The Mongoose

Alexander J. Adie’s second son, Alexander James Adie junior (1808-1879), was apprenticed to the civil engineer, James Jardine, and became a railway and bridge engineer. In May 1828, he wrote the account of a mongoose, which he had kept at Canaan Cottage for about a year, and he published this in the first issue of The Magazine of Natural History, in 1829. This is the same animal celebrated in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894). Adie’s account of the animal shows us the importance of amateur enthusiasm in the studies of science. He writes some fifty years before the animal was – rashly – imported into the West Indies with the idea of keeping down the population of rats and snakes. Adie shows no interest in the animal’s potential usefulness, and clearly represents its destructive appetite. It is, in retrospect, fortunate that he was not able to introduce a breeding pair into South Edinburgh.

He wrote:

‘The Mangouste, Viverra Mungo (Lin.), which has been in my possession for about twelve months, is one of a family of four which were taken on board at Madras. This was the only one which reached England, the other three having died during the voyage. It has as yet borne the rigours of our northern latitude well, but is a little subject to a cough in cold damp weather. The animal is a female, now between two and three years old. It measures in length 2ft including the tail which is 1ft. Its colour, when viewed at a little distance, is a silvery grey; but a closer inspection shows that each hair, which is long and coarse, is composed of bars of black, brown, and white, exactly resembling the quills of a porcupine. The head is small and very handsome; the legs are strong, the fore ones much tapered, having five separate toes on each foot; the tail is very long, thick at the root and tapering to a point (fig).

The ‘Mangouste or Viverra Mungo’, the Indian Grey Mongoose, illustration to A J Adie’s account

It uses its forepaws with much dexterity; pulls every thing into the cage that comes within their sphere of action, takes insects out of water with them, and when a snuffbox is presented to it, by the rapidity of their motion, expels much of the contents before the box can be shut. It does not take its prey with the claws, but they prove powerful weapons in tormenting it when caught, by throwing it from one place to another. The tail seems to assist the animal in leaping and turning, as in doing so it frequently strikes it against hard objects with such force as to cause it to bleed at the extremity.

Its curiosity is unbounded. When let loose in a room it traverses it at a light, airy, and graceful pace, its feet scarcely appearing to touch the floor; it searches every corner, and kills all insects that are to be found. After the floor has undergone a minute examination, the chairs and tables follow next; these it easily reaches, being able to leap three feet from the ground, and sometimes the pockets of those present undergo the same scrutiny. The mangouste knows the house and garden of Canaan Cottage so well, that it runs about from one to the other, but never goes away, and appears at the call of those it knows. Myself and another are the only persons it has complete confidence in; it distinguishes my foot at a great distance and runs to me: its powers in this way are very acute. I have seen it set its hair on end and growl when a strange dog was some yards from it, the one being within and the other without the house; with the dog that belongs to the house, it has been on terms of friendship ever since the first interview, when, after giving him a bite on the face, a good understanding was established, and since that time the dog has sometimes used it very roughly without the mangouste resenting it. Should a stranger take hold of it when out of the house it bites and runs off.

The mangouste is as docile as the mildest of dogs, if you except the time of feeding, particularly when devouring a bird that has been given to it alive. At this time the change in its manners is as quick as it is remarkable: in one second it loses all the mild and attractive dispositions of the pet; these vanish, to be replaced by the repulsive ones of the fiercest carnivorous animals, growling, uttering a sharp bark, and even attempting to bite.

Its favourite food is small birds, and the dexterity shown in climbing into bushes, seems to indicate that in the wild state they may probably constitute a considerable portion of its food. If a mouse, rat, lizard, or frog be given it, before killing it will play with the animal for a quarter of an hour: indeed I do not remember having allowed this to be carried on so long as it might have been disposed; and to put an end to it, the rescue of the victim has only to be attempted, when its death is instantaneous. With a small bird, however, the treatment is very different, for the mangouste has only to see one, when capture and death will follow in a second. If, however, we except the time of feeding, the harshest usage from those it knows will only make it utter a low, plaintive, and murmuring cry. It cries in the same way when hungry, or when wishing to get out of its cage.

Its playfulness is very remarkable; it is more playful than a kitten, with strength and agility superior to that of a cat. It is impossible to describe the numerous positions it twists its body into; perhaps the most marked of them is that of standing on the hind legs and leaping like a kangaroo.

As it is mentioned in various books on natural history, that the mangouste can dive, swim, and remain long under water, like the otter, for the purpose of taking fish; in order to try if this one possessed the same faculty, I put an egg into a large basin of water, and showed it to the mangouste; immediately the animal dived is body up to the shoulders and took out the egg. A few minnows were then put into a small basin; it took them with great ease and avidity; but it could not take them out of a larger basin, the water seeming to deprive it of sight, as soon as its head was plunged under the surface; it preferred to watch till they came to the edge, and pounce on them; but these attempts proving as abortive as the first it abandoned them altogether. Since that time several birds have been put into a small pond, but the mangouste would not go into the water for them.’

Source: Alexander J. Adie, Junior, ‘Notice of the Habits of a Mangouste, kept alive at Canaan Cottage, near Edinburgh’, The Magazine of Natural History, and journal of zoology, botany, mineralogy, geology, and meteorology, London, vol 1, 1829, pp. 20-22.