The Fearless Snake Killer SMALL and furry, the mongoose hardly looks like a snake killer. Yet, says author R. O. Pearse, ?perhaps the snake?s most vicious enemy . . . is the mongoose.? Continues Pearse: ?This little chap must surely pack as large a chunk of sheer, naked courage in his little body as any other creature of the wild . . . His attacks on snakes are legendary.?
The Fearless Snake Killer
Just what is this extraordinarily brave creature? The mongoose belongs to a large family that ranges over many parts of Africa, Asia, and southern Europe. There are several genera and over 40 species of this small mammal. These vary in size from the dwarf mongoose, just over a foot [0.3 m] long, to the crab-eating mongoose of southeast Asia, which is four feet [1.2 m] long. Most have short legs, long bushy tails, and long bodies covered with thick, coarse fur, gray to brown in color. Their ears are small and their noses usually pointed.
Some are solitary nocturnal creatures. Others come out in the daytime and are quite sociable, such as the yellow mongoose, which lives in colonies of up to 50. Their homes? Mainly, rocky crevices or holes in the ground. Sometimes they dig these themselves, but often they simply take over burrows abandoned by other animals. They have even been known to move into empty termite heaps and anthills.
Although the mongoose may look relatively harmless, make no mistake about it: It is a predator alert, bold, and agile. The diet of some species includes insects, beetles, worms, snails, lizards, frogs, and crabs, as well as eggs and fruit. The mongoose is intelligent and crafty. The banded mongoose, for example, is said to perform the trick of standing erect on its hind legs and then falling sideways. Why? To cause curious guinea fowl to approach and be caught!
Its reputation as a snake killer, though, has given the mongoose its fame.
Snake Versus Mongoose
But can this tiny creature really defeat a fearsome cobra in combat? South African writer Laurens van der Post describes a typical snake-mongoose encounter in his book The Heart of the Hunter: ?I have seen [a mongoose], no more than thirteen inches [33 cm] long from head to tail and perhaps only five inches [13 cm] high, take on a six-foot [1.8 m] cobra. After a series of adroit and nimble feints wherein the snake repeatedly struck, to miss him by a bare millimetre, he would dash in, seizing the cobra at the back of the neck to bite instantly through its spine.?
It is the supreme confidence and courage of the little mongoose, coupled with its lightning ability to dodge the strikes of the snake, that enable it to vanquish its deadly foe.
The Serpent’s Bite
Is the mongoose, though, somehow immune to the serpent?s venom? Not entirely. But it takes a large amount of venom to kill a mongoose. One authority says that eight times the lethal dose for a rabbit is required to kill a mongoose. It is rare for a mongoose to die from a snakebite.
More likely is a mongoose to die from eating a poisonous snake! Yes, after killing its dangerous foe, the victor makes a meal of it, starting with the head. Says The International Wildlife Encyclopedia: ?Several [mongooses] have been found dead and post mortem examination has shown that they have eaten a snake whose fangs have punctured the wall of the stomach so that the poison has entered the bloodstream.?
However, while deadly to cobras, mongooses are somewhat less successful at killing vipers. For one thing, they do not build up immunity to a viper?s venom. Additionally, vipers are faster than cobras in their ability to strike.
Mongooses as Pets ?
Do not conclude, though, that the mongoose is innately vicious. On the contrary, some species of mongoose have been domesticated and made lovable, intelligent pets. In Sauce for the Mongoose, author Bruce Kinloch gives a delightful account of his pet, a banded mongoose called Pipa. Full of mischief and lively tricks, Pipa was a constant source of entertainment for the family. One trick common with mongooses convulsed the family with laughter the first time they saw it. The author describes what happened:
?Pipa found a round white seashell and maneuvered until he had his back close up against one of our picnic boxes. He took the shell firmly between his forepaws, swayed up and down, backward and forward, all the time swinging the shell in his forepaws, something like a baseball pitcher?s preparations for a throw. Suddenly he sprang into the air and flung the seashell backward between his hind legs to smack against the picnic box with a crack like a pistol shot. At last it dawned on us. Pipa, by sheer instinct, was trying to break a seashell in the manner that a mongoose will use to break an egg.?
Our furry friend is thus lovable and formidable. And though its occasional role as snake killer may make us cringe a bit, it delights us with its antics.