Only Mongooses!


THE mongooses to whom this ‘In Memoriam’ is dedicated belonged to the African variety known to the naturalist as Herpestes zebra or fasciatus, as distinct from, but less well known than, the two most celebrated varieties of this rich species, viz.Herpestes Javanicus, to which belonged the mongoose of mongooses, Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki, and Herpestes ichneumon the ‘rat of the Pharaones,’ once as sacred as the cat, but now fallen from its high estate.

In appearance, the African variety are quaint-looking, ‘cobby,’ rather clumsy little creatures, not larger than a guinea pig when full grown. Their legs are short, and those in front are bent like those of dachshunds, to whom they have a certain resemblance. To sit up is, with them, a pose as familiar as it is with the bear, and when they do so, and let their bent forelegs hang down on both sides of their chest, they look very much like penguins on shore. In some individuals, the hair of the lower part of the jaws is of a much lighter shade of gray than is that of the rest of the body, so that they appear, when looked at en face, as if they wore whiskers.

Their chief strength lies in the neck and jaws, which are, comparatively speaking, of tremendous power; this quality, joined to the extreme accuracy of their aim, of which their game affords so startling a proof, supplements, when they hunt or fight, any disadvantage which may be due to deficiencies in their build, and explains the fact that they almost invariably succeed in seizing a snake behind the head, before it has had time to strike.

Nevertheless, I did not encourage my mongooses to tackle snakes, except small ones, for it always appeared to me as if a zebra mongoose, owing to that clumsiness of shape just mentioned, must be at a disadvantage when confronted by a full-grown and wideawake cobra. In my own experience, I have known only one instance of a snake’s striking a mongoose. The mongoose was still very young and the snake a small green tree-snake. The mongoose was apparently lacking in the inherited instinct of its race, and seized the reptile, in a desultory sort of way, far below the neck. The snake struck, without much energy, at the jaw of its aggressor, who at once dropped it, and slightly shook himself, but showed no further signs of distress. He did not, however, renew the attack, and the snake made off. I was not sure that the latter was venomous, but I watched the mongoose with some anxiety for the next twenty-four hours. Nothing happened, and I concluded that everything was all right. A month later, the mongoose died with all the symptoms of having been poisoned; but its mate died at almost the same time, showing exactly the same symptoms, and as these pointed to sublimate, of which my boys — who hated the mongooses — knew the effect, and which they could, besides, easily procure, I incline to the belief that the poor little creatures fell victims to native vindictiveness rather than to the self-preserving instinct of the snake.

Brehm mentions somewhere, and seems to disbelieve, a statement which he heard from Arabs in the Sudan: that ichneumons combine to attack and kill large snakes. I have never seen this happen, but I have been assured by natives in Taveta that mongooses do combine to attack and kill pythons, and that they do not devour the dead reptile, but let it lie and putrefy, returning to the spot every day, until they find that the maggots are large and numerous, when they will feast on these.

It has also been said about our mongooses, that they imitate the call of gallinaceous wild birds, and thus attract them near enough to seize and eat them. There is no doubt that among the many various sounds which they are able to produce, there are some which are an almost exact imitation of the voice of the francolin; but here the story ends, for mongooses, like dogs, refuse to cat game birds, whether raw or cooked.

Unlike the larger varieties of their species, banded mongooses are no danger to poultry, although they will sometimes start charging chickens for fun, as dogs do. Their natural food consists chiefly of amphibians, small reptiles, mollusks, insects, spiders, and mice. Of snails they are extremely fond. To break their shells, they seize them with their hands and, with unerring aim and marvelous strength, propel them through between their hind legs, against a rock or a tree in front of which they post themselves for that purpose, sometimes bucking with incredible swiftness, just in time to let the projectile pass clear underneath. They treat large eggs in the same manner, a habit which accounts for a common belief that eggs form the chief item of their bill of fare. As a matter of fact, they much prefer a snail to an egg, and they will not eat the latter if they have other, more congenial food, although they will generally break the egg, just to amuse themselves, even if they do not touch the contents afterward.

I regret to say that they are also very keen on eating batrachians. They dig these out of their æstivation-holes, which they discover by the scent. Frogs they will eat without preparation, but toads they roll about first like a rolling-pin, the object being, no doubt, to make them get rid of their secretion. They handle hairy caterpillars in the same manner before falling to.

Out of a number of mongooses which I have possessed, three stand out prominently in my memory — never to be forgotten. One of them, Rikki-Tikki, was my companion for close on eight years; the two others — two ladies, called Maskini (Swahili: ‘poor person’), and Mshenzi (Swahili: ‘uncivilized’) — entered into my life two years after he did and preceded him in death by one year and six months respectively. Only once, as long as this symbiosis lasted, have we been separated for the duration of thirty-six hours. I can therefore write about them with as much authority as could Boswell about Dr. Johnson.

During the five years which I spent, uninterrupted and solitary, in a forest of the Shiré highlands, my chief pleasure consisted in the rambles which I took every morning in the company of these three friends and my two fox terriers. The five of them enjoyed these excursions even more than I did, being scarcely able to restrain their impatience when, after my early breakfast, the time to start was getting near.

The greatest sport for the mongooses, and, par ricochet, for me, who watched them, was the hunting of tarantulas. These love to build their underground dwellings — which are shaped somewhat bell-like with a small, sometimes invisible, hole on the surface — along the native paths.

When the mongooses followed these, they now and then stopped short, and applied their little pink noses to the ground, sniffing. If the scent appeared promising, the lucky discoverer at once started digging with the greatest energy and an excitement which increased as the orifice grew larger. From time to time the digging was interrupted and the nose applied to the ground, to make sure; and then the work was resumed with renewed activity. Occasionally the digger was shoved off by her mate, — never, however, by Rikki-Tikki, who, like most male mammals and birds, always gave precedence to the ladies, — when a short tussle ensued, and the burrowing was taken up again by the winner of the contest. Sometimes it happened that, after repeated aspirations, the digging was abruptly discontinued, the hunter having come to the conclusion that the fortress was tenantless.

But when this was not the case, as soon as the size of the hole allowed it, the long-clawed hand and arm were inserted into it to the elbow, and a most careful and thorough groping began inside, guided by the sense of touch only, with what sensations for the unfortunate tarantula one may imagine: feelings which must be identical with those of the boy in Wells’s War of the Worlds, when the mechanic tentacle of the Martians was groping for a victim inside the hut where he was hiding.

And then, when the presence of the prey was ascertained beyond a doubt, came the dénouement, as quick as lightning. One sudden backward movement of the groping foreleg, and the spider, jerked out of the hole, came flying in an arc to a foot or two beyond the aperture; before it had time to recover from its surprise and indignation it was seized, and its dangerous mandibles crushed with a single bite. Then the hunter sat down, and deliberately, and with evident gusto, munched the fat body.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that animals which stand as high in the scale of sentient beings as zebra mongooses are addicted to no other pleasures than those of the table. They are also passionately fond of music, and they love perfumes.

It sometimes happened that, carried away by the ardor of the chase, they turned a deaf ear on me when I started to return to my camp. On these occasions I always resorted to the same expedient. One of the two ‘boys’ who usually accompanied me in order to watch the mongooses, which were apt to stray, was sent back to the camp for his ‘limba,’ the native guitar, which he started playing as soon as he had come back to our hunting-party. The moment he struck the first chords, the three mongooses desisted from whatever pursuit they happened to be engaged in and ran toward him, and then, as we all turned homeward, followed close on his heels, tumbling one over the other, and never left him until the music ceased! We must have looked a funny procession! First, the boy pinching the strings of his instrument; then the three eager mongooses, the white man, the two fox terriers, the other native, all walking single file on the narrow path; I imagine the surprise which a European fresh from Europe — nothing of course surprises an African — would have felt if he had suddenly encountered us in the forest. No doubt he would have thought that he was facing a colored reincarnation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin!

That they are fond of smelling perfumes mongooses show by the pleasure which they manifest when they inhale the odor of flowers, frequently standing up on their hind legs and stretching themselves in order to reach to the height of the blossoms.

Their favorite smell, however, is civet. Civet cats are very frequent in the Myombo forests of Nyasaland, where one often hears at night their monotonous call as they walk about in search of those berries and fruits which constitute their principal food. They have the curious habit of getting rid of their surplus wealth by rubbing themselves against the foot of trees; such spots are conspicuous by the odor of civet which emanates from them and permeates the atmosphere in their immediate neighborhood.

To strike one of these places on our wanderings was, to my mongooses, an occasion of excitement and pleasure. It almost seemed as if they became intoxicated by the powerful perfume; they would rush to the anointed tree, embrace it and rub themselves against it with all the appearance of the greatest enjoyment, and it was only with difficulty that they could be prevailed upon to abandon it.

Unlike cats and dogs, mongooses also love the smell of tobacco. Both Maskini and Mshenzi rolled about on my knees with delight when I blew the smoke of my cigar at them, and tried to catch the clouds of smoke with their paws; one of the favorite tricks of Rikki-Tikki was to seize unexpectedly the burning cigar in my mouth, with his half-prehensile fingers, jump to the ground with it, roll it about until the fire had gone out, and then tear it to pieces and wallow on the débris. But woe to me if I attempted to recover the cigar once it had been taken possession of!

So far, however, from indiscriminately favoring all kinds of perfume, my pets were, on the contrary, fastidious in their choice. I once bought, for their special benefit, a bottle of strong scent of the kind which is sold in native stores and in great demand with Negroes. They treated it with the utmost contempt, turning away with an expression of disgust after one inhalation.


Zebra mongooses are strongly individualized; they each have a distinct personality of their own and differ from one another probably as much as human beings, although certain qualities and defects, as, for instance, courage, and a quick temper, are common to all.

In their tastes they vary as much as in their qualities. No two individuals will favor exactly the same diet or prefer the same dishes. All my mongooses, for instance, liked pork and chicken, but only one of them ate beef, and only one goats’ meat. Maskini doted on tadpoles, which neither Rikki-Tikki nor Mshenzi would touch.

The same applies to their sympathies and antipathies. Rikki-Tikki loathed all Europeans except myself, and attacked them savagely when he had the opportunity, so that I had to shut him up every time I saw a visitor approaching my dwelling. When, the visitor gone but still visible in the distance, I released Rikki-Tikki from his confinement, he would rush to a place whence he could overlook the road and stand there, head erect, uttering savage screams, and stamping one of his forefeet on the ground, in a peculiar way he had, which appeared very human. But to all natives, without exception, he behaved in the most friendly manner.

The Sultana Mshenzi was just the reverse. She greeted all white men with the greatest cordiality but could not stand natives, not even those of my ‘boys’ whom she had known for years. They had to be constantly on the lookout when moving about, for, when they passed too close to her she immediately made a dash at their feet, an idiosyncrasy which, alas! brought about her untimely end.

And Maskini, the second female, who had the sweetest of tempers, entertained no color-prejudices of any kind! It was interesting to observe the behavior toward one another of the mongooses according to their sex.

Two male mongooses, except when they have been brought up together from childhood, will not tolerate each other and keep on fighting like stags until they are separated. The manner of these contests is very peculiar; they wrestle, shoulder against shoulder, applying all their energy, apparently, to no other purpose than that of making the antagonist lose ground. But these seemingly harmless efforts, which are carried on with the greatest patience, are from time to time interrupted by a sudden, fierce seizing-hold with the teeth, on the soft part of the nose, or the lips, or the nape of the neck, where severe wounds are inflicted. I have found it quite impossible to accustom to one another two adult male mongooses.

Female mongooses also fight, but never without a special reason, and their battles are much less fierce than those of males, being almost entirely restricted to the shoulder-to-shoulder wrestling just mentioned. Very rarely do they make use of their teeth. What they lack in dash and violence, however, these fights make up in dogged pertinacity, for they may last for hours!

Whenever Mshenzi and Maskini engaged in one of these wrestlingmatches, Rikki-Tikki used to behave in a very characteristic manner. It was quite obvious that he took an intense and painful interest in the contest, but he was far too much of a sportsman to interfere. He would, on these occasions, approach without haste to within a couple of yards from the two litigants, and then watch them, his eyes riveted on them, standing quite still. His expression, while he did so, was incredibly human. He looked puzzled, shocked, and sometimes I thought I saw a slight flicker of amusement pass in his gaze. After standing and watching like this for some considerable time, he would move away abruptly, follow his own occupations for a while, then come back straight to where the fight was proceeding, and again stand and watch with the same half-sorrowful, halfwhimsical expression; and in this way he continued to behave until the two antagonists became tired and separated.

As a rule, these fights originated in an attempt on the part of one of the two ladies to seize a plaything of which the other had taken possession.

All mongooses, and the sedate and worldwise Rikki-Tikki made no exception to this rule, are passionately fond of seizing hold on small objects which they use for their national game of Fives, which I have described above in connection with snails and eggs. For they do not use foodstuffs only, in this manner. They take the greatest delight in propelling any small, hard object against a solid surface, with a strength which is prodigious for their size, and in seeing it rebound to a distance of many yards, when it is eagerly searched for — this is also part of the entertainment — and then used again and again for the same purpose.

As it is quite impossible to recover by force, without being severely bitten, an object of which a mongoose has taken possession, one had to keep carefully out of their reach all those things, like, for instance, watches, or liqueur glasses, which would have suffered if they had been used as high-velocity ammunition. They were awfully keen on getting hold of small coins, and used to ransack all my pockets for odd shillings and pennies, inserting their hands into each one of them in turn. As soon as they found what they wanted, they brought it to the surface with their fingers, seized it with their teeth, jumped to the ground, and made off. Maskini and Mshenzi I had to watch on those occasions, for there was always the possibility of the coins getting lost if they were taken too far away or into remote corners.

Not so, however, where Rikki-Tikki was concerned! For, strange to say, that little creature, which had been bred in the wilderness and belonged to an order as remote from human influence as are lions, leopards, or tigers, possessed an innate sense of honesty, such as is only rarely found in the first representative of the Primates, who is still supposed by some to be the fountainhead of all the virtues —. No matter how far out of sight and to what distance from the hut or tent Rikki-Tikki had taken the borrowed coin, he invariably brought it back of his own accord, when his game was finished, and dropped it on the ground in front of me, just looking up to me for a moment afterward to see if I had noticed it.

Needless to say, there had never been the slightest attempt on my part to teach Rikki-Tikki to retrieve. What a mongoose does, it does proprio moto. It is easier to train a hyena than to train a mongoose, for there exists no creature in the world more impatient than the latter of coercion or interference. I have been snarled at by mongooses because I had tried to interfere with their mates while they were near; and, once when a young mongoose, for some reason, got angry with me and attempted to bite me, another, standing by, jumped toward it and shoved it off, growling.

I have known only one other mongoose which shared that peculiarity of Rikki-Tikki’s to return property which it had commandeered. I did not keep it very long, for unfortunately it died before it was full-grown. It must be added, however, that Rikki-Tikki was already over two years old when I first became aware of his habit to return things borrowed for use in his favorite sport.

Mongooses take a long time before they are full-grown, and they do not attain maturity until they are two years of age. None of the mongooses which are offered for sale on the coast are full-grown, just as in the case of grivet monkeys, and I do not remember ever having even seen a full-grown mongoose in Zanzibar, where so many used to be kept. They are probably all killed before they attain full size, either because the natives fear the temper of the adults, or because they want their skins. The long time they take to grow up — so much longer than do cats — would seem to indicate that, in congenial surroundings and under favorable circumstances, they might live to a considerable age. Rikki-Tikki was still in the prime of life — nearly eight years old — when he became ill and died.

To my great regret, all my mongooses have remained without issue. I have never heard of zebra mongooses breeding in captivity, however great may have been the liberty of movement which they enjoyed. My own observations in this respect have been confirmed by all the natives whom I have consulted on the subject. My pets were absolutely free to roam about as they liked, wherever I lived at the time, the only restrictions on their movements being occasioned by my anxiety lest they should stray and be killed by natives. Yet this moderate measure of interference was sufficient to prevent them from breeding. No doubt, their ideas of liberty differ from ours; however great may be, in our own minds, the freedom which they enjoy, they themselves still look upon it as captivity.

I regretted this circumstance all the more, as both Mshenzi and Maskini gave me evidence enough of the strength of their maternal instinct. I happened to keep, at one time, a female Nyasaland cat, a breed of domestic cats indigenous to Nyasaland and Zambesia, which in appearance is indistinguishable from that of the wild bush cat and most probably identical with it.

It was a great event in my household, when Shri, one day, brought inside for approval her first litter, consisting of three kittens marked exactly like herself, which she had, so far, kept hidden in the thatch of the roof. The two female mongooses, when they saw them, went beyond themselves with joy. It was the latent maternal instinct suddenly awakened, manifesting itself in a touching and pathetic way. They put their arms round the necks of the kittens, and licked and fondled them, as if they had been their own, and when I had prepared a place for Shri and her brood, they remained with the latter, and were not to be persuaded to leave the room. In the beginning I felt some anxiety, because I was not quite sure what unexpected turn these demonstrations of affection might suddenly take. But my apprehensions disappeared as minute after minute passed without bringing any marked alteration in their quality.

I had also feared that Shri, who could be terribly fierce on occasion, and who, moreover, was considerably larger than the mongooses, might object to their endeavors to monopolize her progeny. But in this, as in so many other ways, she was perfectly surprising. Wiser than her master, she did not for a second show the slightest doubt as to the benevolent character of the endearments which her babies had to endure. After a day or two, she even came to the conclusion that nothing could be more convenient than this unceasing attendance of Mshenzi and Maskini on her family; for she allowed herself, between fulfillments of her unavoidable maternal ministrations, the relaxation of frequent and prolonged strolls in the neighborhood.

Rikki-Tikki, as might be supposed, took no part in this cajoling, but, after one coldly surprised glance at the newcomers, ceased to take any notice of them.

As long as the kittens were too small to leave the room, the interest with which they inspired the two lady mongooses never flagged, and included all their actions. I shall always remember the day when one of the kittens, for the first time, gave voice. Both mongooses began to scream in a way which is common to them all when anything gives them pleasurable excitement, a demonstration which caused two Negroes, who witnessed it, to roar with laughter.

Strange to say! From the day when the young cats first followed their mother outside, they forfeited all the affection of their two friends, and were henceforth ignored.


The reference to the ‘eternal feminine’ brings me, reluctantly, to the mention of the least pleasant side of my long and affectionate friendship with Rikki-Tikki. Alas! he, like elephants, stags, and camels, became ‘musth’ every year at the beginning of the rainy season — a most trying ordeal for myself and my household, but particularly for myself. He had three or four fits of musthness during the first half of the rainy season, at intervals of about a month’s time, and each fit lasted nine days.

Rudyard Kipling’s mahout says about his musth elephant: ‘It is me he wants to kill, because he loves me most of all’ — or words to that effect; and the same was the case with RikkiTikki when he was musth. All the passion, rage, and hatred of which he was capable were then concentrated against me, and me alone, while he left my native servants unmolested. As is the case with lions, leopards, and the large birds of prey, Zebra mongooses are monogamous, and the amorous passion of Rikki-Tikki, whenever he had been hit by Cupid’s arrow, had for its object one only of his two companions, and that one always the same through all the years — Mshenzi, the negrophobe.

All his efforts, during these periods of trial, tended to one object — to keep me and the Sultana separated. These fits of temporary insanity did not appear all at once in their full strength; they evolved gradually, from what was, during the first two or three days, merely a display of bad humor and ill temper, into the maniacal fury of the end. At that time, he tried to prevent his consort from taking any food at all, so that the poor creature had to subsist on small scraps which I threw to her, and which she managed to pick up on the run! Several times I tried to feed her while I was sitting on a table with my legs drawn up; but Othello would have none of this and chased her away mercilessly when she attempted to stop. On one of these occasions he jumped up and caught my hand and fastened his pointed fangs into it like a ferret, so that I had the greatest difficulty in shaking him off, the flesh being badly lacerated in the action. On another occasion he tore away with his teeth a large piece of leather from a mosquito-boot which I was wearing. Fortunately he just failed to reach the foot.

Whenever I happened to live in a house, I kept the two shut up in a separate room as long as Rikki-Tikki’s dementia amorosa lasted; but this was impracticable when I was camping, and under the latter circumstances — a stockade in the open being excluded from fear of leopards — there was nothing to do except to be incessantly on the lookout during the day, and, during the night, to shut them both up in a cage into which they had to be decoyed.

I think I hear some people saying: ‘I cannot understand how you could put up with all this! I should have killed the brute if I had been you!’ To which I make reply: ‘I do not think you would have, not even if you are a professional slayer of elephants, not if Rikki-Tikki had shared your fortunes, as he had mine, with unwavering devotion and loyalty, year after year, — the short intervals of “musth” excluded. Not if you had ever seen him when, the period of his trial over, he crawled up timidly to my chair, and then, after some anxious hesitation, having noticed no discouraging gesture, he climbed up on my knees, and thrust his cold little nose under the bosom of my shirt, and nestled close to me — humility and apology and affection personified. Of course you would have forgiven him every time, and, every time, your mutual friendship would have grown the stronger for the ordeal through which it had passed!’

During the remainder of the year, Rikki-Tikki showed no preference for either of his two companions, and he often used to play with one or the other after the manner of cats or dogs. But there could be no doubt that the sweettempered Maskini recognized Mshenzi’s position as favorite and meekly submitted, for whenever she was engaged in playing with Rikki-Tikki and the Augusta approached, she immediately ceded her place to the latter and went quietly away, while Mshenzi herself accepted this self-effacement as her due.

One of the most wonderful attributes of zebra mongooses is their copia verborum. They dispose of so many different sounds, uttered in so great a variety of intonations, and with such convincing expressiveness, of joy, of sorrow, of anger, of regret and disappointment, of expectation, of longing, of desire, of surprise, of anxiety and fear, that it amounts to a language. Unlike any other mammals known to me, they converse at a distance, even when they are out of sight of one another, as, for instance, when they happen to be in two different rooms.

They often talk in their sleep, and Rikki-Tikki, from time to time, gave vent, while sound asleep, to an endless lament, a series of long-drawn though not unharmonious wails in a rising and falling cadence, expressive of heartrending sorrow and distress, painful to listen to in the silence of the night.

Yet another curious peculiarity of theirs is, that they look, intently, and with evident interest, at stretches of country lying in front of them, when they find themselves at the top of a hill or of a mountain where they have not previously been. Their eyesight is marvelously sharp, and they detect birds of prey — the only thing in the world which they fear, apart from leopards and servals — at incredible altitudes in the sky.


Those wild creatures of the bush are capable of feelings of affection and love as strong as those of men.

When Rikki-Tikki was brought to me as a youngster still far from maturity, two years before the appearance on the scene of Mshenzi and Maskini, I owned a nearly full-grown female mongoose, a charming and affectionate creature whose name was Mzuri, and the two became great friends. About a year later Mzuri was killed by a native who threw a stone at her, accidentally, as he said, because he wanted to prevent her from following him out of the camp. Rikki-Tikki was not present when this happened, nor did he see the body of his dead comrade.

During the first twenty-four hours after her disappearance, he gave no signs of worry or uneasiness, obviously thinking that she was somewhere about and would soon turn up. On the second day, however, he began to show symptoms of distress, and started searching about the camp and in its vicinity, standing still to listen from time to time. As his search proved fruitless, his unrest developed into a perfect fever. He extended the field of his investigations far from the camp, diving into every hole among the rocks and into every thicket, and all the while he was calling her in the most affectionate tone of voice, as if he thought that she was in hiding somewhere, and that he must persuade her to come back. These untiring efforts lasted from morning till evening, when he returned into the tent, quite exhausted, to sleep with me as was his habit.

Once, during the night, there was a noise heard near the tent, as of some small animal passing or approaching. Never to my dying day shall I forget the cry of joy which Rikki-Tikki gave when he jumped down from my bed and out of the tent — only to crawl back slowly and disconsolately a few minutes later, to regain his post by my side.

I had, by that time, decided to return to Mwakete, where I had spent a former rainy season and built a larger shed, almost a house, which I had used as my headquarters. My returnjourney to that place took me over country which I had not yet passed, and, owing no doubt to these new and strange surroundings and to the excitement of travel, Rikki-Tikki’s grief, during that short journey, which took me about five days, appeared to be subsiding. I began to feel hope that he would at last recover from it. But I was, alas, destined to be disappointed.

Both Rikki-Tikki and Mzuri had been in Mwakete with me when I had lived there last, and, as soon as we arrived, the familiar surroundings kindled afresh, in the former’s mind, the memory of his lost friend. He again began his hopeless quest. It was not the habit of my mongooses, as a rule, to leave the immediate vicinity of my camp, unless they were following me, and that Rikki-Tikki should have departed from this habit in his anxiety to find his vanished companion shows how profound was his affection for her. Once, as I had lost trace of him, I sent after him a search-party of boys, who found him at a distance of over a mile from Mwakete!

Six weeks passed before he appeared to resign himself to the inevitable, and I succeeded at about that time in procuring another lady mongoose to keep him company; but she was still very young, and, although the two became friendly, she did not obliterate altogether from his memory the image of his first love.

After the lapse of six months, I left Mwakete for Buanji, a country situated at the northern end of the Livingstone Range. In the course of this journey my safari crossed a former track of mine, where I had passed a year before, when Mzuri was still alive. We camped at the same place where we had camped on that first occasion. After the tent had been pitched, and Rikki-Tikki released out of his traveling-box, he became restless, started ferreting about in one direction and another, and finally took up the search again with such intensity, that, as I intended to continue my march on the following morning and feared that I might be delayed if he strayed, I had to shut him up again in his box.

After the death of Mshenzi, six years later, — she had been preceded in death by Maskini, — it took much longer ere he realized that she had gone from his life forever. I did all that was humanly possible to find a successor for her, but I failed — and Rikki-Tikki, once he had given up hope, refused all food, and died, worn to a skeleton. A few nights before the end he uttered, while asleep, in an inexpressibly tender and wistful tone of voice, the call which he used toward her during her lifetime.

The affection of mongooses for friends who belong to the human race is as great as that of dogs. My mongooses, when I had to dispense with their company on leaving the house or camp, had to be prevented by force or stratagem from following me, for nothing else would deter them from doing so, even in a pitch-dark night, although they are diurnal animals. When, from my camp, I could be seen at a distance on my return, they would run hundreds of yards to meet me, and when they reached me and I stopped to greet them, lie down and lay their heads on my feet as a sign of submission and love.

Although zebra mongooses are fond of bathing and like to splash about with water in a shallow tub, they do not as a rule enter deep water of their own accord, good swimmers though they are in an emergency. Yet I have been told about two of them which jumped after their master, a carpenter of the Berlin Lutheran mission, into a deep pool.

In the house, they show their affection for their master, and the pleasure which they take in his presence, in many small ways, by act and speech.

My affection for Rikki-Tikki turned almost to idolatry after a bad accident which I had in a wild part of Ukinga where I happened to spend eight months without meeting a single European. He was the only mongoose in my possession at that time, indeed, he was my only friend, as Jerry, my faithful old fox terrier, had been killed by native curs a short time before. During the six weeks which my illness lasted, and which I passed almost entirely on my bed, as I was unable to move without feeling excruciating pains, RikkiTikki voluntarily shared my confinement and never left my presence except for a few moments at a time.

I feel not a shadow of a doubt that he knew that something was wrong with me and that he remained with me day and night for that reason. He gave up his habit of running about in search of beetles and other creatures, a habit in which he always indulged when I was well, and which he took up again as soon as I had recovered.

Apparently insignificant actions sometimes throw more light on the psyche of man and beast than a more spectacular behavior. I should class within the former category the fact that my mongooses, when they wanted to be scratched, — a proceeding which they greatly liked, — intimated their wish to me by softly stroking my chin with their claws.

As long as they were young, when they felt hungry they had a habit of climbing on my knees and pointing with their own mouths at mine, in a marked and quite unmistakable way, until I ‘tumbled’ to their meaning.

Their skill in opening complicated fastenings, including bolts and hooks, was astonishing. No box or basket was safe from their investigations for any length of time. And although it takes days for a cat or a dog to discover the proper way to get inside a mosquito curtain, mongooses find out at once that what they have to do is to lift it and pass underneath.


In the preceding pages I have attempted to show that zebra mongooses possess some of the qualities which we admire most in men. One may safely assume that, if, while remaining psychically unchanged, they walked about exclusively on their hind legs and had no caudal appendage, some society for the protection of aborigines would include them in the number of its protégés. This being, however, not the case, they are left exposed, without effective interference in their favor on anybody’s part, to unrestrained persecution by the peoples among whom their lot is cast. The natives of East and Central Africa hunt them with packs of curs for their flesh and for their skin, without any necessity whatsoever; for those tribes which are chiefly responsible for this wholesale extermination are rich in goats and in cattle, and may besides, in many parts, hunt game to their hearts’ content.

It is with a bitter feeling that I bear testimony, in conclusion, to the melancholy fact, that the missions do nothing to prevent this wanton destruction of highly gifted, sensitive, and harmless creatures.

Neither must I omit to mention, O Christians! that the Herpestes Zebra has one ally, one only: the True Believer does not hunt it. Allah Akhbar!