THE IMPUDENT GUINEA-PIG

By Charles F. Lummis

No other creature is so absolutely graceful as a rattlesnake, and none more gentle in intention. It is only against imposition that he protests. Our forefathers had learned a not unworthy lesson from their contact with nature in the New World when they put upon the first flag of the colonies a rattlesnake, with the Latin legend, Nemo me impune lacessit—"No one wounds me with impunity." The flag of independence, however, only half told the real meaning of its emblem—the warning, and not the self-restraint. There is a device, to my notion, much more expressive: a rattlesnake rampant, with the Spanish motto, Ni huyes ni persigues—"Thou needst not flee, but thou must not pursue." Or, in other words, "I impose upon no one; no one must impose upon me." That is the real meaning of the rattlesnake, as any one can testify who knows him well.

I chanced one day to enter the market in Los Angeles, and was surprised to find in one of the stalls a large collection of rattlesnakes, mostly brought in from the Mojave desert. It was the first time I had ever seen the crotalus sold in the stalls of a city market; and as they went at the very reasonable figure of fifty cents apiece, I promptly purchased a pair. The dealer, with a noose of cord, lassoed the two I indicated, and after some maneuvering got them stowed in two large cigar boxes, which he tied up tightly. Reaching home safely with my new pets, I made them a roomy cage with wire-screen in front and a sliding door on top, and transferred them to it without much difficulty. One was a strong, handsome fellow five feet long and with fifteen rattles; the other was about three feet in length and had an ordinary "string."

The dealer told me they had eaten nothing in six months; and fancying it must be about lunch-time with them, I went down-town, as soon as they were comfortably settled in the new quarters, to get them food. A rattler, you know, will touch no dead meat, so I had to seek some living bait. After ransacking the markets I found at last one young cuye—the funny little South American, generally miscalled among us the "guinea-pig." It was about half grown—a very proper-sized morsel for the larger snake.

My friends rattled a little as I opened the slide on the top of their cage, promptly closing it as I dropped the cuye in. But, to my surprise, they paid no further attention to the newcomer, except to appear very much bored by him; and, stranger yet, the guinea-pig showed no sign whatever of fear. I have so often watched birds, rabbits, dogs, horses, cattle, and other animals—up to the strongest and boldest—in presence of the rattlesnake, and have always noted in them such unmistakable tokens of terror, that it astonished me to find this pretty little white-and-tan creature so utterly unconcerned. In dropping from the door he alighted squarely upon the backs of the snakes, whereupon they drew away uneasily; and he proceeded to look and sniff about, very much as you may have seen a rabbit do. I stood by the cage a long time, expecting the snakes to lose patience at last and enact a tragedy; but nothing happened. The cuye scurried freely about the cage, generally treading upon the irregular loops which covered most of the floor; and the snakes neither rattled nor raised their heads at him.

For fully a week the three lodged together harmoniously. Sometimes, on entering the room, I found the guinea-pig quietly reposing inside the careless coil of one of his strange bedfellows. Several times he was squatting upon them, and more than once sitting squarely upon the head of one! I began to wonder if there were anything constitutionally wrong with the snakes. Whether they deemed him too big or too foolish to be eaten, I have never known; but, whatever the reason, they made no motion toward eating him. Unfortunately, he did not know how to return a favor.

One afternoon I was writing at my desk, when a tremendous rattling behind me caused me to jump up and go to the cage. The smaller snake was up in arms, skirring his rattle violently, while the larger one was twisting uneasily about, but not showing fight. And what do you imagine ailed him? Why, that miserable cuye was perched upon him, coolly nibbling that beautiful rattle, of which only three or four beads were left! In my righteous indignation I tore open the slide and "snaked out" the vandal as quickly as possible. Afterward it occurred to me to wonder that I had not been struck; for nothing so alarms and angers a crotalus as a swift motion like that with which I had removed the cuye. The rattles never grew again, and my best snake was spoiled. Why the cuye should have cared to eat that mysterious husk which is so absolutely dry and flavorless, I can explain only by adding that rats and mice have the same perverted taste, and that it seems fairly a passion with them. I have had many skins and rattles eaten up by them.

Shortly after this episode one of our helpers in the office found a nest of mice, and, mindful of my hungry snakes, I contrived to catch one mouse alive. When the rattlers saw him through their screen, they manifested such a lively interest as nothing had aroused in them before. I cautiously opened the slide in the top of the cage, held the mouse up by the tail, and let him drop.

There was a fair illustration of the matchless agility of the crotalus when he cares to be quick. The cage was just twelve inches high in the clear; but before the falling mouse was halfway to the bottom, there was an indescribable gray blur, and I knew that the larger snake had hit him. I have improved numerous chances to study the stroke of rattlesnake, which is the swiftest motion made by any living creature; but that particular case, better than any other, gave me a conception of its actual rapidity. From years of experience with the pneumatic shutter in photographing objects in rapid motion, I should say the snake's head traversed that twelve or fifteen inches in something like the three-hundredth part of a second.

The mouse fell upon the floor of the cage, and it never moved again. The snake knew perfectly that it had done its work, for in place of "recovering" for another stroke, as they invariably do after a failure, he swallowed the mouse in the usual slow and painful fashion, with as much apparent effort as a morsel four times as large should have given him.