Monday, July 15, 2013

Intruder rampant

Last night I was victim to a ‘break and enter’.
Although (to be honest) ‘enter and break’ would be more apt.

It was 2 am when I was flung from sleep by a loud, tinkling crash coming from the kitchen. A quick head count revealed that all my pets – now struggling groggily to their paws – were with me in the bedroom.
There was an intruder in the house.

Snatching up my bedside torch, I and the pets (two huskies and a cat) stumbled drowsily toward the noise.
Now call me unwise, but it never occurred to me that the intruder might be human. From the china-shattering sound effects, I knew someone had knocked over the dishes I’d left teetering on the sink (for security purposes only, of course). This suggested an arboreal offender, and my sleep-clogged brain was shuffling inefficiently through alternatives... a bush baby, maybe?
Hopefully, NOT a leopard.

I snapped on the kitchen light and all Hell broke loose.
Instantly a slim, cat-sized creature was hurtling around the room, bouncing off the walls, the fridge-top, the sink, the cupboard. Every gargantuan leap was accompanied by a cacophony of breakages as jars, pans, egg cartons, canisters and plates crashed to the floor (not that my kitchen is untidy, of course). My dog Magic leapt after the frightened animal, knocking over the garbage can and bounding through the broken crockery and glass. Over and above this chaos there arose a burgeoning stench: acrid, sweet and musky.
With everything happening so quickly, and the animal moving so fast, I couldn’t get a good look at it. My only impression was of a long, ringed tail.
Ahh, a genet.

Now genets are very special animals. Of all the carnivores pussyfooting about the globe today, genets are the ones most closely resembling the ancient grand-pappy of the whole toothy mob (a little miacid who hunted 50 million years ago). In fact, the genet’s teeth and skeleton have barely changed since way back then. This isn’t to say that genets are primitive; they’re simply traditionalists who like to do things the way their mammies’ did.
They’re also amazingly beautiful.
Clothed in the softest, pale silver fur, they’re brushed with delicate streaks of inky droplets. A trim of silky black fur crests along their spines, and their long, long tails - the ultimate accessory - are shockingly aposematic, ringed spectacularly in white and black.

The small spotted genet (Genetta felina) is one of ten species that haunt the African night. Their nearest and dearest are the civets, linsangs and mongooses (so how could they not be charming?).
Photo by Fredric Salein.

My intruder hurtled through the kitchen doorway and circumnavigated the lounge room in seconds by ricocheting off the walls. Leaping at the French windows, it slid spread-eagled down the glass, Sylvester-like, its claws screeching all the way. Magic (who’s mania for hunting ratchets into insanity in the presence of a small carnivore) saw this as her big chance and plunged across the room. I pelted after her in a valiant attempt to avert certain carnage. But I’d underestimated the genet. Touching ground, it instantly sprang again, bouncing off the top of Wizard’s head and disappearing into the bedroom.

Genets, like cats, have sharp, retractile claws that let them climb and snare small beasts efficiently. Their paws also have 5 toes (cats and dogs have 4).
Photo by David Bygot.

By this stage the musky fetor was almost making my eyes water. You see genets are masters in the art of perfumery. As professional serial killers, they favour a solitary lifestyle and operate only under the cover of darkness. This makes conversing with lovers and rivals challenging. Yet with typical mammalian ingenuity, they’ve hit on a solution: they leave little aromatic messages that convey their identity, sexual orientation and level of libido.
While most carnivores make do with bog-standard anal glands - brimful with pungent bacteria - (this, by the way, includes your sweet little cat and dog), genets brandish a perineal gland too (a little slit located between their anus and their naughty bits). When marking is imminent, muscles pull open this innocuous looking slit to expose an inbuilt paintbrush of fine white hairs oozing a clear oily emulsion. As if this isn’t scary enough, the animal then uses acrobatics to apply the malodorous stuff. Backing up to an object, it flings its hind legs up over its back and teeters around on its forepaws (in a perfect handstand) to smear the goo, back and forth, as high as genetly possible. (Okay, my dwarf mongooses also indulge in handstanding, but I’m sure they’re much more mannerly).

Oh, and I forgot to mention that when genets get anxious they release every possible excretion.

Genets munch any small critters they can lay their paws on, from bugs to duiker lambs. They’re also partial to fruit and nectar.
Photo by Isidro Martinez.

When I followed the procession of animals into the bedroom, I found Magic trampolining on the bed in an attempt to reach the genet, who was scrabbling up the wardrobe. Launching a flying tackle, I pinned the dog to the mattress with my body, and everything fell still. Panting quietly, we all took stock. The genet stood frozen on top of the dresser, one forepaw raised and nose uplifted like a wondrous heraldic beast (argent genet passant).

Unfortunately, I was so busy devising an escape plan for the frightened creature, I forgot to check out its tail. Now this may seem an understandable oversight but two genet species lurk around here, and they’re not easy to tell apart. The tail of the large spotted genet (Genetta tigrina) sports a black tip, while the small spotted genet’s (Genetta felina) tail usually concludes in white (I’m sure you’ve noticed the flaw in this masterly technique). Unfortunately, the whole ‘large’ and ‘small’ business is a red herring (to confuse newbies); it refers to the spots not the beasts.

Large spotted genets (Genetta tigrina) are found in the moister bits of southern Africa. Their spots are rust-coloured and ringed in black rather than being charcoal (hmm, a bit subtle...).
Photo posted on Flickr by West Chester Dumonts.

Common or European genets (Genetta genetta) are the only species to venture beyond Africa (they also prowl the Middle East and southern Europe). However, it’s uncertain whether they were introduced to Europe (by the Moors to Spain) as they were routinely kept as mousers throughout the Middle Ages (before cats got popular). Photo by Ricardo Sanchez.

After careful thought, I concluded the best way to help my nameless genet was to neutralise Magic. I wasn’t worried about Wizard: he’s not much of a hunter and he was still recovering from the whole head-bouncing incident. While I dragged a whimpering Magic off to the bathroom, the genet quietly slipped back into the lounge room and escaped out the window. 

Now I’m just left with a complete ruin of a kitchen and an overpowering stench.
It’s not entirely unpleasant, but... er... very animally!

This image is for those of us who secretly suffer tail-envy. Presumably it’s of Mum and the kids (but there seem too many). Maybe - like other solitary mammals - small spotted genets are willing to bend the rules when food is bounteous.
Photo by David Bygott.


  1. What a night!
    I suppose it's still far better than having startled a human intruder (except, perhaps, for the odors), but I can't imagine that made kitchen clean-up any easier.
    Thanks for making your break-in the opportunity to tell your readers some fascinating facts about scent marking!

    1. Oh, give me smells over people any day! Speaking of which, my cleaning efforts have had no appreciable impact on the all pervasive pong. And now I’ve just read about a well-marked nest box that stunk for FOUR YEARS after the resident genets had left. Gulp.

  2. Wonderful. Oh, how I've missed your adventures and your knowledge. I'm so glad you're back online. Good luck with the cleaning up!

    1. Thank you for the encouragement. Ah, cleanliness is highly overrated; one mustn’t lose sight of the really valuable things in life (I’ve left some of the little paw prints going up the kitchen walls because they look so cute).

  3. Replies
    1. I’m glad you liked it. They’re mighty cool critters; great subjects for your camera trapping prowess...

  4. Wow, what an experience!!! Great photos.

    1. The wildlife around here likes to keep me on my toes. Yes, the photos are lovely, but sadly they aren’t mine. I just never even seem to think of taking pictures in the heat of the moment (and my feeble photographic skills are no match for my fleet-footed neighbours).


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