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An essay by Elizabeth Brightwen

Water Shrews

Title:     Water Shrews
Author: Elizabeth Brightwen [More Titles by Brightwen]

Hearing that the little patients in a London hospital had scarcely any toys, and that they especially desired a very large doll, I had one dressed for them, and various other interesting items, such as an album of pictures, bags of shells, a stamp snake, &c.;, were prepared; but a large box was needed in which to pack all these treasures; and one which had been for months in the wine-cellar was brought up for that purpose into the hall.

It was filled with straw, and as I was watching this being taken out I noticed some small black animals darting about in it.

"They must be young rats," I exclaimed, "and the rare kind, too--the black rat, which has been almost entirely eradicated by the stronger brown species." A curious instance, by the way, of a foreign interloper driving out the native.

I immediately resolved to secure these animals, whatever they might prove to be, and, armed with leather gloves, and an empty glass globe to place my captures in, I began to search in the straw, and soon secured the supposed rats, but they proved to be a pair of water shrews--jet black, lively little creatures, with sharply-pointed snouts and teeth, as I soon discovered to my cost. I had taken off my gloves and was watching the activity of the shrews, when suddenly they flew upon each other, biting and screaming with rage, and, thinking they would kill each other at that rate, I tried to separate them, but one turned and bit me pretty severely, and it was with some difficulty they were parted. One I put into a zinc fern case, and the other into a large empty aquarium, with shingle at the bottom, moss and wool for bedding, and a large pan of water for swimming and bathing.

They were rather larger than the common mouse, jet black above, and greyish-white beneath--restless, active creatures, usually found near ponds and ditches; and how ever these two had found their way into a dry cellar, and lived in a box of straw will always remain a mystery. I learnt from books that they fed on worms and insects, and that diet was provided, though much to my distress, for it is a miserable thing to see any living creature tortured and devoured alive, even though it may be in obedience to natural instincts. Happily I soon found a substitute. I was showing one of the shrews to a fellow-student of natural history, and with a long feather soon attracted the little animal's attention; he always came out of his bed and sprang upon the feather like a little tiger, dragging it about and holding on with the grip of a bull-dog, so that one could lift him off the ground and keep him swinging a minute in the air to see the pretty white fur underneath. My friend suggested that it probably fed on small birds and thought the feather was part of its daily fare.

I obtained a fowl's head from the larder, and then it was a sight to see how it was pounced upon and dragged about until securely hidden under the moss, when we could hear our little friend crunching the bones and tearing it to pieces as if he had not had anything so good for a long while.

One shrew died in a few days, but the other lived three weeks in perfect health, and I believe it was an accidental failure of sufficient food that led to the death of the second; their appetite seems to be, like that of the mole, most voracious, and unless they obtain a constant and ample supply of food they quickly die of hunger.

They are worth studying for a few days, but their dreadful odour and fierce character make them anything but pets. I suppose there is hardly any animal in England so fierce and combative, and probably that may account for the fact that one so often comes across a dead shrew lying on the path in summer.

When swimming, the shrew's furry coat perfectly resisted the entrance of moisture; it always came out absolutely dry. The said coat was most carefully kept in order; a daily brushing and cleansing went on, the little tongue was often at work licking off every little speck of dust; the toes were spread out and examined; the small amount of tail kept in order. I could but think how many a lesson we may learn from the small as well as the great creations of God's hand--habits such as this little animal possessed might, in the way of cleanliness, lead to the prevention of endless diseases, if imitated by those who never dream of daily cleansings as being necessary to health and life.

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Elizabeth Brightwen's essay: Water Shrews