Little Criminals

A true story of a lonely plant ecologist and his mischievous neighbors

I was the first human to live in the territory of this particular colony, which may explain the grace period during which the hyraxes were disarming and I was disarmed. It began innocently enough. The hyraxes, although wary of me, enjoyed freedom from predation near my tent, making their daily siestas even more relaxed. I thought nothing of leaving my tent open during short absences.

Then food began to go missing. Early on I suspected both hyraxes and the rapacious mountain chats, but never caught anyone in the act. I would return to camp to find all of my neighbors at a respectful distance, but hadn't I had more breakfast leftovers? When confronted by a stern look or harsh word, the hyraxes always vigorously protested their innocence (or at least vigorously protested). Being a trusting North American in a strange land, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

As long as I was within sight of the camp, the hyraxes knew that I would come running and deliver a barrage of insults and missiles if they tried to sneak into the tent. However, they soon discovered a singular exception to this rule.

Merely by not having rocks thrown at them, the hyraxes became calmer around me than around the park rangers (who knew them better than I did). But this was not good enough. I wanted friends, not just neighbors. So I began giving them food. Leftovers, mainly, and deposited far from the tent. Slowly, I became less careful and would toss out scraps as I cooked and ate. Sure enough, I made many “friends.”

Still, the paramount rule was: no hyraxes in the tent. This was a shame in a way, because it was obvious that they could have made interesting houseguests. I didn't need to worry about house-training them; they had their own toilets outside my home and theirs. No, the problem was that they were too smart and too insatiable to be trusted around food.

As long as I was within sight of the camp, the hyraxes knew that I would come running and deliver a barrage of insults and missiles if they tried to sneak into the tent. However, they soon discovered a singular exception to this rule. I can still remember the first time it happened: I was in the middle of a visit to my open-air latrine, basking in the glory of the view and the midday sun. Several hyraxes were in the area in front of my tent, scavenging the morning's scraps. The one nearest the door looked inside, found me absent, and looked around. Upon discovering my location a hundred yards away, she thought for a moment, and then boldly walked into my tent. She had figured exactly right. I could (and did) scream and shout all I wanted, but was just out of rock-throwing range and in no position to launch a quick counterattack. By the time I got back to my tent, she was long gone and so were my cookies.

From then on I vowed to zip up my tent whenever I left. Sometimes I would forget, however, or get careless, figuring I would be back very shortly. At these times, the smorgasbord was declared “open.” Even when I was sure I had zipped the tent, I imagined an inexplicable loss of leftovers. These little criminals had me paranoid.

Hyraxes are just about the only land mammals I know that do not use their feet or hands as foraging or fighting tools. Primates, bats, rodents, raccoons, and mongooses all have manipulative hands that they use to gather and eat food. Carnivores swat, slash, grab, and dig with their feet. Even ungulates use their hoofs as weapons and to dig at food. Elephants harvest grass by grabbing a tuft with their trunks and then kicking it free.

Slowly the zippers began to move. I sat mesmerized. Behind the nose appeared a snout, behind the snout a pair of beady eyes. The whole head was now battering the zippers open.

Hyraxes will have none of that. When faced with an obstacle, they face it head on. An overturned cup hiding a piece of potato (during my foolish “feed the cute hyrax” phase) would be inspected from all sides and then knocked over with the hyrax's snout. This snout dexterity had other uses as well. One historic morning, I was reading quietly in my tent when I heard a snuffling at the door. Usually I left the doors open when I was home, and the hyraxes used this as a sign of my presence. On this occasion, the doors were zipped up, and the hyraxes were operating on the assumption that I was safely out of the way, off counting lobelia leaves.

The snuffling continued and quickly zeroed in on the junction where all the closed zippers meet. The tent jiggled and a little black nose appeared. The nose twitched, smelling the irresistible aroma of stale cookies, and then began to work right and left, up and down. Slowly the zippers began to move. I sat mesmerized. Behind the nose appeared a snout, behind the snout a pair of beady eyes. The whole head was now battering the zippers open. Finally the opening was large enough to admit the hyrax. It was Rick. He stepped quietly into the tent (into my home!) and began walking an obviously well-known path toward my cooking area. But he stopped midstride and stared right at me. Something was terribly wrong. I was not supposed to be there. But as long as I wasn't moving, he wasn't going to move either. He was betting that either (a) I had not seen him or (b) I was not really me. There was a long pause. I blinked first. He let out a startled squeak and scurried in panic back though the opening, which now seemed barely adequate.

I was outraged. So my leftovers and cookies were disappearing after all. I was not (yet) losing my mind. From then on I had to increase my security measures, actually putting a lock on the zippers when I was out. The battle of wits had escalated. But I was working on my doctorate, and these guys couldn't even count to ten. It was going to be no contest.

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