Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Guinea Pig Who Lived

Bujumbura's star tourist attraction (read: only tourist attraction) is the musee vivante, billed as a reconstruction of a Burundian village with some animal exhibits. Really the village reconstruction consists of a couple of huts in a compound, and the visit mostly consists of visiting snakes and imaginatively-named crocodiles of varying sizes as well as a couple of antelope (the guide, who was not the most knowledgeable I have ever met, was unable to tell me what kind of antelope), some fish, a leopard, and some chimpanzees.

Now, those of you familiar with African Zoos will have guessed that the standards of animal care leave something to be desired in comparison with Western Zoos. To the extent that Lisa dubbed it
the 'musee torture' The leopard's cage was a bit on the small side, but at least had a tree in it for him to climb - and apparently until a few weeks ago he was in a cage that was literally about 2 metres by one, so they're improving. The antelopes had enough room, and it's not too hard to provide for a snake, but I had mixed feelings about the chimps - on the one hand, they were able to climb in the their enclosure and were interacting with all sorts of people from their position near the gate - but on the other, and maybe because they're so human, it hurts to see them locked up.

All that said, I've been saving the best till last. There are about a dozen crocodiles in varying sizes (the largest named 'Lacoste'!). The enclosures aren't too bad - but the zoo's star attraction is to allow you to feed the crocodiles with live guinea pigs! Unfortunately when we went they'd just been fed - but the guide made up for it by poking them with sticks until they woke up! One of them seemed to get off on it, but the others made up for it by lunging and snapping at the guide and stick. But when my friend Morgan and two of the marines went, they were luckier, able to enjoy the star attraction to the full. I'll let you read it in her own words, but here's the crucial bit:

The last attraction was the baby crocodile pen. The guide jumped in and, with swiftness and confidence, grabbed the baby crocodile, which was about a foot long, by the snout and tail, securing its jaws firmly shut. He passed it to us to hold, giving us careful directions about how to hold it so as to not lose a finger. We each took hold of it (it urinated on one of the guys…it wasn’t his lucky day) and felt its smooth underbelly and rough skin.

The guide then asked us if we wanted to feed it. We did, and he brought back a baby guinea pig (the regular ones were too big for him). This was my Achilles heel, and I should have known it. The baby he brought back was adorable, and fit in the palm of my hand. I made the mistake of holding it—of building rapport—and gave it a little kiss before passing it along. Unlike the others, I couldn’t watch this one.

Meanwhile, the boys were yelling at the crocodile, making it seem like a speedy end had not befallen this little guinea pig. I went back to the pen to see the crocodile snapping, but missing every time. He went for it no less than five times, and failed. Finally, the crocodile gave up, swimming away.

We decided that this little guinea pig had earned his stripes. We retrieved him from the water, and, cupping him in my hands, where he was trembling violently from cold and fear, we decided to keep him. The guide told us that he was injured, that he wouldn’t live—but in fact, he hadn't suffered so much as a scratch. And so we carried him out of the Musee Vivant, and he will live at the Marine House, with endless quantities of carrot shavings and lettuce. We named him Harry Potter—because he was the guinea pig who lived.

Harry has now been adopted by the marines, given a bath, found a little box to live in, fed and watered. He (actually, we've decided, probably a she) seems to be thriving - updates to follow.

And as if just the story wasn't cute enough, here's a picture of Morgan with Harry

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