The Zoologist/4th series, vol 6 (1902)/Issue 731/Notes on a Private Collection of Living Mammals during 1900–02

Notes on a Private Collection of Living Mammals during 1900–02

'Notes on a Private Collection of Living Mammals during 1900–02' was published in: The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 6, issues 731 (May, 1902), p. 179–188


By Graham Renshaw, M.B.

In spite of the rapid progress which the science of zoology has made during the last twenty years, the study of living mammals in captivity remains a comparatively neglected branch of natural history, being almost entirely left to the learned members of zoological societies. The private individuals who have systematically taken up this most interesting work may almost be enumerated on the fingers of one hand—this neglect of so fascinating a pursuit being all the more remarkable considering the activity displayed by naturalists in other departments of the animal world. Thus numerous ornithologists, not only throughout the United Kingdom, but also on the Continent, add annually to our knowledge of birds by means of observations on aviary specimens; reptiles and fish are now frequently exhibited, thriving amongst appropriate surroundings; and the life-history of many insects is known from egg to imago, thanks to the labours of countless entomologists. It is indeed to be regretted that the highly organized class of mammalia does not as yet obtain its due share of attention; perhaps this is owing to the comparatively small number of dealers who sell mammals as well as birds, and also to the general impression that the former are more expensive to buy and more difficult to keep than the latter. It should, however, be remembered that a considerable variety of wild creatures can always be purchased either in London or in Liverpool; and although those who recollect with pleasure the herds of Eland, Sing-Sing Waterbuck, and White-tailed Gnu in the Paris Jardin d'Acclimatation, or the herd of Bubaline Hartebeests in the Jardin des Plantes, will recognize that the exhibition and maintenance of such fine game animals demands a great outlay of time, experience, and money. Nevertheless there are very many lesser mammals (nowadays included amongst the attractions of every zoological garden) which are not expensive to buy, and require only ordinary care and commonsense treatment to keep them in perfect health.

Since it is only the few who are able to travel far enough to study the wild animals of the globe in their own haunts, it is obvious that our knowledge of their habits is to be advanced as much by careful observations on captive specimens as by field notes; and this domain of bionomical research is still practically untrodden. It is hoped that the following account of a series of mammals which have recently been in my possession may not only be interesting, but also act as an encouragement to others to take up the matter for themselves. The list of animals is as follows:—


Felis tigrina (Margay Tiger-Cat).—There are certain zoological traditions which die very hard, illustrating the result of giving a dog—or any other animal—a bad name. Thus even to-day most persons believe all Zebras to be untameably wild and vicious, although Equus burchelli at any rate has now many times been successfully broken to harness; the black African Rhinoceros is still often supposed to be a surly, sulky savage, prone to charge without provocation, though the most recent information shows it to rather be a short-sighted, dull-witted brute, which merely rushes blindly forward when alarmed—nervous, not vindictive; and the Gorilla is still represented as a ferocious almost bloodthirsty monster, though the skins of several supposed to have been shot when charging have been found to show the bullet-holes in the back. So also the name "Tiger-Cat" has become almost proverbial for innate ferocity, and any animal of this description—whether it be Serval Ocelot or Margay—is popularly assumed to differ in size only from the savage of the Indian jungles. Many of these beautiful animals, however, become, if taken young, as tame and good-tempered as could be desired, although of course allowance must be made for individual differences of disposition, and it must be admitted that very young animals can be as spiteful or more so than their elders. I recently saw two Serval kittens which snarled and hissed at the mere approach of a stranger; in the same collection was an adult animal of the same species which allowed me to stroke him with every indication of pleasure. A very tame and playful Ocelot kitten came under my notice in the autumn of 1900; and the Margay, though perhaps less often tamed than most Tiger-Cats, is capable of showing good nature, if not affection, towards its owner.

The Margay which I had was a six-months' kitten, greyish brown, spotted and streaked with blackish brown, and very rough-coated. It was a most good-tempered little thing, allowing itself to be stroked, and capable of amusing itself for an indefinite time with a dangling piece of string, an india-rubber ball, or its own tail, and it delighted to play with a broom, clawing and biting the bristly surface of this odd plaything as if it were the fur of a gigantic mouse. Not content with its own company, this cat would beg the spectator to play with it, uttering a plaintive mew of invitation, and pleased beyond expression if rolled about on the sawdust-covered floor of the cage by some bystander. At night it was extremely active, scampering about the roomy compartment which it inhabited, and rushing up the various perches to bounce off on to the floor immediately afterwards. Picking up and dropping a fowl's head time after time was another pastime in great favour. This Cat soon learnt to come at feeding-time if called "puss, puss!" If overfed it would become irritable, growling and even springing out at any intruder. Except for this, however, the animal never showed the slightest animosity towards anyone, thus contrasting very favourably with the young of some of the Felidæ, such as the kittens of the British Wild Cat (F. catus), which hiss and spit almost before they can crawl. My Cat lived all through the gloomy winter of 1900–01 in perfect health, and was eventually exchanged for a Temminck's Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros convexus).

Tiger-Cats may be fed on raw meat, fowls' heads, and milk; some will also eat fish. These animals require plenty of room; a cage nine feet long, three high, and three deep, with suitable branches for exercise should be provided. Savage individuals of this and all other Carnivora are safest when kept in cages opened by sliding the door upwards; when released, the door is self-closing by its own weight.

Genetta pardina (Pardine Genet).—Amongst the Viverridæ we find many remarkable forms, from the familiar Civet-Cat and Mongoose to the rare Eupleres of Madagascar; but few are more interesting than the beautiful Pardine Genet, with its elegant, almost Deer-like head set on a graceful neck, its handsome coat, spotted boldly in Leopard fashion, and its long tapering tail—these outward attractions being enhanced by the marvellous quickness and lithe serpentine grace of its movements as it runs like a streak of lightning across the floor of its cage, or leaps from one place to another with the agility of a Cat. My Genet was an adult male, very quiet, and indeed afraid of being hurt; he allowed himself to be stroked, and would feed from the hand when he had barely been six weeks in England. On one occasion he escaped from his cage, to which he was only restored after three-quarters of an hour's interval; even then, though thoroughly frightened, he made no attempt to bite. Perhaps the Genets, like the Giraffe, are silent animals; the one I had, at any rate, never emitted any sound whatever. He slept all day coiled up in his travelling box, at night becoming very lively, bounding to and fro in a curious manner behind the bars of the cage as if performing some set task. Genets are, if possible, even more active than Cats, therefore it is cruel to imprison them in little cages, as is only too often done; six feet is the minimum length for a cage to accommodate so agile a creature. These animals may be fed on fowls' heads, mice, or fish. In these days a chattering Monkey or a screeching Parrot seems to be the popular ideal of a zoological treasure; but to anyone wishing for a new, interesting, intelligent, and quiet pet, pleasing in its ways, and readily becoming tame, I cordially recommend the Pardine Genet.

Galidictis vittata (Grison).—The Grison is a rare animal in captivity, and I do not remember ever having seen it in any of the continental zoos; indeed, the two which arrived in England recently are the only ones I have known to be offered for sale of late years—one of these, a fine healthy specimen, is now in my own collection. The coloration of the Grison is most remarkable, grey above and dark brown below; it resembles, in fact, a small Honey Ratel (Mellivora), and has something of the Badger in its gait, while the webbed feet recall those of the Otter. The Grison is one of the "cutest" and most "wideawake" of wild animals; every action expresses alert intelligence and fearless self-reliance. My example is very playful and inquisitive; as, however, it endeavours to show goodwill by inflicting friendly bites, advances are not encouraged, since it hurts to have a piece taken out of one's finger, even if only in fun. These animals will play with a bit of paper, dragging it through the wires and tearing it into bits. Everything is seized in the mouth rather than pounced on with the paws. In taking food, the Grison first sniffs at it, then suddenly grips it with its teeth and squats down to feed, holding it between the paws. During the daytime my specimen lies concealed in its sleeping box, thrusting out its inquisitive head on any noise being made, and ready on the slightest encouragement to run up to the wires,—absolute fearlessness seems to be part of its character. Although the Grison makes an interesting and novel pet, it is not one to be handled carelessly. Should any reader of the 'Zoologist' ever possess one of these rare Mustelines, he may feed it on raw meat and fowls' heads like the preceding animals.[1]


Sciurus sp.? (Black Squirrel).—This active little creature is not only pleasing by reason of its vivacity, but is also handsome in appearance, being blackish brown above and white below; the ear-tufts and tail are sable and very fine. These animals, when recently captured, are nervous and timid, growling if disturbed, and even rushing at the hand of an intruder. They will also bite sharply if incautiously handled. Black Squirrels utter a curious noise, apparently indicating pleasure, when gambolling about on the branches with which their cage should always be provided. Like most rodents, they are very destructive to woodwork, which should be protected by sheet iron. They will eat apples, bread, and dry food, such as Indian corn.

Cynomys ludovicianus (Prairie Dog).—Perhaps the best way of keeping Prairie Dogs is to place them in a paved enclosure, the stone floor of which will resist all attempts at escape. A quantity of suitable earth may then be heaped up on the impenetrable flooring, and thus afford the animals an opportunity of constructing their own burrows, and leading a semi-natural life. This plan has been successfully adopted with the Wombats at the Amsterdam Zoological Gardens, and I have also seen it employed for Marmots. If, however, the owner is afraid that the material supplied may cave in and smother the workers, a more convenient plan is to place a large box well filled with hay in the centre of the enclosure. Holes are cut in the sides of the box for ingress and egress, and a few drain-pipes are substituted for the burrows, the whole being artistically concealed by rockwork. This method allows the owner to inspect the inside of the box at any time by removing a stone or two and raising the lid; it has, however, the disadvantage of hardly being a natural arrangement. Care must be taken that the central dwelling-place is kept dry and warm, and that the surroundings do not harbour damp in wet weather.

Muscardinus avellanarius (Dormouse).—The Common Dormouse is one of the few British mammals regularly kept in captivity, and with its large beady eyes, tawny fur, and almost Squirrel-like tail is deservedly a favourite. I have several times found mine dying without any obvious cause. These invalids for a day or two before death would lie semi-torpid on the floor of the cage, scarcely breathing at all, and hardly indeed to be induced by any means to quicken their respiration. One, in fact, was semi-paralysed, dragging itself across the floor with great difficulty, and only lived a few days after the disease became marked. Perhaps some epidemic affects these animals in the autumn, as is the case with the Common Shrew. Remarks on the treatment of these well-known pets will be scarcely necessary. I would point out that by introducing a small branch of a tree into their cage, the clasping action of the foot-pads may be studied. Mine were fed on apples and bread. They do not gnaw woodwork like most rodents, neither do they bite.

Dipus jaculus (Egyptian Jerboa).—A quaint little furry figure, running like a wee sprite in the moonlight and continually stopping to examine objects in its path with busy inquisitiveness—such is the Egyptian Jerboa. Rat-like in body, bird-like in movements, its tiny person is supported on an absurd pair of stilt legs and a Kangaroo tail. In the daytime the Jerboa is a soft ball of fur asleep in its box; at night its activity is a remarkable contrast to its diurnal lethargy, as it flits like a shadow over the floor of its cage. I have now had nearly a dozen of these animals. They are cheap to buy and easy to keep, requiring no more care than so many Rabbits, and needing no artificial heat in winter if kept indoors and warmly bedded. Jerboas are extremely playful, and are fond of ploughing up the sand or sawdust on the cage-floor with their truncated muzzles, heaping it up into little mounds. They will also scramble up wire netting (presenting an extraordinary appearance owing to the great disproportion between the fore and hind legs), and will recklessly jump to the floor from a considerable height at the risk of serious injury to themselves. They are subject to a chronic wasting disease, the unfortunate animal becoming thinner and thinner month by month, although feeding and running about as usual, and I have lost several from this cause. Jerboas may be fed on crushed oats, millet seed, bread, lettuce, and cabbage. Although desert-haunting animals, they require water.


Dasypus villosus (Hairy Armadillo).—This grotesque animal may be described almost as a mammalian Woodlouse, its jointed carapace recalling that common crustacean. In addition to its curious appearance, the Hairy Armadillo exhibits more character than would have been expected of so lowly a mammal, being markedly intelligent and even self-willed. The pleasure of keeping these edentates depends very largely on the dieting, and it must be admitted that any which are fed on meat smell most abominably; those kept on bread and milk are much less objectionable. Armadillos (when they have been acclimatized) are thus best kept out of doors, care being taken to bed them warmly in winter. They are great burrowers, and will soon be lost if the floor of the run is not made of concrete, stone, or other impenetrable material, and care must also be taken that they do not scramble up and over the walls of their enclosure. The Hairy Armadillo sleeps all day either lying semi-contracted on its side, or else on its back, often with a silly Pig-like smile on its countenance. Towards evening it wakes up, and begins to explore every inch of its prison with a steady systematic diligence, which contrasts oddly with the alert nimbleness of a Jerboa or Squirrel, the Armadillo sniffing solemnly over every part of the floor, and thrusting its wedge-like head into every crevice; should any leverage be obtained, the animal at once commences to wrench its way out. I well remember placing my first Armadillo in a cage fronted with stout wire netting of half-inch mesh, and how, as soon as the industrious creature had found a weak spot, it prised up the wirework with its mailed snout, and then setting its broad shoulders and enormous claws busily to work, tore its way through, the staples giving way one after another with irritating rapidity. If turned out for a run on a paved floor the little mailed beast with his Pig-like eyes and pseudo-crustacean armour presents a most odd appearance as he patters about at a great pace on his stumpy legs. Fearless of injury under his natural shield, the Armadillo scrambles over, beneath, or through everything, and objects lighter than himself are promptly upset, so that one can easily credit the story of one of these animals which, when turned out for a run on a billiard table by his admiring owner, soon wrecked it by ripping up the cloth with his claws. I never knew these animals to attempt to bite. If seized hold of they resist by wedging themselves between objects, and also (apparently by accident) scratch if picked up. They soon, however, become tame enough to feed out of the hand. The unspillable zinc vessels now largely sold are best for holding water intended for Armadillos.

Dasypus sexcinctus (Weasel-headed or Six-banded Armadillo).—This is a much finer species than the preceding, from which it may be distinguished by the sharper muzzle, the more elegant outlines of the body, and the lighter colour of the armour; indeed, for an edentate, the Weasel-headed Armadillo may almost be pronounced a handsome animal. A fine male, which I purchased last January, would hiss when picked up, but made no other hostile demonstration. Instead of sleeping on his back like the Hairy Armadillo, this animal reposed on his stomach. Food and treatment the same as D. villosus.


Trichosurus vulpecula (Vulpine Phalanger).—The Vulpine Phalanger (often mis-called Opossum) resembles a Fox in the sharpness of its muzzle, a Bear in the woolly nature of its fur, and a Cat in the stealthiness of its movements. Adult animals are often spiteful and will bite severely, though capable of becoming fairly tame after a time. Young individuals, when tame, make delightful pets, as full of play as a kitten, and making most astonishing bounds from place to place, hardly to be expected of so heavy-looking an animal. The Vulpine Phalanger can run well, though rather clumsily; but it is most at home if given a tree-trunk to climb about on, the tenacious grasp of the claws being often assisted by the prehensile tail, which has a bare area on its lower surface to afford a firmer hold of the branches; so strongly do the caudal tendons act, that even a dead Phalanger may be suspended securely by hooking the tail round one's finger.

Tame individuals may be allowed to climb about the person of their owner like a Kinkajou or Bassaris. When fairly awake for the evening they are quite agile in their movements, hanging from a branch suspended merely by the tail, creeping along the under surface of a bough almost like a Sloth, and occasionally twisting themselves round so as to seat themselves on the upper surface of their perch, when they will sit up on their haunches like a Kangaroo; indeed, in this latter attitude they much resemble a small Wallaby. Phalangers may be fed on bread, apples, lettuce, and carrots. One of my specimens would eat birdseed, and even dried Ants' eggs. They cannot stand much damp, and a foggy winter must be guarded against by artificial heat.

The above list of mammals, though not a very large one, indicates sufficiently what may be done by any private individual attempting the study of living mammals (without the abundant resources of wealthy zoological societies), and only adopting commonsense treatment of the animals. It may be added that foreign Mammalia do not require to be kept day and night in a hot-house temperature, but are much better if not coddled. Dry cold will not do the majority of them much harm, but draughts, damp, and fog must be carefully avoided. The most convenient way of keeping them is to have the collection in a snugly built outhouse, lighted from the top to economise wall space; and during the past winter I have found that a building fourteen feet long, twelve feet wide, and ten feet high can be kept comfortably warm by a couple of small portable oil-stoves, similar to those used for heating bedrooms—these are more convenient and less costly than a fixed gas-stove. Every cage should communicate with a separate out-door run (which need not be very large), and thus every animal can get its share of fresh air. Wirework, painted black, allows the animals to be seen better than the same material galvanized and unpainted; for this purpose Brunswick black is the best application, being cheap, drying quickly, and non-poisonous. Sawdust should be freely sprinkled over the floor of the cages. It has many advantages, being cheap, warm to the animal's feet, absorbent, deodorant, and innocuous if inadvertently swallowed. The feeding and drinking vessels should be unspillable, and if made of zinc will be non-absorbent, and not liable to rust.

In conclusion, it may be stated that this essay has touched merely upon the fringe of a highly interesting but sadly neglected subject, and that there are many other animals which can be obtained and easily kept—Mongooses, Agoutis, Badgers, Raccoons, and the like. It is to be hoped that amongst the host of zoological pursuits which nowadays attract the attention of enthusiasts, the study of captive Mammalia may eventually take its due place. Already the extensive breeding of Silver Foxes in confinement for the sake of their fur indicates a step in this direction; and although this is a business matter undertaken for the sake of profit, it is surely not too much to expect that in this era of progress some will undertake for the sake of science alone a pursuit so fascinating, so interesting, and so novel as the systematic observation of living Mammalia.

  1. The Grison here described was purchased by the Zoological Society on April 26th, and may now be seen in the Small Cats' House at the Society's gardens.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

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