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.