Study of an Indian mongoose compared to a domestic cat. Image sources: Wikimedia Commons
67B, Beadon Street, Kolkata, West Bengal
It was February 7 2018, when animal screams outside my bedroom door woke me up in the middle of the night. I sleep alone in the attic; and it came to me as quite the scare. Clearly one of the animals screaming was the cat that had freshly given birth to her three kittens. But there was another animal with it – and the mysterious attacker sounded absolutely ferocious! I would not want to be the mother cat!
‘Could it be my uncle’s dog?’ I wondered, ‘or is it the mongoose?’ I have heard of a mongoose that roams about the house in Beadon Street. Since I returned home in February my family spoke about it on phone, at breakfast, at lunch and often, at dinner. Everyone seemed familiar with niches in which the mongoose hid; paths it took to move around; and how it sometimes observed the family members. I had seen mongooses before in the village of Rajarhat where I grew up in, and also in other Indian cities where I travelled. Although mongooses can be pets, those which I have encountered thrived in wild pockets of urban areas and hardly made contact with humans. My aunt presumed the mongoose to have floated in from the outskirts during heavy rains, so by virtue, I consider it wild.
The animal screams continued for some time but I hesitated to open the door. Yes, I am afraid of house cats; and so was Napoleon Bonaparte. The next morning when I opened my door towards the roof, I saw the dead kitten surrounded by dozens of jet black crows, almost as if they had come dressed up for its funeral; except for the crows were devouring on the carcass. There were just too many crows to feed on the little meat of the kitten. The sight was horrendous. It was pitiful. It was sad. For I wondered, what chance did the domestic mother cat even have while facing the wild animal as she must have long lost all her wild instincts? Mongooses are lighting fast, highly agile and are known to take down cobras with ease.
Some in my family wanted to protect the cat and its kittens, while others argued that it is convenient to control the exploding feral cat population in the neighbourhood; and some simply remarked that it is the force of nature, that in which we must not interfere.
My family testified that it was the mongoose that killed the kitten. According to my folks, since the mongoose arrived, this happens every time the mother cat gives birth to her kittens. The mongoose kills the young ones and sucks their blood, only to leave the body for other scavengers to finish. Some in my family wanted to protect the cat and its kittens, while others argued that it is convenient to control the exploding feral cat population in the neighbourhood; and some simply remarked that it is the force of nature, that in which we must not interfere. Considering my book on urban wildlife, I was asked for my ‘specialist’ opinion. I found myself incompetent for I realised that there was no one right answer to this. I decided I’d best leave it up to chance where any one of the above could happen. Although, as a researcher, this was an opportunity to learn by being an observer.
Later that morning, I noticed the mother cat was looking for something – there was blood on her fur and her face was bitten. Two thoughts crossed my mind: she was either looking for a place to hide her two remaining kittens or she was seeking the mongoose with the benefit of day light. The following night, the mongoose struck again killing another kitten. Now there was just one kitten remaining. My boroma (Bengali for eldest aunt), rightfully decided to put a barricade to protect the cat and her young while my sister built a box for it to rest in. “Once the kitten grows a bit bigger, it will be safe from the mongoose,” said boroma.
All this and I never got to see the mongoose. When I asked how big it was, my father stretched his arms out as wide as he could. When I asked if I would see it again, my uncle informed me how terrified the creature is of humans. I am told the mongoose lived in the then unused bathroom at the roof top. Beside it my uncle maintains a life-hack roof garden which only adds to the wilderness ambience I would think. Alas, my luck! The bathroom was fixed up just before I had arrived so as to make my stay convenient. But how I wished I could see this creature in its urban habitat! Since then, the mongoose has never been seen. Thus, my interest in this mongoose grew. I wondered how the mongoose evaded people so well. I wondered how it spent its day in the urban jungle. This was not just a mongoose – this was my chance to believe in my vision of wild and urban as one unit.
My uncle’s life-hack roof garden is made from obsolete structures such as the leaky bath tub. The garden has a variety of flowering as well as fruit bearing plants. Bird species attracted to the garden is potential prey of both the mongoose and cat. Photo: 1 April 2018
Meanwhile, the kitten has grown up safely. Now, there was little reason for the mongoose to return. Needless to mention, my hopes of sighting it were diminished to none. Was there even a real mongoose? Or was it just a story to test my imagination?
This morning 31 March 2018, when I was documenting wild growth over my neighbour’s roof, I captured my evidence. I am pleased to share it in a short clip below:
To reflect back, the experience was enriching. My take away from this cat-mongoose saga are:
- Humans are an important agent with power to alter the future of urban wildlife.
- Introducing wild animals can be fatal for other synanthropic animals. But they may also act as a bio-control agents.
- Barriers are effective tools for survival of weaker species.
- Terraces can support wild habitats and are not necessarily out of reach of wild animals. Staggered levels are particularly helpful.
Although brought in accidentally from a nearby village by the natural event of flooding, this migrant mongoose has become as much a part of the food web as the resident cats. It would be a shame if it was the only mongoose in the city. But I am told, there was not one but two that have floated along during the floods. Witnessing how well the animal has adapted to the dense urban environment, one can confidently expect a future Kolkata with more mongooses.
All media credit unless mentioned: Amartya Deb