Excerpt: 'Just So (Mostly) True Stories: An Empire of Pets and Other Animals' by Eugenia Herbert


A Pot-Pourri of Pets and Other Curiosities              


It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity. The motto of all the mongoose family is “Run and find out”. — Kipling, “Rikki-Tikki Tavi,” The Jungle Book

 Tennent gives mongooses short shrift, pausing only long enough to debunk the folk belief that they alone know plants in the forest that will protect them from snake bites. He has little to say about other traits and apparently never had a pet mongoose, which is too bad since, as Kipling tells us and many others confirm, they are remarkable creatures, not only curious but affectionate. Rikki-Tikki Tavi immediately settled on Teddy’s shoulder, then at breakfast “sat on all their laps one after the other, because every well-brought-up mongoose hopes to be a house mongoose some day.” I had a similar experience years ago in Bangui, Central African Republic, when I was invited with my brother to lunch with some friends, and their mongoose sat on my lap much of the time and scurried around inquisitively the rest.

John Lockwood Kipling, Mongoose killing a cobra (The Jungle Book)

To begin with, “mongoose” has nothing to do with geese. It is derived from Hindi and other Indian languages, and the plural in English is “mongooses.” In ancient Mesopotamia, they were sacred to a deity invoked for protection against serpents, and they have been venerated in both Buddhism and Hinduism. Tennent was quite right to be skeptical of beliefs that the mongoose owed its immunity to snake bites to a secret knowledge of herbal antidotes but had no better explanation to offer. As it turns out, some species (there are a great many) have mutations in the nicotinic receptor that protect them against snake venom. Kipling was not the only author to be enamored of mongooses; so, too, were Russian physician, playwright, and master of the short story, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), and the Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda (1904-1973).

In 1890 Chekhov traveled overland across Russia to inspect the Russian penal colony of Sakhalin Island, off the Pacific Coast. Here 10,000 convicts were kept under appalling conditions. He returned to Russia late that year by sea, stopping off at Hong Kong, Singapore and Ceylon. Though he only spent three days and two nights there, he was overcome by Ceylon’s beauty. “Now I can say: ‘I have lived. I have had enough.’ I have been in hell, otherwise Sakhalin, and in Paradise, that is to say the island of Ceylon.” He loved the climate—after Sakhalin, who wouldn’t –but even the abundant insect life overwhelmed him: “What butterflies, what beetles, what flies, what cockroaches” (no mention of the mosquitoes for which the island was equally notorious). In those few days he managed to squeeze in a railroad trip to Kandy in the highlands where he found the women even more gorgeous than on the coast.[1]

He sailed away from Ceylon with two mongooses, a male and a female.[2] Here is a very grainy picture of him and a shipmate, each with a mongoose on his lap:

Chekhov (right) and friend with mongooses, 1890

Soon after he was back in Moscow, Chekhov wrote a friend that he was full of “these highly interesting animals…They are mongooses and are known for waging war on rattlesnakes [sic]. They are very inquisitive, love humans and break dishes.” The male settled in nicely, but the female remained surly—before long, it was only discovered that she was not a mongoose at all but a civet cat, a quite different beast.

Chekhov doted on “my nicest and most intelligent mongoose,” who “would sniff out all your books and inspect the pockets of everyone who came to call. During the day he roams all over the room and follows people around and at night he sleeps on someone’s bed and purrs like a cat.” Imagine his panic when, little more than a month after his return to Moscow, his “wonderful creature” appeared to be mortally ill: “lying very quietly under a quilt…[T]he little beast eats and drinks nothing. The climate has already laid its cold claw on it and means to kill it.” He asks plaintively: “What for?” Happily, he could report five days later, “My mongoose has recovered and breaks crockery again with unfailing regularity.” On a trip to Italy in the spring, he wrote back anxiously from Venice and Rome to inquire how his mongoose was doing, fearing he was dead. In fact, he was fine.

But more drama was to come. In May the mongoose ran away: a 4 am letter bemoans the fact that the mongoose has taken to the woods and has not come back. “It is cold.” Then joy of joys:

The mongoose has been found. A sportsman with dogs found him on this side of the Oka in a quarry; if there had not been a crevice in the quarry the dogs would have torn the mongoose to pieces. It has been astray in the woods for eighteen days. In spite of the climatic conditions, which are awful for it, it had grown fat—such is the effect of freedom. Yes, my dear sir, freedom is a grand thing.

Life calmed down, but Chekhov was full of self-reproach. If he was a doctor, he ought to have patients and a hospital, “if I am a literary man I ought to live among people instead of in a flat with a mongoose.” Then a sudden letter in October saying only that he intends to sell his pet “by auction.” True, he was a restless man and intending to be off on travels again, but it does come as a shock.

This is the story reconstructed from the edition of Chekhov’s letters translated and published in 1920 by Constance Garnett. In the century since then many more letters have surfaced and a rather different story emerges. Chekhov did indeed think he was buying two mongooses in Colombo and enthused about them: “If only you knew what lovely animals I have brought from India [sic]. They are mongooses the size of half-grown kittens, very cheerful lively beasts… Left alone in a room they start to cry.” Once home, the imposter civet was disposed of, and the mongoose, named “Svoloch” (scoundrel), was for a time a treasured pet. Writing home from his visit to Italy, he didn’t ask after any of the family, only the mongoose. His father Pavel, who was apparently caring for him, reassured Chekhov that the mongoose was well but added ominously, “his behavior is incorrigible, but he deserves leniency.” He was blunter in a letter to another brother: “The mongoose gives us no peace; it bit off a piece of mama’s nose in the night.”

Chekhov seems to have been more forgiving. As we have seen, he was distraught when the mongoose ran away and ecstatic when he returned in such good form. He didn’t end up selling him at auction but several months later offered him to the d of the Moscow Zoo:

Last year I brought from Ceylon a male mongoose…. The animal is utterly healthy and in good spirits. As I am leaving Moscow for some time and cannot take him with me, I humbly ask the Management to accept this animal from me and to fetch him today or tomorrow. The best way of carrying him is a small basket with a lid and blanket. The animal is tame. I have been feeding him on eat, fish, and eggs.

Why did Chekhov’s love affair with his mongoose cool so quickly? One biographer thinks the honeymoon was simply over and the writer found his apartment-mate a royal pest, breaking not just the crockery and jam jars but the china as well, to say nothing of biting off his mama’s nose–good riddance to a creature whose behavior had “gone beyond intolerable.” [3] Maybe there’s a simpler answer, however. Chekhov was not only leaving Moscow for a time but settling with his family on an estate in Melikhovo some 50 miles. Who would take in the mongoose? Of course, one could also ask why he couldn’t take him with him, although Chekhov did travel a lot. His father Pavel was unlikely to sign on again on for a longer stint after his earlier experience, and there were apparently no other volunteers. In any event, the mongoose did live on in the Zoo for several years and the writer’s sister Masha visited him once. A poet named Tom Shapcott later wrote a book of poems entitled Chekhov’s Mongoose.

About the Author

Eugenia Hebert is Professor Emeritus of History at Mount Holyoke College and author of Serendib: Scenes from Colonial Ceylon. If you would like a copy of Just So (Mostly) True Stories: An Empire of Pets and Other Animals (or you are a publisher interested in the book), then email: eugenia [dot] herbert [at] comcast [dot] net.


[1] He probably encouraged later hints of a romance with a tropical beauty while in Ceylon, but he would have to have acted awfully fast. On Chekhov, see Letters of Anton Chekhov to his Family and Friends, tr. Constance Garnett (New York: Macmillan, 1920); H. A. I. Goonetileke, Lanka, their Lanka: Cameos through Other Eyes (New Delhi: Navrang,1984); “Sri Lanka Commemorates its Chekhov Connection,” BBC 29 Dec. 2010.

[2] Not 3, as some accounts have it.

[3] U. R. Bowie, “Chekhov’s Mongoose,” online July 5. 2020.

Top Image

The illustration is from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, thanks to Project Gutenberg.

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