Have you seen this rat?


Things have gone from bad to worse.

Last Friday night, I was sitting in bed, skyping my dad.  A rattling noise began emanating from the kitchen downstairs so, asking Dad to hold on, I went to investigate.  There was a small mouse on my cooker, eagerly sniffing around the grill pan for toast crumbs.  Feeling mildly affronted, I reported this to Dad.  Fifteen minutes later the noise was louder, more persistent, so I thought I’d try to take a photo.  Abandoning Dad again I went down to find an wopping great rat on the hot plates sniffing around.  It bolted when it saw me. Were they living in the oven?

Shuddering, I went back upstairs, hoping that there was enough to occupy them downstairs to allow me a peaceful night in my bed.

Still talking to Dad on Skype, but experiencing now the first stages of hysteria, I completely lost all self-control when all of a sudden another enormous rat (possibly the same one) ran across my bedroom floor, stopping next to my sports shoes – I swear it was almost as long as my size 6’s.  Poor Dad was treated to a volley of swearwords before I told him I couldn’t talk anymore – I was moving out.  I phoned Tony to warn him not to be alarmed (translation: “please don’t shoot me!”) as I was going to be traipsing across the garden to move into the other guesthouse, shared by my Dad when he’s in Kenya and a pilot friend of ours, Neill, who comes and goes.

Histrionics over and heaving a sigh of relief I ensconced myself over there.  And the following day resorted to extreme measures.  I’d shown leniency.  I’d laid humane cage traps.  I’d offered repatriation to a distant land and witness protection.  They weren’t interested.  It was too late for that now.  Traps were set.  I’m afraid, despite calls from some of you to work on winning the hearts and minds of my enemy, I wasn’t after prisoners anymore, I wanted scalps.  (Or tails.)  I’m sorry.  But after a year of this it’s come down to ‘them or me’.

That night, the small mouse was dispatched.  But the battle won’t be won until I get ‘Sneaker’ – and his brethren, if indeed there’s more than one.  So, during the daylight hours I’ve been methodically pulling apart my house, wardrobe, drawers, cupboards, shelves, looking for holes or evidence of the rodents.

And I found this…


I guess he’s an illite-rat as the cap didn’t stop him ruining my best straw hat.

And then this…


My first ever effort at needlework when I was at primary school and stitched my own mouse.  How ironic that of everything in the house it’s the mouse that was chewed up and unstuffed (yards of my mum’s tights had been used to pad out Mousey).  And leaves me with a scary thought – Sneaker is evidently a cannibal to boot.

Together with my willing helpers Peter and Judy, we’ve located a few holes in the structure of the building – walls/roof/window surrounds – and have stuffed them with wirewool.  A great tip for any of you who didn’t already know – even rats draw the line at chewing through metal – I guess it hurts their fillings.

I’ve continued living in exile in the other house and was thanking my lucky stars a) to have the use of it, and b) that it wasn’t rodent-infested when the other night, at about 3.00am, I was woken by that all-too-familiar babble of rodent-speak that you get when the mum has been out and about foraging, and has just come home to her babies who are all hungry.  “Hi kids, I’m back”, followed by “Mum! Mum! I’m hungry…”  I shrank beneath my duvet.  So far, I’ve only heard them – twice.  I hope they’re on the outside of the house but they sound too close for comfort.  As you can imagine, I’m sleep-deprived at the moment.

Meanwhile, it’s the general opinion of Tony, Peter and Judy, that my house is now definitely rodent-free, and impenetrable, with just the undercurrent of a suggestion that they’re not convinced I wasn’t making it all up anyway.  But we haven’t caught Sneaker yet.  So although I want to believe that my home is now a fortress and impregnable to all night-time marauders , I took some sage advice last night, and dredged flour lightly over the kitchen surfaces to see if by any chance, there might be evidence of tracks left behind.

And this is what greeted me when I came to check this morning.


Chinese Torture

I’m afraid I have a tendency these days to blame everything on the Chinese.  Maybe you would too, if you could see the demise of Africa’s elephant and rhino populations all to feed the insatiable demand for ivory and rhino horn in the Far East.  There are daily reports in the news of poaching incidents, or troves of ivory being discovered – only yesterday 2 tonnes of elephant tusks were uncovered in a Chinese resident’s house in Dar-es-Salaam buried under a pile of garlic cloves and snail shells, waiting to be smuggled away in some eagerly awaited container ship.  It sickens me.

But that’s not really what this story is about.


We had a veritable plague of these monsters

I’ve been away from home for ages, and longed to be back.  The normal French rodent patrols kept me busy – while we’ve managed to get rid of the rats that were a plague in the spring raiding the bird table (by, sadly, refraining from feeding the birds – thankfully it was a good summer and Nature provided all they needed), the dormice predictably began their search for winter lodgings as the days drew in.

Our old pusscat Noir made her journey to the Heaviside Layer (‘Cats’ lovers will understand) in the summer – and she left behind a massive void for such a small friend.  Although in recent years she hadn’t done much hunting I’m sure her presence was some sort of deterrent to trespassers.  But this autumn, without Noir about, the dormice were out in force.  I caught 6 – sadly all separately, but diligently translocated them one by one  – after a night in the DORchester – to the Faraway Woods.


Checking out the penthouse in the DORchester Hotel

I suppose I shouldn’t complain – you all know I love wildlife, and animals in general and could be forgiven for thinking that I’d enjoy the company.  I have to admit though given a choice I’d probably go for a companion with two legs – and fewer whiskers and more hair (it’s those bald tails I just can’t stomach).

I wasn’t anxious leaving France this time, without the worry of abandoning Noir.  Leaving Achilles with instructions to keep checking for dormice and frozen pipes, I headed home relieved to be going back to the simple life once more.  Nothing could have been more welcoming on my first night home than the clatter of Sykes monkeys moving around the bamboo outside my house, tree hyraxes rattling their guttural calls from the canopy and bushbabies’ blood-curdling screams echoing around me.  There was even a mournful hyena whoop in the direction of the National Park, as I drifted off to sleep.

Morning, though, brought a different story.  When I went to run a bath I noticed my bar of soap had been gnawed, thoroughly along each edge – the way I eat KitKats.  I knew what that meant.


Then, the following night, when I went to bed still feeling a bit peckish (my landlord had kindly left me a bunch of delicious baby bananas and a loaf of bread for my arrival, but there wasn’t much else and I was determined not to go shopping until Monday), I nibbled one of the sweet lemony bananas, and idly plopped the skin on the floor to throw out in the morning.

In the morning, the skin was gone.

The third night – last night – I was woken by a sense that I was being watched.   Turning on my torch, the beam picked up an adult rodent – smaller than the swaggering French rats, smaller even than Monsieur Dormouse – scuttling along my windowsill and wriggling up the rafter of the A-frame roof, almost to the apex where he/she/it turned and stared at me from behind the hanging lampshade.  After a couple of minutes’ contemplation it retraced its steps and disappeared behind my bed…

There was no going to sleep and I lay tossing and turning, flinching at every raindrop that dripped from the leaves outside.  And then – a shrill mouse call – I’m almost fluent in the bloody language.  It was conversation, and we all know it takes two to converse…  I turned on the torch again.

A baby version of the bigger one – this one the size of a walnut – was calling for Mum and shadowing the route I’d watched the larger one take.  Along the sill, up the rafter, back down the rafter, back along the sill… then, instead of diving behind my bed, it went up another rafter – directly above me – wobbled, lost its balance and fell.  It missed my bed by 2 inches.  Landed on the floor, shook itself and ran under the bed.

By now it was 4.00am and there was no way I could sleep.  I turned on all the lights and sat – like a statue – bolt upright in bed.  And stayed that way until the first birds began to call at a quarter to six as the sky slowly grew lighter.  Only then did I turn out the light and fall into a dreadful sleep where I dreamed four of my teeth fell out and were rolling around my mouth like marbles (which I know means I was grinding my teeth in a state of heightened stress).  It’s not funny.

As I’d kept vigil and reflected rather dejectedly on my year of playing the Pied Piper to rodents across the globe, it occurred to me it was bound to be the Chinese’s fault.  This is probably the Year of the Rat, I decided.  That would explain everything.  But – I confess – I’ve checked, and it’s not the year of the rat.  It’s the Year of the Snake (now I’m really in for it!)  Giving up on astrology, I reached for my Field Guide to African Mammals.

Not having had the clearest of views of the adult, I’ve struggled to positively identify it, but it most closely resembles a Multimammate Rat which has…

up to twelve pairs of teats, and…

can give birth to 22 young at one time.

Meanwhile ‘friends’ have been contacting me to welcome me home.  And I’ve told them about the reception committee lying in wait for me and how I don’t think I’m going to make it through another night like last night.  If I expected sympathy, I was a fool.  My tale of woe has been met with gales of laughter and unhelpful texts and emails like these:

Sorry to laugh, but it could only happen to you!! You definitely made a mistake trying to identify it! I wonder where the other 21 siblings are hanging out??????????????????????


Dear Me!!  Why do these funny ‘things’ happen to you??!!  Call me before you go to sleep so I can wish you a good journey (into the after life)……….. Eeeeeeeeeeeeek

and by anonymouse text

I am watching u…  squeak squeak!  Mousey Mousey loves your housey… Ps Thanx 4 the banana skin x

Who needs friends, when you’ve got rats?


Living Free… finally


I know, I’ve been quiet.  With some of the sad events going on in my world since I last wrote – the relentless butchering of wildlife in Africa for the ivory and rhino horn trade, the horrific tragedy of the attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, and the atrocity of the misguided badger cull in England – I’ve been unable to find the positivity to write anything light-hearted or amusing.  And I always said when I began the blog, if there wasn’t something fun or uplifting to write, it was probably better not to write at all.

But some of you will remember I did write about the plight of some circus lions I came across in France in the summer.  I wonder where those poor animals are now, as winter begins to creep across the continent?  I can only hope that one day the situation will change, and caged, performing animals will become a thing of the past.  Following my blog entry, I was contacted by Virginia McKenna of the Born Free Foundation and she promised to mention ‘my’ lions at a meeting she was due to attend about circus animals and their predicaments.

In the meantime, just to share a glimmer of hope and light for two lions not unlike the ones I met, here’s a heart-warming story from her, I thought I’d share…  I hope these lions do soon get to share their days with the African sun on their backs, finally living a life worth living…

Extract of a letter from Virginia McKenna:

…Simba was born in a French zoo in 2005, then sold to an animal trainer in France. For seven horrifying years, he lived alone in a rusty ‘beast wagon’. This was Simba’s world. Barely room to stand up or turn around. Only occasionally allowed into a tiny ‘exercise’ cage, so his trailer could be cleaned out.

 Imagine Simba’s frustration, cooped up in his miserable cage on his own, gazing bleakly through the rusty wire.

 But last year hope beckoned. With the help of a French animal organisation F30MA*, eight-year old Simba was moved to temporary accommodation at a wildlife refuge in Belgium. However, it was just a stopgap solution.(

*Fondation 30 Millions d’Amis)

Simba needs a permanent home. We want to take him to Africa, to his ancestral homeland. But that’s not all. We have SOMEONE very special in mind too! We rescued this affectionate lioness from a squalid zoo in Romania, back in 2009. She had endured long, freezing winters, was blind in one eye, and her spine and back legs were crippled. Her beloved mate and cubs had died. We thought Bella deserved better and arranged for our friends at Lilongwe Wildlife Centre in Malawi to give her a home. Today she enjoys the sights and sounds of wild Africa. 

How amazing it would be to give Simba a new home and expert care for the rest of his life! What a privilege to find a friend for Bella! Let’s make up for the past. Let’s give them a new life they can share…

If you’d like to read more about this lion appeal, here’s the Born Free Foundation website address – I really admire the foundation for all their work on behalf of wild animals.



These days – Nairobi traffic being what it is – when the time comes to travel abroad, getting to, or meeting someone from, the airport is no longer the social occasion it once was. When we were kids, the drive out to the airport was regarded as an exciting safari – the long, wide tarmac road followed the boundary of the Nairobi National Park, and you’d see zebra and wildebeest, kongoni and ostriches – sometimes even rhinos, from the car. Around the perimeter of the airport itself, giraffes would unbend from their delicate nibbling of stubby thorn trees to gaze perplexedly at aircraft coming in to land.  Sometimes, when you drove out to the airport at night, the red eyes of hyenas, loping across the road ahead, would gleam in the headlights.  Once, we even sped past the sorry spectacle of lioness, run over by a vehicle.

Now, the 20-odd kilometre drive is bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Cars and lorries and buses and mini-vans, either ferrying tourists or cut flowers, or green beans to and from the airport; or commodities between Nairobi and Mombasa.  And the scenery is wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder buildings – high-rises, glass-fronted showrooms, sprawling hotels, petrol stations… with not a glimpse any more of the park, and its animals.  It’s still there, but behind a bank of industry and construction.

What used to be a 25-30 minute drive, can now take anything from one hour to three, depending on the time of day your flight arrives, or departs.  So nowadays everyone uses taxis to make the journey.  You’d never ask a friend or relative to drive out and meet you – it’s just a total waste of a morning, afternoon, or evening.

My usual taxi driver is a lady named Jane.  She’s loud and proud – deservedly so, with a successful taxi company and a small tented camp in the Masai Mara – and she’s great fun.  Being – to coin Alexander McCall Smith’s term – ‘traditionally built’, Jane is always on a diet, and generous with her advice and great tips about healthy eating.  She goes to church on Sundays.  And she plays golf.  I like to think of her on the course, in her long shorts and spiked shoes, as a Tigress.  I’d imagine she can give a ball a mighty whack.  She regularly enjoys success at the weekends (after prayers), and frequently has news of the latest electrical appliance she’s won at a tournament. Her kitchen must be one of the best-outfitted in her estate.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised, when I called her to book a taxi to the airport last Sunday, to learn that she was unavailable. I knew she’d either be at church or playing golf.  I was half right.  She was playing golf – in Sweden.

I ended up with Ibrahim instead.  He drew up at the house to collect my father and me, and hopped out of the car to help with the luggage.

The reason he hopped out, was because he only has one leg.  It was a little disconcerting to begin with, then it occurred to me that, in fact, all automatic cars are driven by people with one leg – after all, my own left leg is quite redundant when I drive my brother’s car.

But what is even more remarkable about Ibrahim is that he too, is a sports-lover.  He cycles internationally –he taught himself to ride a bike by just gripping the saddle with his thighs.  Look at this video…

Ibrahim’s actually entered races cycling like that – one, a 100-mile mountain bike race in Colorado, if you please.   Nowadays, though he has a prosthetic leg as well, which he uses.  Oh, and did I mention he’s on the Kenya Amputee Football team?

I’ve written a story about him, and once again, the BBC have taken it for their programme, From Our Own Correspondent, which I’m delighted about.  If you’d like to listen to it, it’s going to play on the World Service tomorrow (at 1150 local time in Kenya, but I’m not sure for other parts of the world).  And from 1150 GMT, it will be accessible to listen to online at this link…


Next time any of you visit Kenya and would like me to arrange your collection from the airport, you can choose between One-Leg Cabs, or the Tigress – as long as she’s not playing golf in Outer Mongolia that day.



Gaining momentum…


Thanks for all reading my previous post – I’ve had more ‘visitors’ than before.  I’ve also been contacted out of the blue by several long lost acquaintances who heard the radio broadcast, and share my feelings about circus animals, and the BBC are broadcasting the piece tomorrow Monday 8 July on the World Service, at 0150 GMT and 0850 GMT – easiest, probably to listen online though.  They’re also putting the transcript on the website tomorrow, they tell me – including photographs.  And I’ve been asked to give the Born Free Foundation the name of the circus…  Wagons Roll!



What would Virginia McKenna do?


I know I started this blog with the intention to try to see the funny side of things when I find myself overwhelmed by Life.  But sometimes there simply isn’t a funny side.

A few weeks ago, when I was still occupied with plumbing issues in France, I’d driven into town to buy some essential hardware.  But as I reached my main market town, and turned right at the roundabout, to make my way to the DIY shop, my heart sank.  Opposite McDonalds, in a disused supermarket allotment, a circus was being set up.

There were scarlet wagons, jauntily painted with grotesque faces of clowns, and the snarling faces of lions and tigers.  There was a red and white striped Big Top with “Entrée” emblazoned enticingly across the entrance.  There was a van fitted with loudhailers, just setting off to tour the town, the driver holding a microphone up to his mouth as his disembodied voice blared out over hurdy-gurdy music, extolling the wonders of the circus.

“Visitez le cirque!  Venez voir des lions, des tigres blancs rares, les chameaux de Mongolie…

Seulement 7 € pour les enfants! Venez tout le monde!  Le spectacle commence le samedi…”

As I turned into the parking lot, I noticed the unmistakable form of a male lion standing in one of the caged wagons.

Feeling quite sick, I parked my car and went into the DIY store, passing posters and billboards advertising the circus on my way in.  I grabbed a trolley and pushed it up and down the aisles in the shop, gazing absent-mindedly at the shelves, but thinking all the time about that lion.

I’d recently read Virginia McKenna’s memoir, The Life in my Years, and greatly admire this brave woman, who for years has campaigned to free animals from zoos – ever since she starred with her husband, Bill Travers, in the 1960s screen classic Born Free.  To have had the courage to go into some of the zoos she’s visited across the world, and to bear witness to horrendous acts of cruelty to animals, and then to actually do something about it, takes huge strength of character.  So, as I trundled aimlessly around the plumbing department, trying to remember what I was even there for, I found myself asking – what would Virginia do about the circus?

What she wouldn’t do, I knew, was duck away from it all, hoping it would just go away.

I left the shop, and walked across the road, towards the supermarket compound.  A mother and her small daughter were standing close to the lion’s cage – much closer than they should have been, although they wouldn’t necessarily have realised how antagonistic it would have been to the caged big cat.  I walked over to a circus worker, occupied with unhitching a trailer and asked him if I was free to walk around?  “Bien sur,” he barely looked up at me.  And take photographs?  I asked. “Pourquoi pas?”

Why not, indeed?

It was heartbreaking.  Not only was there ‘my’ lion, who – it turned out, shared his 4×2 metre cage with a lioness – there were about eight other big cats.  There was a red tiger, and the promised white one.  There were more lions and lionesses and a pure white youngster – not much more than a cub and, I’ve no doubt, one of the very rare gene pool of white lions from South Africa.  She was probably barely a year old.  One of the posters I’d seen showed a black leopard, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if there’d been one lurking in the shadows, but my explorations were stopped short as a tractor roared up behind me, while I was taking photos of Bactrian camels standing forlornly in a roped-off section of the tarmac car park.  I thought I was going to be run over.

I turned to see the driver glowering at me.  He cut his engine.  “Madame,” he roared – ever so politely, “N’avez-vous pas vu les panneaux? Il est interdit de prendre des photos!”

I apologised, for I hadn’t noticed any signs, but I pointed out Trailer-man who had given me permission to take photos.  Tractor-man grunted and left me alone, but then I saw the signboards – not only on the lions’ cages, but even on the empty cages where the camels were evidently cooped up for the drives between towns.






Why?  If people were going to ooh and ah at the spectacle of lions jumping through flaming hoops, surely taking a photo of the animals in their cages wasn’t breaking any laws?  It was patently obvious the cages were far too small for any captive creature – but making an animal jump through a ring of fire is no more excusable.

I’d had enough.  I came away, wondering what my next step should be.

I began by looking up circuses on the internet.  Coincidentally, only ten days earlier it had been reported by the Born Free Foundation that the UK Government had agreed draft registration being put in place to ensure that the use of wild animals in circuses in the United Kingdom will cease by 2015.  But, in the European Union, I learned, there is no legislation concerning the use of wild animals in circuses – it is left up to the member states to decide.  If you can believe all you read online, apparently Greece and Austria have already taken steps to outlaw wild animals in circuses.  But that’s all. (BRAVO! Greece and Austria!)

I decided I needed to go back, and watch, from a distance, the goings-on at the circus.  First of all I persuaded two friends, Anne (I bet not many people can call on the help of a Bond girl in times of crisis.  I can!) and Linda, to accompany me on a drive-by, while I tried to take more pictures of the place.  We were rather like three covert operators (not!) as Anne brought traffic to a standstill on the roundabout while I hung out the window trying – and failing – to get shots of the white tiger.  But I got pictures of the cages, showing what cramped spaces the animals were confined to.  Mission accomplished, and they left me – Linda avowing she was off to find out who in the EU we needed to petition to end wild animals in circuses.  Meanwhile, I bought a café and frites from McDonalds and remained in the car park to continue casing the joint…  Yves had lent me his binoculars for spying, but I didn’t really need them.  Which was just as well as, while I’d been provisioning my stakeout, a gendarme had materialised and was standing on the kerb, watching the circus.  I half-wondered whether he’d had a complaint about three female special agents causing havoc on the roundabout.  So I kept my head down.

It’s early days, but I hope we’ll get a petition going.  In the meantime, I’ve written a small piece about the circus, to bring people’s attention to the fact that astoundingly in these ‘enlightened times’ of the 21st Century, wild animals are still being exploited – horribly – in circuses.  And most of these species – lions, tigers, elephants, bears – are listed on the Convention of International Trade in Exotic Species (CITES) Appendix 1 – in danger of extinction.  My story is being broadcast in the UK on the BBC Radio 4 programme FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT, today, 4th July, at 11 am – in case any of you want to listen.  If you’re not in England, you can “Listen Live” online at 1000 GMT, or “Listen Again” from a few hours later once it is uploaded onto the BBC website.


Thanks for reading, and watch this space for news of a petition…


Cat Burglars

So – there I was, bemoaning the fact that it’s pretty dull around here with no wonderful wildlife stories or juicy neighbourhood gossip to impart, and suddenly I have both…

Well, almost.  This sign, with its sage advice (after all, everyone knows cats love to chase things), was written up by the watchmen at the entrance to the residential area where I live.  I haven’t actually seen the culprits, nor – to my knowledge – have they caused any trouble, but there’s an extra frisson of excitement, knowing they are around, as I walk around the garden in the evenings…

And I’m inclined to not bother with locking up at night.  Any prowlers are going to have second thoughts with our neighbourhood watch to contend with!