Otters 1 – Wotta Lotta Otters

The face peering at her was hairy and disapproving. Two small, baleful eyes set wide in a large furry head round as a ball. Ridiculous button ears. A broad black nose above stiff whiskers. The mouth curled down at the corners left no doubt she was intruding. And the face was sodden with sea water, compounding the impression of irritation.

Leaving was not a bad idea. What Liz had bumped into was pretty intimidating close up, however amicable it may have seemed from a distance.

... and who are you?
… and who are you?

It was a Cape clawless otter. They are all over Southern Africa except in the arid regions, and a sizeable number are right here in the surrounds of the city of Cape Town – a good many of them often in our backyard.

Liz was clambering round the rocks and came around a truck-size boulder to find herself almost face to face with this large male just emerged from the sea, judging by his dripping state. A big fellow well over a metre long, a third of that his flat-bottomed tail which helps propel him through the water.

She chose caution and retreated as he unhurriedly disappeared among the boulders. Caution because an angry otter, or one which feels trapped, can be dangerous. They are powerful and equipped with canine teeth like those of a large dog. It is said that once they get a grip they will not let go.

One of our sons was outdoors one afternoon when he saw an extraordinary scene. In the shallow surf two large otters were apparently trying to drown a smaller one. A large otter forcefully held the small one underwater for some time then released it. It came up spluttering and had hardly drawn a breath when the other big otter forced it back under again.

At first he thought they were simply playing but after a while the small otter began to look feeble and desperate. So he walked across the rocks to stop the torture by chasing them off. When he came close, a couple of metres from them, they paused in their labours and looked directly at him, unafraid and, he felt, challenging him: “You want to interfere? Come on then.”

They were much larger than he realised and powerful. Taking on even one would be risky, tackling two would be stupid. He retreated to the lawn. From there he threw stones at them until they stopped punishing the young one and swam away. The victim vanished into the boulders. It was probably an inadvertent intruder from another group.

Otters are among the favourite subjects of wildlife lovers because they are such handsome creatures, streamlined strength with amazing agility in the water though not quite as acrobatic on land. They have these round blunt faces like a jovial innkeeper’s, they radiate intelligence and they are inquisitive.

When eating their prey, usually a crab or fish, they hold it in both hands (I use “hands” because they use them much as we do). They sometimes eat in the water but we have not seen them floating on their backs using their bellies as a table as otters do in some other continents. Here they usually eat on land.

They first come to our freshwater well to rinse their food. We saw an otter at the well dipping something into it and shaking it about in the fresh water, then withdrawing and eating it. We could not identify its meal but later found on the grass beside the well a discarded fish skin which had been peeled off the fish in one piece where. The gulls soon found it.

After the meal they diligently wash their hands in the well. They take only what they need. They threaten nothing and nobody . . . except other otters.

Much of the appeal in their nature is that they love playing, in water or on land, and when not feeding or sleeping or sunbathing they spend hours just rolling around in wrestling matches and mock fights or tossing and fetching sticks and stones. They are very affectionate towards each other – within their family groups but definitely not towards outsiders – and when drying out will lie on sand patches in our little wilderness resting on each other, a chin on a stomach turned up to catch the sun’s warmth, a head on a shoulder, one lying right across another.

They make very affectionate pets too but not without drawbacks – one in particular as a Natal farming family learned.

They raised a pair of baby otters abandoned by their mother, or more likely killed by a hunter for her prized pelt. They had to bottle-feed them, so small were the babies, and the pair grew up understandably thinking they were part of the family and made themselves thoroughly at home.

The family realised they had a problem the first time they took them down to the small stream at the bottom of the garden, for swimming to an otter is almost as important as breathing.

The youngsters went crazy with delight, in and out of the water, splashing everything, cavorting on the grassy banks until they were exhausted. When their surrogate parents walked back to the house the youngsters vigorously shook water out of their dense coats and followed in their curious rocking-horse gait.

At the house the pair went straight to the comfortable sofa covered in floral fabric and rolled and rubbed their bodies all over it to get the last of the water out. This happened to be rather more than they had shaken off down at the stream. And when the sofa became too sodden they moved to the armchairs.

Their “parents” had to make special arrangements for the protection of their soft furnishings.

To be continued / – Friday 3 October.



Porcupine 2 – Uninvited guests

There are many recorded instances of lions and even canny leopards dying because they could not remove quills from their facial flesh after unwisely tackling a porcupine. It is not the quills that kill, it’s infection and, because the injuries can make hunting and eating difficult, starvation.

Yet lions and leopards still take them on, especially in times of hunger. Their trick is to get a paw under the porky then flip it on to its back and sink fangs into its exposed, unprotected belly before it can right itself. There are no quills down there.

There is an ancient belief that porcupines can shoot quills like arrows. It’s an old wives’ tale. It probably arose from one of its most effective defence techniques, whipping its tail backwards with great speed and force so the thick quills mounted there strike deep into the attacker unwise enough to get too close.

We had no such intentions. Our local porkies learned soon enough that our gardens were an easy source of food and they turned up uninvited, a couple of times even before the sun had set.

One evening when were having supper together at Kathy’s home. We sat around her huge table with a sweeping view through the floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors.

Three porcupines appeared in the light from an outside lamp illuminating the lawn and stoep. They marched straight up to the glass and stared as if saying “And what about us?” But for the glass they would have come right in: three pairs of beady black eyes, two the parents, the third their offspring.

We decided to strike a compromise and place food outside from time to time, though not too often.  Now we can stand quite near on the other side of the sliding doors when they feed and they seem to have got the message and don’t almost knock at the front door.

They might well make good pets . . . if there was a way to get around the barriers of spikes and the flea world that must flourish underneath.

Porcupine 1 – The thorny digger

Legend says the porcupine got its scientific name because the first ancient Greek explorer who saw it fell about laughing hysterically. His fellow explorers gave it the family name Hystricidae.

Nonsense, of course, the legend is newly invented. The animal was baptised under the system devised by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus for classifying plants and animals. But that ancient Greek could be forgiven – you are unlikely to bump into any weirder animal in the African bush.

Most striking is its coat of long, flexible spines and short thick quills so sharp and dense it has no way it can scratch the fleas and ticks that must luxuriate in the fur beneath.

If such a quirk of nature causes hilarity the porcupine’s next trick cuts it short. When disturbed it can in an instant erect the quills and spines covering two thirds of its upper body to make it look twice as big, and it confronts any threat with a formidable and potentially lethal barrier of needle-pointed weapons.

It is a rodent, a word that brings to mind mice, rats and moles, but a far bigger one, roughly between 14 and 20kg and nearly a metre long, making it the second biggest rodent in the world after the South American capybara.

There are two kinds of porcupines in Africa. Our kind rejoices in the rather exotic name of Hystrix africaeaustralis and inhabits the lower third of the continent. They are pretty common and usually solitary except when in a family. The most we have seen together in our small wilderness is four, parents and two offspring. We don’t know which sex is which except that males tend to be a bit bigger. Even if one allowed it, nobody would be in a hurry to turn it upside down and check as you would with a kitten or pup.

We first became aware of our porcupine visitors the night we heard a light rattling sound like someone gently shaking a castanet or a bunch of knitting needles. It came from the place where Dor had dumped some vegetable peelings for the dassies to find in the morning.

We peered out the big front windows and saw nothing although the moonlight was quite strong. Then, watching intently, we saw vague movement. The porcupine’s camouflage is so efficient in the dark, being nocturnal, it was several minutes before we could make out a shape.

Dor switched on the outside floodlight and there it was in full prickly glory, completely unperturbed, munching the dassies’ breakfast. The forest of black-and-white barred spikes lay flat on its back and stern, showing it wasn’t bothered in the least by the light. Its blunt snout shoved forward to pick out choicer pieces from the feast. It was a big animal, this one, with a heavy crest of long ordinary fur reaching to between its piggy eyes.



Then I moved closer to the window. The porky (as we now call them) immediately spotted me and fled at an impressive speed for so large and clumsy-looking an animal. Their normal gait is a fairly slow waddle on short stumpy legs.

We all wanted to get a really close look at them. Seeing one in a zoo is just not the same and even there they don’t appear often before the public. In the wild they are extremely shy and head for cover if approached unless cornered, when it’s a bad idea to approach them anyway.

In our Lowveld reserve we often heard the rattle of quills as porcupines passed through the long grass in the dark. We sallied forth cautiously with torches to find them. No good … they too quick and adept at concealment. By day they slept in inaccessibly dense thornbush thickets or old antbear holes or caves.

They are vegetarian and avid eaters of bulb plant, which they dig up with fearsomely efficient fireclaws. This makes them very unpopular with home owners near the city edges who treasure their gardens but have no fences.

Porcupines were long thought to be meat eaters too, an assumption based on the bones of other animals often found scattered around their burrows, usually old antbear holes because they don’t dig their own. However, it was found that porkies drag home bones they find in the veld to gnaw on as a source of calcium.

Genets 1 – Our seaside spotted “tigers”

Our nightly visitors

 My first meeting with a genet was so brief I never actually saw it, it moved so fast. It gave me a hell of a fright and left Dor and I puzzled for weeks until it was revealed by the sheer coincidence of me getting cold and the genet’s need to depart.

An odd characteristic of genets is that they have less fear of humans than most wild creatures and often make themselves at home in the ceilings of houses and in barns unworried by people only a few metres away. This is not a good thing: they mark their territory by spraying a pungent fluid which can thoroughly stink up a house.

Ours had been empty for days before we moved in. On Day Two I was standing in the living room, wondering how to redecorate, when something shot past me. It came from a room to the right, went over my feet and vanished out the window of a room on the left. It moved so fast it was a grey streak with no detail.

About a week later we were fast asleep, dead to the world past midnight, when something quite large walked over us, not fast, just gentle steps on the blanket, like a cat. I shot up in bed – what in hell was that? We searched and found nothing.

In the morning we saw part of the answer. On the kitchen counter a packet of sliced bread wrapped in plastic had been neatly cut open and most of a slice eaten by something with a small bite.

It happened several more times – the remnants of a banana on the dining table beside the fruit bowl, more broken bread, a chewed pork rib destined for the rubbish bin.

All was revealed one night when the weather turned chill and at about two o’clock in the morning I climbed out of bed to close the window.

As I locked the latch something shot into the bedroom and headed straight for the window, found it closed, stopped dead, and looked at me with an expression that clearly said “What the hell, man?”

It was a large-spotted genet spread across the window by hanging on the burglar bars. Nearly a metre long, it was in full glory – fur erect, tail fluffed out, sharp eyes with an almost oriental slant, so close I could have touched it.

It didn’t seem the least bit fazed. It did not take a defensive stance as most animals would. It didn’t snarl or bare its fangs or do anything aggressive. It eyed me speculatively while I woke up enough to realise what the problem was. When I reached to open the window it moved half a metre aside behind a curtain and waited until the gap was wide enough then slipped through into the night – no doubt full of bread again.

For years I fought with my argumentative cousins over the meanings of “large spotted genet” and “small spotted genet”. Did that mean the “large spotted” was a bigger animal, or simply that its spots were bigger. I argued for the bigger spots; they for the bigger animal.

It turned out I was right (for once) which was a hollow victory because the cousins were much bigger than me and didn’t like losing. I saw lots of spots.

One wonders why Nature bothered to create two animals so similar that the only obvious difference between them is the size of their spots and the Latin names which the scientists (not known for their etymological imagination) gave them: Genetta genetta for the small-spotted and Genetta tigrina for the large-spotted (why “tigrina” Heaven knows, they look nothing like tigers). For the rest they’re practically the same: same order (Carnivore), same family (Viverridae), same sub-family (Viverrinae), same size, much the same habits and behaviour.

In one respect they are absolutely equal: beauty. Some wildlife fans believe they are the most beautiful of all wild animals. I would settle for the large-spotted as a candidate in its class – certainly among its cousins like the otters, weasels, polecats and badgers. The spots make the difference.

Down here in our seashore mini-wilderness we count at least one and probably more pairs of “tigers” and they have become quite close if aloof friends.

The tiger isn’t much bigger than a household cat but there the resemblance ends. It averages about two kilos and can top a metre in length, about half of that its body. At first sight it has three striking features – a surprisingly small head and jaws for its size, the spectacular array of spots and stripes adorning its lush fur, and above all its smooth, almost liquid, totally silent movement, graceful as a ballet dancer. And there’s another feature: when it takes fright, it disappears at warp speed.