealthy inhabitants. Snake-charmers carry the animal about with them. I at one time owned one which always accompanied me in my hunting trips. Whenever I shot birds the little fellow would stand on his hind legs when he saw me present the gun, and run for the bird when it fell. He had, however, no notion of retrieving, but would scamper off with his prey to devour it at leisure. He was a most fearless little fellow, and once attacked a big greyhound, who heat ,a retreat. In a rage his body would swell to nearly twice its size, from the erection of the hair; yet I had him under such perfect subjection that I had only to hold up my finger to him when he was about to attack any-thing, and he would desist. I heard a great noise one day outside my room. and found "Pips" attacking a fine male specimen I had of the great bustard, which he had just seized by the throat. I rescued the bird, but it died of its injuries. Through the carelessness of my servants he was lost one day in a heavy brushwood jungle some miles from my camp, and I quite gave up all hope of recovering my pet. Next day, however, in tracking some antelope, we happened to cross the route taken by my servants, when we heard a familiar little yelp, and down from a tree we were under rushed "Pips."

The true mungooses have long, weasel-like bodies, and a more or less elongated tail, which is generally thick at the root, and may be covered with long hair, its general color being like that of the body, but the tip often darker. The longer hairs of almost all the mungooses are marked with alternate darker and lighter rings, which communicate a peculiar and characteristic speckled appearance to the fur. The head has a pointed muzzle, with a rather short nose, in which there is a groove on the completely naked under surface. The ears are small and rounded. The limbs are likewise of extreme shortness, the feet being provided with five toes, of which the first, both in front and behind, is extremely small. These toes are generally detached, but may be slightly connected by a small web at their bases. The under surfaces of the fore feet are generally naked, while in most cases only the front part of the soles of the hind feet are free from hair.

The meerkat, as the South African mungoose is known, is a small animal of slender form, with a tail of about half the length of the head and body. The fur is long and soft, of a light grizzled gray color, with black transverse stripes across the hinder part of the back, and the tail yellowish, with a black tip. The longer hairs are broadly ringed with black and white, the white predominating. The transverse light and dark bands on the loins are formed by the regular arrangement of the hairs, by which the white and black rings come opposite to each other on adjacent hairs. Meerkats may be distinguished at a glance from all other mungooses by their elongated nose and claws, as well as by their peculiar coloration, no other species having ears differing in color from the rest of the head.

South African meerkats appear to be confined to Cape Colony, extending at least as far north as Algoa Bay. These animals form most admirable

and amusing little pets, nearly every homestead having one or more of these creatures. In their wild state the meerkats live in colonies or warrens, burrowing deep holes in the sandy soil, and feeding chiefly on succulent bulbs which they scratch up with the long, curved black claws on their fore feet. They are devoted sun-worshippers, and in the early morning, before it is daylight, they emerge from their burrows, and wait in rows till their divinity appears, when they bask joyfully in his beams. They are very numerous on the arru, and, as you ride or drive along through the veldt, you often come upon little colonies of them sitting up sunning themselves, and looking, in their quaint and pretty favorite attitude, like tiny dogs begging. As you approach they look at you fearlessly and impudently, allowing you to come quite close; then, when their confiding manner has tempted you to get down in the wild hope of catching one of them, suddenly all pop so swiftly into their little holes that they seem to have disappeared by magic.

Although in the Cape it appears that the name meerkat is also often applied to the thick-tailed mungoose, it is the true meerkat alone which makes such a charming pet. The quaint, old-fashioned little fellow is as neatly made as a small bird; his coat, of the softest fur, with markings not unlike those of a tabby cat, is always well kept and spotlessly clean; his tiny feet, ears and nose are all most daintily and delicately finished off, and the broad circle of black bordering his large dark eye serves to enhance the size and brilliancy of the orbs.

The most typical representative of the mungoose family is the Egyptian mungoose or ichneumon, inhabiting Africa, north of the Sahara Desert, Palestine, Asia Minor, and the southern portions of Spain. It was one of the sacred animals of the ancient Egyptians, and is often depicted on their frescoes. It feeds largely upon the eggs of crocodiles, although this habit has not been recorded of any of the Indian species. It was, and I believe still is, domesticated in Egypt; and has the same antipathy to snakes alluded to under the head of the common Indian species. The Egyptian mungoose is a large species; the length of the head and body being about twenty inches.

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