As yet another power cut finds me with time, and no little sweat, on my hands, it occurs I actually have something to write about. (Yeah, yeah …)
While perspiration gets the better of me I’m watching adult fodies on the feeder teach their second clutch of chicks how to take advantage of the easy sustenance, the occasional myna bully notwithstanding. The dogs are flat out and panting. The cat has long since lost interest in the poor skink he tortured to death earlier. Even the plants have thrown in the towel, or the leaf, or whatever.
The only member of the household with any energy at all this early afternoon is Sparky, the tenrec. At the moment she’s scampering around behind me on the couch and trying to skootch her way up into my lap, a position not terribly comfortable for me when hunching over my Mac on the coffee table in front of me.
You see, tenrecs are pokey; not in the move-real-slow-and-slug-like pokey, but rather the ouch variety. They have quills. In fact they’re covered in short, sharp pointy hair-like structures meant to ward off the many animals that would enjoy making lunch out of them.
Unlike British hedgehogs, tenrecs cannot roll themselves into a ball for protection, so along with the pointy body armor comes a mouthful of tiny razors that can make hash of absurdly large centipedes and yank giant African Land Snails from their baby-shoe-sized shells.
The most fecund of all mammals, litters of tenrecs can number well into double digits, 32 little ones being the known max with 10 to 20 the norm. Mom leads them from the birthing nest into the wild very early and protocol dictates they follow her in single file, so it happens that those at the end of the line sometimes take a wrong turn and end up where they shouldn’t be, like in the mouth of a dog or cat or at the bottom of a ridge they have no chance of conquering. This would be the reason I’ve ended up raising 11 of them over the past few years.
The first that came to me was a little guy we called Riki. He was somewhere around two weeks old and very obviously not in a good place for a baby tenrec; along the side of the road trying like hell to scale a 12’ tall sheer wall of rock. Stopping the car to pick him up was a reflex action on my part, having no idea how I would care for this odd, spiky dudelette or if it was safe to handle one.
I had, of course, seen them in passing here and recalled a pair who lived at the Sacramento Zoo when I worked there, but those were kept in the Education Building and out of my sphere of knowledge.
Google being my go-to source, I went to and was surprised to find the top search results had nothing to to with caring for tenrecs and everything to do with cooking them. Although a recipe for wine sauce sounded nice, it was certainly not helpful under the circumstance. (Native to Madagascar, they were introduced into Seychelles by settlers from Reunion as a food source. They still eat them there and in Mauritius. In Seychelles, no.)
Further digging eventually led me to articles on basic care and feeding, as well as sites that sold tenrecs as exotic pets in the US, the UK and other lands far distant from all tenrec roots in the Indian Ocean. They were, however, helpful and informative and I was happy to learn that due to import restrictions and such tenrecs had been tested for just about every ailment known by and contagious to mankind. They neither get nor carry rabies, foot-and-mouth or leptospirosis, and although it wasn’t mentioned I quickly found out they’re not even popular with fleas.
Successful raising and eventual release of Riki was followed by the same for Rocky, Rinny, Tiny, Tango and a handful of others, some with me for short times, others longer, depending on how big they were when rescued and how adept they were are sorting things out for themselves. All were released in my garden, which may account for an increasing number of babies needing help right at my doorstep, but given the benefits of tenrec control on snails, centipedes and baby rats, it seems a fair trade.
Plus, each has been different in its own way and all have taught me more about their care. I’d syringe fed all at the beginning, so none were ever aggressive with me, but it was clear being handled stressed them and it never occurred to me that actually taming might happen, which was fine. They’re primitive creatures, one of the oldest mammals on the planet, and haven’t changed much at all since they shared the Earth with dinosaurs. Their evolution happening before there were humans, it made sense that my species would hold about as much significance for them as a column of sentient light would to me, just blending into the general scenery and only scary in cases of direct contact.
Then came Sparky.
It may have been the case that the dogs discovered a nest. When I glanced out the kitchen window and saw my dog, Flee, playing with something on the drive it seemed too small to be anything but a rhinoceros beetle or some other big bug, but I went for a look anyway. (I do like rhino beetles, so would have saved one of those, too.)
What it was, of course, was a baby tenrec about the size of my thumb, probably less than a week old, and, thankfully, not worse for the wear it had experienced as a squishy toy. Flee dropped her at my feet and I brought her inside for what was now the usual treatment.
I keep a small wire cage just for the purpose, so kitted it out in banana leaves and other browse and half a coconut husk as a den, then put the baby in, closed the door and let her recover from her ordeal. (You’ll note I’m referring to Sparky as ‘her’, but at the time I had no idea of the gender. Sparky actually started out as Spartacus, dubbed so by my son, Sam. He’s 12, so no surprise there.)
A few hours later, she took well to the syringe … I feed yogurt with a bit of egg yoke to start with and provide water … and continued to settle in nicely. I worried a bit because she seemed a bit less robust than others I’d raised, less skittish, so watched her for any signs of internal damage Flee have have caused.
All of the other tenrecs extended great effort in evading my hand when retrieving them from the cage for feeding. Most would rifle under the leaf letter, then climb the wire to monkey-bar along the top in brief panic as I wrestled them out, only settling when enclosed in my palm. Sparky didn’t do this. In fact, it was only about a week before I noticed her actually approaching me.
I must admit I went a bit Sally Field for a while … She likes me! She really likes me! … but it was a tremendous privilege to have this amazing little creature respond in ways even a puny human like me could interpret as a connection.
That was five months ago, and the connection continues. When I walk up to Sparky’s house now she wakes up, gives a big yawn, then waddles from her coconut husk, or wherever she’s been lounging, and greets me at the door. She wanders on to my open palm when the door opens and we cuddle on the couch for a while. She loves to be petted and scratched, so I dig my fingers into her quills and give her skin a good tickle, removing loose spines as I go, then stroke her soft underbelly as she closes her eyes and gets into the mood.
In the evenings she joins Pat and me on the couch for movie time and meanders back and forth between and behind us, occasionally pushing the cat out of the way to do so. Her nose perpetually sniffing the air, quills raised on the back of her head when she tries to climb up the back of the sofa and always grateful for a hand up.
I don’t know if anyone else has ever enjoyed the honor of tenrec love, but would not be surprised to learn that Sparky is one of a kind.
She’s five months old now, growing as she should, and just as sweet and funny a critter as I could have imagined. I’m hoping this continues and, with a potential lifespan of 8+ years, that she’s with me for a long, long time.
(Sparky’s diet consists of just about everything, her favs being cherry yogurt and roast chicken. She also gets egg, liver, papaya, banana, fish and whatever else we have on hand. She also always has fresh water and a small dish of dirt that she enjoys. Minerals! She may be a bit spoiled, as she has no interest whatsoever in snails, but, then again, I’ve never cooked them in garlic for her.)