Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/September 1889/A Study from Life






MANY a strange little beast from far-off quarters of the globe may be picked up in New York, in places where sailors are wont to dispose of their pets. In this way I came into possession of a rare and interesting animal, a black-beaded lemur, or Lemur brunneus, native of Madagascar. He was a member of my household for nearly a year, and during that time the family circle was never dull. The whole of Barnum's menagerie next door could not afford more entertainment than did this one droll little fellow.

He was about the size of a small cat, or, to be exact, from the tip of his pointed nose to the root of the tail he measured sixteen inches; of that length, three inches were face and thirteen body and neck. His girth back of the fore-legs was nine inches.

The manners of the little stranger were extremely odd. His home was a cage in the parlor, where he was generally alone all day, and spent the time, it is to be supposed, in sleeping, although I must admit I rarely found him so. At about four in the afternoon I went into the room and let him out. The moment I appeared he came to the front of the cage, pressed his weird little black face with its clear topaz eyes to the wires, and then began to call and "weave" impatiently. The latter was a singular movement. Planting his hind-legs far apart in a half-sitting position, he held up and outward his short arms, and swayed his whole body from side to side—at each end of his swing bringing his hands down almost to the floor. This he did very rapidly, uttering every moment a short, quick sort of double grunt, with an occasional explosion or "snort," in the exact tone of a pig.

Of course, I instantly opened his door, from that time till ten o'clock being his regular daily outing. Like a flash he bounced through it, jumped to the nearest chair, from that to the sofa, the table, somebody's lap or shoulder, the mantel, the top of his cage, or the piano, and so made the circuit of the two parlors, without touching the carpet. After thus going the grand rounds, he generally jumped to the floor, and ran all about under the furniture. His sharp nose nearly touched the carpet, and his back (owing to the four inches difference in length between his fore and hind limbs) sloped up at an angle of forty-five degrees to the tail, which stood straight up like a banner over his back, the tip sometimes curling forward like a dog's, sometimes backward like a hook. During the whole performance he constantly uttered a contented single grunt like "woof!"

If any movement in the room startled him, he broke into a grotesque gallop, bringing his feet up closely beside his hands at every leap. This gallop, which was rapid and light, always ended in a sudden spring to somebody's lap, or a scramble to the top of a tall easel, where he looked around to see what had frightened him. But if not disturbed, when his tour of inspection was over he usually went to the open fire, placed himself, sometimes on the toe of a lady's slipper if it were conveniently near, sometimes on a little three-by-five-inch cushion on the arm of an easy-chair. Here he sat up like a cat with tail hanging out before him, or fell eagerly to dressing his peculiar woolly fur, which stood out all over his body, washing his face by licking the outside edge of his hand and rubbing it back and forth over his face, and wiping his mouth on a chair as a bird wipes its bill, first one side and then the other. Especially did he labor over his eighteen-inch-long tail, scraping up the fur till it stood out round and gave that member great apparent size. The tool with which he accomplished so much was his curious row of lower front teeth, which ended in points of almost needle sharpness, and projected at an angle that prevented their being used to bite, but made an effective scraper for the skin, or a comb for his own gray wool.

Warmed and dressed, the playful fellow began his evening's amusement. If the master's quiet game of cribbage was going on, he often began by marking his prey from his seat on the chair-arm, and without warning springing to the middle of the table, scattering cards like chaff, upsetting cribbage-board and sending the pegs flying, slapping cards out of the hands of the players, and biting needle-like holes in them.

To make a great commotion of any sort was his delight. Sitting peacefully on my lap, or lying flat upon his stomach, every limb stretched out, apparently the most innocent and harmless of pets, he would often quietly rise to his feet and, before I suspected him, snatch my book out of my hand or spring over it into my face. If I started at this rough salute, as I was tolerably sure to do, he was struck with panic, gave one mighty bound to the mantel, the bracket of a lamp, the edge of an open door, or the floor, where he stood a few seconds motionless as he alighted. A panic, indeed, struck through him instantly, with curious effect. Whether he were lying quietly on one's knee, standing, sitting, or in whatever position, on being alarmed by an attempt to capture him, or by an unexpected sound, he instantly disappeared—sideways, backward, or forward mattered not—without in any way making ready, or getting upon his legs. It was as if his body were a spring, or as if he were flung by some force outside of himself—he simply went. It is impossible to give an idea of this most remarkable movement; I never saw anything like it. A curious fashion he had also of leaping against the bare side wall of the room, which he struck flatly with all fours, and then bounded off in another direction. I have seen the same thing done by a squirrel, and also—strange as it seems—by a bird.

The extreme nervousness of the little lemur seemed to be caused by too much company. When alone with one person, especially if that one were my daughter or myself—his prime favorites—he was as quiet as the family cat. He sat or lay in the lap, and allowed himself to be brushed; indeed, he enjoyed brushing, and thrust out arms and legs to be operated upon. He sat up with his tail laid over his shoulders in a comical way, and, if he wanted to turn his head, he "ducked" it under the tail and brought it up the other side rather than change its comfortable position. This member was really an important charge to the little beast; he spent hours in dressing it, and by it he expressed all his emotions. When in quiet mood it hung straight down, as stiffly as if made of wood; on mischief bent, it assumed a wicked-looking sidewise turn, though still hanging; during his pranks and in excitement it stood up like a flag-staff, safely out of harm's way; if his "angry passions rose," it was swished, after the manner of a cat; and when he jumped, it delivered a severe blow, like a smart rap with a stick.

Never was a living creature more alert than this small brute. So acute was his hearing that it was absolutely impossible to surprise him. No matter how quietly and apparently off his guard he sat on a chair, one could not jerk or tip that piece of furniture so quickly as to take him unawares; at the first sign of movement he appeared on the other side of the room, one could hardly tell how. I wanted much to see him when he did not see me, and to that end several times stole into the room from the front. The back of the cage was toward that side, and he could not possibly see me. I took off my shoes, and moved—to my senses—without the slightest sound over the carpet; but when I reached the point where I could see the open front of his cage, there he was, waiting, looking for me, his bright yellow eye pressed eagerly against the wires, in the corner nearest the side I came to. The instant he saw me he uttered a mocking grunt, which plainly said, "Thought you'd surprise me, eh?" and began a violent weaving and coaxing to get out. Perhaps he was thus wide awake because he seemed really to fear being alone, and to dread the dark. The moment he was left in the room the spirit of mischief departed, and he retreated to the top of his cage, where he remained till some one came in. The dusk, with its shadows, always alarmed him, and, when taken into a strange room, he cowered and clung to his friend as if frightened out of his wits. Fond as was the lemur of society, he was exceedingly nervous about it. When he heard a person coming through the hall, he first ran to the end of a sofa nearest the door; as the steps approached, he grew more and more uneasy; and, when the hand touched the door-knob, he yielded to wild panic,* bounded to the other end of the sofa and over the back, where he held by one hand, while his body dangled behind. His great sensitiveness showed also in another way—he never met a human eye with his own. He saw every expression of the face, but he always looked just beyond it. He violently objected to being stared at, turned his head away, and, if his head were held between two hands for the purpose of looking in his face, he got away, either by a sudden spring to the top of the head of his captor or by wriggling himself out backward. His wool-covered body was the most elusive in the world to hold.

But, although the little fellow would not look one squarely in the face, he saw everything that happened, and was as inquisitive as any monkey. He liked to sit before the window and look at passers-by, both beast and human; a cat aroused him to the point of expressing his mind, and he saluted her by a short, sharp bark. A bugle that was brought out with the hope of curing him of too great familiarity with the person of the owner, proved, on the contrary, to be a special lure. He rose on his hind-legs—which he did with perfect ease—and thrust his nose into the large end, evidently to find the sound. Once happening to get possession of the instrument when its guardian was absent, the lemur made a thorough examination of it. He pulled it on to the floor, threw his body across it, embracing it with his legs to keep it in place, and then proceeded to push his head almost out of sight into the big end, take the small end in his mouth, as if to blow, and to make minute and careful study of every part of it, until fully satisfied that whatever he sought was beyond his reach, when he abandoned it.

The intelligence of the creature was notable. He knew his own blankets instantly wherever he saw them, and was quite positive that no one had a right to touch them; he learned his name ily, always answered when spoken to, and came at a call like a dog, a thing very rare among animals of his sort. He also knew his own box, his chosen seats, his place before the fire, and insisted that they should not be used by others. In pictures he recognized a bird, or, at least, he tried to snatch it out of the paper, and the same with figures that looked like insects. He disapproved of change, complained when I closed the shutters, and looked askance at me when I put on a different dress. He knew with perfect certainty who would let him out of the cage and who would not; one of the gentlemen of the house might sit in the parlor all day, and, except for keeping an eye on him, the little beast made no sign; but let either of his mistresses enter, and he was excited at once, weaving, grunting, and demanding that the door be opened. He understood at once, too, when forbidden to do anything.

On the occasion of a several days' visit of a child, he was at first very jealous; did not like her occupying a lap he had considered his own, and opposed with a squealing grunt her sitting on his special stool before the fire. But she was a gentle child, and a little later he became very fond of her, let her pat him, sit beside him on his seat, and at last insisted upon lying on some article of her dress if any were in the room.

What the small African set his mind on he always secured in the end, for his persistence was simply marvelous. He was as fond of apples as any school-boy, and the head of the family liked to tantalize him by coming in with one hidden in his pocket. The sharp little nose sniffed it at once, and the eager little fellow sprang upon the apple-bearer, tried to dive into his pocket head first, then to dig into it from below, and, despairing of this, went to work to tear away the garments that covered it. No doubt he would have succeeded, but before he went so far the owner gave in, and delivered the fruit to the impatient creature. He snatched it at once, and fairly "gobbled" at it, biting off pieces with his back teeth, throwing his head up to chew them, and carefully separating and dropping the skin. He never at any time made a full meal, as do many beasts. His desire seemed to be merely to stop the cravings of hunger; the moment these were satisfied he opened his hand, and whatever food was in it dropped, he being apparently as unconscious as if he had nothing to do with it. He ate bread, sweet potato, and banana, and drank milk and water; but his delight was—with the girls—in candy, and that he never dropped. If there was a bit in sight, and he not sharing it, he was simply wild. A piece being offered, he snatched it, chewed it down, and instantly begged for more. The favorite trick of a mischievous youth was to give him a licorice-drop, which became soft and tenacious in the mouth, held his jaws together, and in every way was troublesome; but, in spite of his struggles with, it, he was never discouraged, and always coaxed for another.

No beast that I ever saw was more fond of play than the little Malagasy, not even a lively kitten. From the moment his door was opened till he was shut in for the night he often gave his mind to a constant succession of pranks. He scraped the beads off our dress-trimmings with his comb-like teeth, and he slapped or pulled books or work out of our hands, and especially liked to frolic in one's lap, lying on his back kicking with all fours, pretending to bite, and even turning somersaults or indulging in the most peculiar little leaps. In the latter he flung out his arms, dropped his head on one side in a bewitching way, turned half around in the air, and came down in the spot he started from, the whole performance so sudden, apparently so involuntary, and his face so grave all the time, it seemed as if a spring had gone off inside, with which his will had nothing to do.

A favorite plaything with the lemur was a window-shade. He began by jumping up to the fringe, seizing it and swinging back and forth. One day he learned by accident that he could "set it off," and then his extreme pleasure was to snatch at it with so much force as to start the spring, when he instantly let go and made one bound to the other side of the room, or to the mantel, where he sat, looking the picture of innocence, while the released shade sprang to the top and went over and over the rod. We could never prevent his carrying out this little programme, and we drew down one shade only to have him slyly set off another the next instant.

Next to the shade, his chosen play-ground was a small brass rod holding a bracket-lamp. It was not more than half an inch wide, and so sharp-edged that it seemed impossible that an animal of his size and weight could stay on it one minute, especially as it was not more than eight or ten inches long, and held a burning lamp at the end. The lamp was no objection to the always chilly little beast; he enjoyed the heat of it, and not only did he sit there with perfect ease, and dress his fur or eat his bread, but he played what seemed impossible pranks on it. He turned somersaults over it; he hung by one hand and swung; he jumped and seized it with hand or foot; whisked over it, and came up the other side. He never made a slip nor touched the lamp, and his long, stiff tail served as a balancing-pole.

Perhaps the greatest fun in our little captive's residence in a parlor was with a newspaper. The thing that inspired his first interest in the article was being told to let it alone, when he longed to tear it up. That ungratified desire made us constant trouble, till at last I resolved to give him his wish. I took an old paper and put it on the floor for him. His first pass was to come with a big leap into the middle of it, when the rustle instantly scared him off in a second hound as tremendous as the first. He soon returned, however, and began again. He turned somersaults on it, rolled over on it, took hold of one corner and rolled himself up in it. But during all these performances, every fresh rustle of the paper put him in a panic, and he leaped spasmodically away—a wild frolic impossible to describe, with attitudes so grotesque, movements so unexpected, and terror and joy so closely united, that it was the funniest exhibition one can imagine. The next evening I arranged a newspaper tentwise on the floor. The lemur looked at it, contemplated the tempting passage-way under it, then dashed frantically through and flew to the highest retreat in the room, as if he had taken his life in his hands. He returned—for it was impossible to keep away—and resumed the gambols, the hand-springs, the various fantastic exercises, and between each two antics flung himself about the room as if he had gone mad, ending every romp by sitting a few seconds motionless, with a grave and solemn air, as if it were out of the question that he could be guilty of anything frivolous.

Unlike most beasts, this little fellow had a great liking for strangers, and frequently took violent fancies, in which case it was quite impossible to keep him away from the object of his affections. Some people liked it, but others did not; and when one young lady was actually afraid of him, he appreciated her attitude, and not only resented it by angry barking grunts, but contrived again and again to surprise her, by stealing up behind her chair and suddenly pouncing upon her. Of course, she shrieked, and he squealed and grunted and ran out his tongue at her. With his friends he was troublesomely affectionate, insisting on being held, on lap, arm, or shoulder, and following them from room to room, in a long, droll gallop on the floor, or by jumping from chair to table, and sometimes to their backs as they passed.

Almost every sound the creature uttered reminded one of a pig. Going about the room contentedly, he constantly made a low sound represented by "oof!" or "woof!" with the tone and accent of the animal mentioned; when anxious to get out of his cage, the grunt was double, like the drawing in and expulsion of the breath in the same tone, varied—as has been said—by a little explosive sound. His bark even was of a piggish quality. When angry or hurt, he delivered a squeal and grunt together impossible to characterize; and if rubbed and caressed, he breathed out a loud, rough purr. His cry of loneliness was truly piteous; I heard it occasionally through the register. It was a sobbing, dismal sound, sometimes half a howl, sometimes with a retching sound. In uttering this he opened a small round hole of a quarter-inch diameter in the front of his very flexible lips. If this cry is a common indulgence of his tribe in the wilds of Madagascar, I do not wonder that the people are superstitious about them, and call them "ghosts" or "specters." No lament can be imagined more weird and torturing to the nerves. At first, when I heard my pet cry thus, I ran hastily down-stairs, thinking something dreadful had happened; but the instant his eye fell upon me, the rogue changed his wails into the grunt of recognition, and a demand to be let out.

When, after five hours of revels that kept his audience in shrieks of laughter or in terror for his life, the time came for him to go to bed, and his wire-gauze door was—in spite of his remonstrance—closed upon him, it was curious to see him prepare for night. His bed was in a round wooden box, fastened upon the side of his cage, lined and covered with blankets. Sometimes he lay on his back, his head hanging out upside down, and two legs sticking out at awkward angles; occasionally his arms were thrown over his head, and his hands clung to the edge of the box. But usually, after a long preparation of fur-dressing, he placed his head on the bottom of the box, face down, and then disposed his body around it, wriggling and twisting and turning, till he was satisfied, when he was seen lying on his side, his head not under him as would be expected, and his tail curled neatly around. Sometimes, after long and elaborate arrangement of himself, when one would not expect him to move before morning, he suddenly started up and came out as bright and lively as if he never dreamed of going to sleep. But more often, when he had thus composed himself, the heavy blanket was dropped before his door, the lights were turned out, and he was left for the night.