Ratting with Brutus

Exploring the original hunting instincts of domesticated dogs

Since earliest childhood I have had vigorous interaction with dogs — I described the most dramatic one in this story. After I moved, in my late teens, from my childhood residence on the west coast of India to my father’s native Germany, there were no more dogs to play or socialize with. Until in my twenties I took an overland trip to Bangalore, India, where my mother and brother still lived, in the family property we had bought in the 1960s, when my father retired. It cost Rs 45,000 — with today’s inflated rupees you could just about buy a high-end smart phone for that.

It was a beautiful house, a villa really, left over from British times. It had a substantial garden, full of trees, among them some of the finest fruit trees you can imagine — mango, guava, figs, papaya, avocado and my lifelong favourite: custard apples. The British really knew how to live and to design gardens.

The back of the house, with a papaya tree and the dog hut

But there was a problem: the family could hardly harvest any fruit. It was all taken by pesky little creatures who infested the garden in large numbers.

The Indian palm squirrel (Funambulus palmarum) thrives in southern India and Sri Lanka [photo: Wiki]

They are the cutest creatures alive — I raised baby squirrels in my childhood and kept them as tame pets. But they devastate fruit trees, usually gnawing just a little off a fig or guava and leaving it to spoil on the tree or the ground. And they are cheeky as hell. When I walked through the garden in Bangalore they would chirp aggressively at me, fearless, telling me to go away. And then go on to destroy more fruit.

In the garden lived a dog, a mixed breed with clear terrier blood lines, small and agile, very pretty and very friendly. His name was Brutus, quite inappropriately chosen, since he was the gentlest of dogs — petted and caressed by everyone. Licking visitors’ hands is what he did best.

Roaming the garden with Brutus one day I said: “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be hunting squirrels?” Brutus glanced up at a couple in the guava tree and looked away quickly. I realized: we shouldn’t talk about this, it’s too painful.

In the house I found my old Diana air gun, which was given to me as a child, with which I had hunted rodents and small animals. It was rusty and dusty and did not work at all. I took it to a shop called Guncraft, on Bangalore’s main street, and they cleaned and oiled it for me — even installed a new spring, to give it acceptable power. After that it worked fine.

So I took the gun out into the garden, and with Brutus prancing merrily at my side, took aim at a striped squirrel that was looking at me and chirruping aggressively. The shot brought it down and it lay twitching on the ground. And Brutus? He looked at it in bewilderment, glancing at me with a question in his eyes: what just happened?? He walked over to the dying squirrel, sniffed at it and then took it gingerly into his mouth. He carried it to under a sandalwood tree and ate it — all of it, head, bones, hair and tail. At long, long last he had got hold of a rodent.

Brutus started accompanying me on my hunting sprees. I have searched my archives and am thoroughly mortified to find just one picture of him. It was taken after he had become a hunting dog — here he is entreating me to go out on a shoot with him.

I shot maybe half a dozen squirrels in the fruit trees, and Brutus pounced on them as they hit the ground, biting them to make sure they were dead. He did not eat any more — it was just the first time where he needed to do that.

Of course all this did not solve the problem of the squirrels in the garden, but at least I instilled mortal fear in their hearts, and the wilful destruction of the wonderful fruit in the garden was diminished slightly.

Now comes chapter two. My brother Alois, who had studied biology, was at the time experimenting with chickens, raising them in some of the many out-houses that were located in the garden. It was the start of a possible commercial enterprise.

The chickens had food troughs, and I discovered that at night there were giant rats feeding from them. They are called bandicoots (from the Telugu language pandikokku) and are frighteningly big: often their body length is more than 12 inches. I tried shooting them with my Diana air gun, but they simply squealed and clambered up to the rafters. Later I discovered that if you shot a (dead) bandicoot in the rump you could pick the slug out of its pelt — that’s how tough their skin is.

So I went into the chicken houses, accompanied by Brutus, and shot at the bandicoots scampering along the rafters. It was difficult to hit them, in low light, but sometimes I would. They would fall to the ground and try to scurry away. Try, but not succeed, because Brutus was waiting for them. This dog, who had never killed anything in his life, became the ultimate rodent hunter.

He would bite into the rat and fling it out of the house. Once he did this to three that had fallen between the chickens, in quick succession. Then he went outside, biting the ones that moves most vigorously, until all of them were completely immobilized. And the most amazing part: when he had a moment of time he went to each bandicoot and cracked its skull with his molar teeth. He really knew how to handle the situation. He had been brought up on pancakes and milk rice, and gentle petting behind the ears, but his brain harboured all the instincts of the pure rodent killer. It is the instinct you see in terriers, schnauzers, dachshunds, pinschers and a few other races, ones that were especially bred to control the rodent population. If you have good nerves you can watch hundreds of YouTube videos which show you what this means. Just search for “ratting with dogs” or “ratting with terriers” for videos like this one. It is very intense.

To see how deeply the hunting instinct, which I had awakened, was embedded in Brutus, I conducted the following experiment: I asked the servant who looked after him not to give him any food on one day. In the evening Brutus was starving — he was experiencing real hunger, something the pampered little fellow had never felt before in his life. Then the servant, on my instructions, took out a bowl of his favourite dish: boiled rice with chunks of meat. Brutus was on a leash attached to his dog hut, and the bowl was placed five or six yards away on the ground. The dog almost choked on his leash, desperately trying to get to the bowl. Then, on a signal, he was released, and he dashed over to the meal. Just as he got there I cocked my Diana air gun. Brutus heard it, stopped in his tracks, and stared at me. A second later he grabbed one quick bite out of the bowl and rushed over to my side: Yesss, let’s go hunting! One instinct clearly overrode the other.

I learned a fair bit about evolution from Brutus, about how humans were able to select for specific traits and produce these races with the rodent killing instinct hard-wired in their brains. It is the mechanism that nature uses to develop specialized abilities. It is all written in the genes.

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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