It’s over. I survived Christmas in retail. Now I just have to come back down to earth and gird my loins for the “year of profound change” that our enthusiastic new management is promising. And wait for the children to go back to school. Soon. Please.
People say that children are like wild animals. This is not fair. Children are much worse than wild animals. Wild animals have to spend at least some of the day looking for food. My children get food by tearfully walking around behind us demanding peanut butter toast. Between the meals they refuse to eat. And they are quiet. Wild animals, I mean. Not children. Children are not quiet. Not my children. Ever.
My three-year old daughter is going through that magical stage where she feels the need to narrate every second of her life. As a teacher. This would be cute were my wife and I not assigned roles as her pupils, and constantly sent to “the naughty carpet”.
My son is eight. He doesn’t narrate his life any more. When he’s not telling my wife to come and look at everything he does (including watching television), he provides a soundtrack. To everything. At the moment, it’s the theme tune to the Lord of the Rings. When he gets bored of that, he just makes explosion noises. After that, he descends into inarticulate, wurbling, gibbering noises. He’s not autistic or anything. As far as we can tell, the world’s most exciting action movie is constantly playing out in his head.
Luckily for me, most of this noise is focused on my wife. She’s sitting next to me now, staring off into the middle distance and muttering to herself while her right eye twitches in time to the song in my son’s head. It’s all quite entertaining, but not the right sort of environment for being creative. So I can’t do anything fun on this blog quite yet. I’m just going to take the cowards way out and blog about animals again. Proper weasels. Mustelids.
As I said, mustelids are proper weasels, and their kin. We.ve only got one weasel. And one stoat (or pretty damn close to one). And one otter. Oh, and the god-emperor of all the beasts that walk the earth.
The weasel that wasn’t .
As I said, the lowveld has only one proper weasel. All of Africa only has one weasel (There are a couple of others up north, but they are invaders from Europe).The striped weasel. And it doesn’t even want to be a weasel. It wants to be a skunk. It looks just like a weasel; small, sinuous body with a spine made of rubber, short little legs, head close to the ground, flows rather than walks. It’s designed to live on rats and mice, and eats almost nothing else.
It’s designed to chase those rats and mice down their holes. And it’s very, very good at it. Amazingly, if its head fits down a hole, it is supple enough to change direction, somehow turning a hundred and eighty degrees without snapping its spine. And it can dig like a little demon. Just like any other weasel.
Unlike any other weasel, it’s black and white. These colours are useful if you want everything to see you at night (it only comes out at night). Its body is black, with stark white stripes running off its head and down its back, just like a skunk. Because it stinks. Just like a skunk. It defends itself by spraying anyone who messes with it with a sweetly sickening spray. All weasels have powerful scent glands they use to mark their territory and advertise their sexual status. The striped weasel has given up on these trivial pursuits and uses its scent glands to make everyone leave it alone. It’s not our champion stinker though. It has a bigger cousin.
Pepe Le Pew’s got nothing on me!
This is a zorilla. And it’s not impressed by your skunks.
I don’t know who gets to decide these things, but those in the know say it smells worse than a skunk. It needs to. It’s small, and can’t run very fast, and it finds its prey out in the open, on well grazed plains. In Africa. With lions, leopards, cheetahs, spotted hyenas, brown hyenas, caracals, pythons, giant eagle owls and more. Like the weasel, it eats rats and mice. Unlike the weasel, it eats other things too, like insects.
It’s a stoat, or pretty close to one, but its behaviour is all skunk. Cross one, and it will bristle up, raise its tail at you and scream. Fail to get the message, and it will spray you with an unholy stench.
And it doesn’t just stink, it burns, too. If that doesn’t work, it will play dead. Badly. It will roll onto its back and lie dead still, unless you move behind it. Then it flips over and plays dead again, facing the right way. Not very convincing. But maybe if you smell like an open sewer and your eyes are burning, it’s enough.
The blind otter.
Africa is a very old place. Everything is rounded and smooth. Even the mountains. When I look at pictures of the wild places of Europe and North America, everything looks sharp and crisp and clean. Because of glaciers. A couple of thousand years ago, most of the northern hemisphere was stripped clean and scoured into sharp edges by great sheets of ice.
It gives you clean water. I’ve never been to America, but in Europe, I was struck by how clear the water was. Even substantial rivers were as clear as crystal. Not here. Millennia of slow erosion have ground the continent down into fine dust. And it all gets carried away in the water. Down in the lowveld, even the tiniest of streams is muddier and thicker than the Mississippi.
Which is a problem for otters. And there are otters here. But here they don’t dive down into crystal pools and shimmer after glittering trout and salmon, twisting and turning with streams of bubbles following them like balls of moving glass. Here the otters grope their way through the muddy shallows like blind people in unfamiliar houses, hoping to find something slow enough to grab hold of. And they’re built for it. They’re called cape clawless otters, because they’ve got tiny little people hands.
Claws are very useful for catching fleeing trout. But they’ve got no nerves in them, so they’re not very good for feeling under rocks and sunken logs. For than you need wide fingers and short nails. Which is what the cape clawless otter has. They live mostly on freshwater crabs. Amazingly, they do catch the odd fish. Because the fish can’t see anything either.
The whole blind groping thing may make them seem somehow feckless. But they aren’t. They swim better than fish, and happily share their world with Nile crocodiles, because they make crocodiles look slow.
And they’re tough. Stupidly tough. Throw an American pit-bull and an otter into a ring, and the otter will walk out, unharmed and trying to pick bits of pit-bull out of its teeth with its stubby little fingers. Because it’s a mustelid. Pound for pound, mustelids are stronger than anything else. They are sinuous strips of pure muscle stuck onto rubber skeletons, and it’s best to leave them alone. Especially their cousin. The ratel.
God-emperor of the beasts.
This is Big-Boy. He’s a lion. Which means he weighs about 200kg and stands four foot high at the shoulder.
This is Stoffel. He’s a honey badger. A ratel. Which means he weighs about 15kg and stands nowhere near a foot high.
Big-Boy and Stoffel are problem animals who are looked after at a place called Moholoholo. It’s an animal rehabilitation centre outside Hoedspruit, a tiny town at the edge of the civilised world. Both were raised as pets. Big-boy was brought in because keeping 200kg alpha predators in your home is bloody stupid.
Stoffel was a better pet. Until he ate his owners brand new Mercedes. Or at least the interior. There wasn’t a piece of upholstery bigger than a ratel’s mouth, and all the wiring had been bitten into two centimetre lengths. So Stoffel was sent to jail. But he’s a honey badger. No prison has been built that could hold him.
First, he dug under the concrete walls of his pen. So they dug the foundations a metre deep. They thought he might be bored, so they built him a rockery. He piled the rocks up next to the wall and escaped again. They thought he might be lonely, so they got him a girlfriend. This time he pushed his girlfriend up against the wall, and climbed up her and over the wall. Here’s a clip of him using a log to break out.
He wasn’t trying to get away. He likes people. Or maybe he’s hoping they’ll give him another Mercedes. He just doesn’t think he belongs in a concrete pen. Sometimes, though, he fights boredom his own way. The first time he escaped, he then climbed into Big-Boy’s enclosure. And, in scientific terms, kicked his ass. The 15kg overgrown weasel found a way to break into a 200kg lion’s cage in order to show it its place in the natural order of things. The lion needed medical attention for a month.
He did it again a few months later. Sadly, this time he came second. Don’t worry though, he’s fine. Because a honey badger is one of the few animals that can lose a fight with a lion and walk away.
It’s his special survival trick. Some creatures run fast. Some are camouflaged. Some stink. Some have sharp spines. The honey badger is fearless and very, very unpleasant to deal with. There is only one other creature I know of that does this, and not uncoincidentally, it’s a mustelid too. The wolverine. They don’t have any lions to play with, so they play with bears.
All mustelids are almost supernaturally strong. Ferrets hunt rabbits many times their own size. But the honey badgers (and wolverines) have taken it to the next level. The lithe weasel body has thickened out and been packed with lean, hard muscle, like an MMA fighter on the world’s best steroids. The head is thick and broad, like a pit-bull, giving the badger jaw muscles that can chew through a gin trap.
But its greatest asset is its skin. First of all it’s loose. Grab a badger as tightly as you like, anywhere you like, and he will still nail you. Because he can turn around in his skin. And that’s not all. It’s bullet proof, too. If you want to shoot one, bring a high calibre rifle. The skin will also stop a machete blade. If you really want to kill one, your best bet is to club it on the head. Since the badger is likely to be trying to kill you back at the time, this isn’t necessarily a good bet.
It’s black and white. A warning colour. And a well-deserved one. A honey badger isn’t invulnerable. For a start, lions in the wild don’t live alone in enclosures. They live in prides. 15kg superweasels simply cannot prevail against several 200kg supercats. But they will certainly give it a try. And the lions will pay a price. In blood. And the next time those particular lions see a badger, they will walk the other way. So good is the badger at being best left alone that baby cheetahs have evolved to look like them.
It’s not just predators you would expect a badger to be more scared of. It’s their food, too. Let’s start with bees. African killer bees. They aren’t called honey badgers for nothing. Getting to honey means getting through several thousand very angry creatures equipped with poison darts that can kill a horse. The thick skin helps. And the badger has another trick up his sleeve. Maybe. He has a stinky spray too, just like a skunk. And according to some experts he uses this to subdue the bees he is robbing, just like beekeepers do with smoke. He certainly doesn’t use it for self-defence, like a skunk. For that he uses unadulterated rage. But he gets stung anyway. A lot. Unsurprisingly, he’s immune to the poison.
He’s almost immune to snakebites, too. If you search around the internet, you will find a clip of a badger attacking a puff adder. Killer of more people than any other snake in the world. It looks like a rather sad draw. The puff adder bites the badger a good few times before getting its head crushed by those powerful jaws. And then the badger rolls over dead too. Or so it seems. But then, a few hours later, he rolls over again. He looks around a little groggily, eats the snake and trots off into the bush with so little drama that you get the idea that that’s how he does it every time. Attack snake. Get bitten. Bite snake. Slip into toxic coma. Wake up. Eat snake. Sorted.
If I seem effusive about honey badgers, it’s because they are my favourite animal. Not because I’m like them, but because they are one of the first animals I remember from all my years spent down in the bush. Honey badgers are pretty rare. We only see one or two a year. But when we first started going down to the bush, there was a bit of a plague of them, because people had been feeding them, throwing the bones from their braais (barbecues) into the bush to bring in hyenas and other scavengers.
Being fearless, the badgers wouldn’t wait for the people to go to bed before coming in to eat the bones. They would happily trot out onto the stoep (patio) to bustle around people’s feet, picking up scraps. Being morons, the people weren’t too phased either. They would stay out there with them, occasionally lifting their legs to let the badgers pass underneath.
Not me though. I was a reader. And I read about badgers. Specifically, I read about badgers killing larger creatures by (I kid you not) biting their balls off. After I told my father about this, for some reason we stayed inside whenever they came visiting. We watched them through the window though. And realised that we had made the right choice.
We saw one climb a tree once. With none of the grace of a cat. It simply savaged the tree until the tree let it win. When we went out to have a look in the safety of daylight, we saw claw-marks nearly half an inch deep in the bark. And we watched one win a fight with a hot metal grid. We had been cooking on it, and leaned it up against a wall just before going to bed. It had only just stopped glowing red when a badger came up and licked it. And burned itself. And proceeded to exact a terrible and noisy revenge on it.
So that’s it for 2012. Half a year of blogging done. The next time you come here (and I hope you will), it will all, I hope, look rather different. I’ve got some time off, and I’m going to do some spring cleaning. Hope you like it. Happy New Year.