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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A ratcatcher's hound

A couple weeks ago, Patrick Burns of Terrierman's Daily Dose kindly mentioned Camera Trap Codger. I want to return the favor, Pat, so here's an experience with rat hounds.

This was back in 1979 when I was searching for the little known "giant civet" or musang choklat of Sulawesi (Macrogalidia musschenbroekii). We were living with a farmer's family in a village named Liberia. It was a transmigrated community of Javanese, and being the best rice paddy engineers in the world, they had completely terraced the slopes leading to the far ridges of forest and Gunung Ambang where the mysterious musang lived. I know this sounds like J. Peterman on the Seinfeld re-runs, but it's true.

My "musang brothers" were Jack West, the young multilingual general curator of the Ragunan Zoo in Jakarta, and a perpetually smiling bumpkin named Ribowo, who was the local warden. Though several years my junior, Jack took his charge as my protector very seriously. Ribowo was our native guide, known affectionately to the locals.

It didn't take long for the word to get out that we were trapping rats, which really doesn't raise any eyebrows in an Indonesian village, and we were told that the village had its own ratcatcher, with whom we would have a lot in common.

His name was Mengko; he farmed like everyone else, and he supplemented his income by moonlighting as a ratcatcher. Roasted rats were a delicacy in Liberia. [Note: Southeast Asia has climbing rats, giant rats, water rats, and predaceous rats, to mention just a few, and they are all referred to "tikus" (you can pronounce that teekoos). I was told by Guy Musser that Sulawesi is the epicenter of rat diversity.]

The next morning we met Mengko with a cigarette stuck to his lip. He wore a pointy little cap like the Pied Piper, and had a quiet air of confidence. In tow were his 14-year-old apprentice with a gunny sack, and his pale bridled rat hound, which looked like it didn't have the strength to catch a cockroach. Between the sorry looking dog and these guys wearing garish sport shirts, I was starting to have doubts.

"How in the hell is he going to get rats?" I stammered. "He doesn't have any equipment!"

Jack explained that the equipment -- a shovel blade, a steel rod, and a parang (=machete) --was in the gunny sack, and the dog would dig up the burrows.

Roiiiight!!! I thought with sarcastic British accent. I couldn't wait to see them use a shovel without a handle. And that listless dog that strained to crap every 50 yards? We'd be lucky if it didn't die in the next half hour.

The hunting ground, a few kilometers from the village was an overgrown coffee plantation that dated back to the Dutch. The rats burrowed among the roots.

Mengko located a promising burrow with the rod, fashioned a handle for the shovel with the parang, cleared the ground vegetation, and started digging. The pooch buried its head in the burrow, snorted deeply, then took a break to squat and strain. The scenario was repeated for an hour.

Suddenly there was a magical transformation. Maybe it was the smell of rat. Whatever it was, it breathed life into the dog. Like a bionic badger a stream of soil shot out between its hind legs, and in a minute it was almost out of sight.

Obviously, the poor creature expected a meal of rat guts, it's usual reward, but we wanted those rats alive. Mengko dragged it from the hole, and caught the rat by hand. Still, the dog worked for several hours, energized each time by the smell of frightened rat, until we had a fine collection.

Then it followed us back to the village on an empty stomach.


Anonymous said...

Interesting note on the rat catcher. Did you ever find the musang?

Camera Trap Codger said...

Of course we found the musang, and if I can ever find the camera trap picture, I'll blog it.