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An essay by Elizabeth Brightwen


Title:     Gerbilles
Author: Elizabeth Brightwen [More Titles by Brightwen]

These curious little animals were brought to my notice by a scientific friend who had seen them at the Zoological Gardens, and heard that they were to be obtained there by applying to Mr. Bartlett.

As I always regretted the untimely death of my pet jerboa, I thought these little rodents would fill his place, and prove amusing pets. And, accordingly, I paid a visit to the Zoo, and found a whole colony of gerbilles of all ages living very amicably together in a large, strongly-built wooden box, with bran, oats, and nuts for provender.

It was no easy matter to secure a pair of suitable size and age. I could but admire the patience of the attendant who made persevering attempts to catch the nimble creatures for me, but they leaped and sprang about, darted through his fingers, disappeared into holes, and seemed to enjoy his discomfiture. At length a lively pair, with sleek skins and perfect tails, were securely caged.

Then I was warned to keep them in a tin-lined cage, as they would "gnaw through anything," even the solid teak chest in which they were kept was being rapidly demolished by their powerful incisors.

The gerbilles were placed in a plant case, four feet long, with glass sides and top, through which their gambols could easily be seen. The case had a glass partition, and on one side lived a pair of chipmunks, or striped American squirrels. They were highly incensed at their new neighbours, springing with all their force against the partition, with low growlings, casting up the cocoa fibre with their hind legs, as if to try and hide them from their view. They soon found a little chink, through which, I am afraid, some very strong language was launched at the new-comers.

Happily the gerbilles did not mind. They found delightful tree-roots to gnaw at, plenty of food, and freedom to frisk and frolic to their heart's content, so their neighbours were free to growl as much as they liked, and they in their turn raised a hill of fibre and played at hide-and-seek in their new domain.

But let me now describe these gerbilles. I believe there are several species, differing somewhat in appearance. These were fawn-coloured, with sleek, soft fur, which, like the chinchilla, was blueish next to the skin. They were about the size of small rats, with little ears and long tails, with a black tuft at the end. The fur was white underneath, the eyes jet black and very large, and long black whiskers, which were always in motion. The hind legs being longer than the front ones, enabled the creature to spring and leap along the ground with great rapidity, as I found to my cost one night, when five of them got out of their case and gave us an hour's occupation before they could be recaptured. One managed to get inside an American organ, and effectually baffled all our efforts to secure him. There was no help for it, he had to be left there, and I went away with an anxious mind as to what his busy teeth would be employed upon all night; and, sure enough, next morning a velvet curtain was found nibbled and tattered, and being converted into a nest for the enterprising gerbille! They became very amusing, tame little creatures, ready to take dandelions, nuts, or any little dainty, from one's hand.

As they breed very readily in England, I was soon presented with a little family of five very tiny, pinkish-coloured infants, quite blind, and destitute of hair. They were not attractive, and so were left to their mother's care till they could see and were properly clothed, and then they were extremely pretty, and rapidly developed all the habits and manners of their parents, gnawing wood, nibbling nuts, and having merry games of their own, darting with wonderful quickness in and out of the tree-roots, and getting up small battles for some coveted morsel of diet. The first pair were quiet enough, and agreed happily together, but when, later on, mother and daughter happened to have a little brood at the same time, things became complicated, and it was no uncommon sight to see the two mothers careering about, each with an infant in its mouth, and it often fell to my lot to take care of the unfortunate children and replace them in the nest whilst the mothers had a "stand-up" fight, and this is a literally true expression, for gerbilles sit bolt upright and fight each other with their front feet; but, though they appear to be in desperate conflict, I must say I never saw that any damage was done. As to their gnawing power, it is almost beyond description. I gave them a strong wooden box as a nursery for the young gerbilles, but before long they had eaten out the back and sides, and a mere skeleton of a box remained. There was a piece of zinc, which formed a partition, but they ate a hole right through the zinc in no time, and when a wire cage, with a sliding door, was placed in the plant case, they soon learnt how to lift up the door and get out. We often watched the formation of the family nest, which was constructed of wool and hay nibbled very small, and carried by mouthfuls and woven together. It generally had two outlets for ingress and egress. There the entire family would sleep during the day amicably enough, but towards evening the nursery disputes would begin, and old animosities led to frequent battles and scrimmages, because somebody wanted some one else's pieces of wool for the precious infants. Still they were very tame, amusing little creatures, liking to be stroked and fed and rewarded by a run upon the breakfast-table, where they would examine every dish and plate in a delicate, inquiring way, not touching the contents--only trying to add to their small amount of knowledge of the outside world. Their food consisted of bran, oats, pea-nuts, wheat, fresh dandelion and clover-leaves, and on these they lived in perfect health and beauty.

As the colony increased, it was needful to make several homes for the gerbilles, and the original pair happened to be, for a time, in a cage upstairs on a landing. One of these found its way out of the cage, down the stairs, across the hall, and was discovered next morning in a room where the younger members of the family were kept. This would go to prove a keen scent, which, I suppose, guided the little animal to find its friends, and also confirms what travellers have written about gerbilles living in large colonies and always keeping together.

One evening I had to read some natural history papers at a Band of Mercy meeting in a neighbouring village, where the clergyman's wife took great interest in promoting kindness to animals, and as I proposed speaking about the gerbilles, I thought I would take some of them with me to show the children. Accordingly a mother and four little ones, were put into a cage with some food and bedding for their comfort whilst being exhibited. I was concerned to see the extreme terror they seemed to feel at the unusual motion of the carriage, and in a few minutes one became convulsed and literally died of fright. I held the cage in my lap, and talked to the others to reassure them, fearing more casualties, but after a while they settled down, and we reached the schoolroom in due time. I was scarcely prepared for the tremendous sensation the gerbilles created. Remarks in broad Hertfordshire greeted their appearance. "Whoy, here's a lot of moise." "Noa, they ain't; they's rats!" "Will they boite?" and then such a cluster of children came round me they had to be called to order, and the cage was carried round that all might see the little foreigners, and through all the after-proceedings many pairs of eyes remained fixed upon the cage and its inmates. I fancy that evening will long be remembered by the children.

The great difficulty that attends the keeping of these little animals is their rapid rate of increase. It is true they can all be kept together, for, as I have said, though there are squabbles they do not result in any personal injury, and thus my colony was allowed to go on till there was no counting the number of generations that existed. I very much wished to reduce the numbers, and give some away, but could never tell which were the mothers of the small pink infants I was being presented with continually. I tried putting a little family of the babies into a cage in the plant case, hoping the mother who belonged to them would then appear and take care of them; but no, the entire colony trooped in and ran riot in the new place, and if a young gerbille was by chance left uncovered in the _melee_, a twentieth cousin would take it up tenderly as if it was its own mother, and replace it in the nest--a very emblem of brotherly kindness and charity. The colony had finally to be dispersed and given away in small detachments to different friends, and, strange to say, in no other case did the numbers increase, I imagine because the requisite conditions of space and quietness were not realized as in the pleasant home I was able to provide for them.

[The end]
Elizabeth Brightwen's essay: Gerbilles