Pick from the Past
Natural History, January 1954
An Anteater Named Teddy
He weighed about eleven or twelve pounds, and I recalled that my fifteen-months-old chimpanzee was a little heavier. Visions of an anteater playing with a baby chimp rose before me. The sale was completed twenty minutes later.
The anteater was to stay at the animal farm, near Boston, until the first of May so that I could take him directly out to the country instead of keeping him in the New York apartment. He was to be shipped to me in New York by air.
I picked him up at La Guardia Airport and went straight out to Pennsylvania. All the way, I could hardly contain my desire to see him. My main concern was whether he had grown too big to be handled. The crate was small enough, but all I could see through the cracks was a bristly ball of fur. I had arranged an inside cage for him on my porch and a large pen for him outdoors. I hoped it would be warm enough for him to spend the day outside, but at night I intended to bring him in, until the weather was warmer and more settled.
When the crate was opened, the anteater walked out very slowly and cautiously. I was happy to see that he had not grown too much. The little chimp watched everything with fascination and then jumped right into the cage, eager to pet the new toy. But this nice little teddy bear hit back. The chimp ducked just in time. I was astonished at how quickly the anteater could strike with his huge claws.
In the months that I had waited to get him, I had gathered as much information about anteaters as I could. It was disappointing how little there was. All the writers gave a description of this "fossil animal" and its habitat—the damp forests of tropical America. They told briefly of its small toothless mouth and long tongue. About half the references claimed that the tongue was sticky; the other half stated the opposite. After touching the anteater's tongue many times, it seems to me that the tongue itself is not sticky but the saliva is. He would run his tongue with great speed back and forth over my hand, and there was an adhesive coating on it afterward.
In the accounts there was also mention of the coarse hair and the big claws. The latter could be dangerous if the animal were in a rage. They curve backward and are exceedingly efficient tools for digging in the termite hills of their South American homeland. Most writers stated that anteaters live exclusively on termites, but some claimed that they also eat a certain kind of ant. All agreed that they wouldn't touch our local ants, but my anteater ate large quantities of them!
The bushy tail covers the animal when asleep, but the natives of South America believe that it serves also to sweep ants off the ground in the woods. The tail is very flat.
An anteater has only one baby at a time. That was about all I could find out about anteaters, except that they can be kept fairly well in captivity on a diet of eggs and milk. They were said to be dull-witted, slow-moving animals.
Well, there was nothing slow-moving about the way my anteater struck at the little chimp. When I tried to touch him, he lifted his foreleg to strike at me, too. So, after giving him some food, I retreated with the chimp to let him settle down and get used to his new surroundings and to us.
I had put a box on its side in his cage and filled it with hay to serve as a sleeping place. The first thing he did was to sweep out all the hay with his claws. After he was well rid of his bedding, he curled up in the box for a long sleep. He slept all the rest of the first day, and the night. The next morning he was much more at ease and came out to eat his food and let me pet him. His front leg would rise ready to strike, but it remained only a gesture. He never quite lost this habit, even though he never really struck. It was like a reflex action.
We named our anteater Teddy. He adjusted very rapidly. I had put a collar around his middle, which he kept on always and did not mind at all. When the weather was nice, he moved outside. He liked best to be tied to a tree in the grass. There he could search for ants all day long—a search that was his whole life.
He did better with the nests of the small black ants he found under rocks and in the grass. With amazing accuracy he could detect those nests; he must have smelled them. When he found such a nest, his nose would twitch, and he would make a snorting noise and get very excited. He could turn over big, heavy rocks. He would run his long tongue inside the tunnels, and one could not see how many he ate. But sometimes he would push a rock away and find a nest that was well exposed, and I could see that he picked out the larvae and eggs first and then concentrated on the ants. He was only interested in ant colonies and never attacked scattered ones. Since many ants ran away when he disturbed their nest, he never consumed an entire colony.
He ate quite a bit of soil in his quest for ants. One day he found a nest under some pine trees, where the floor was thick with fallen needles. As he ran his tongue in and out of the tunnels, he picked up a lot of needles. They stuck to his tongue and nose and disappeared into his mouth. He was none the worse for this.
The kind of terrain he was on seemed of no importance to him. He walked on hills, over rocks, and on logs without looking up. When he came to water, he seemed not to notice the change. He kept his nose to the ground so he would not miss any ants and walked along the banks of the pond or waded right into the water. If he wanted to go to the other side, he just swam across, and while half-in and half-out of the water, he would stop to pick up some ants at the very edge. He never shook the water out of his coarse hair. It was as if he didn't know the difference between water and land, except that there were no ants in the water. He could climb trees very well but seldom did.
The chimpanzee and the anteater never became close friends as I had hoped. The little ape never went really close to the anteater except when there was wire between them. Teddy never trusted the chimp and would either back away or get ready to strike. Her movements were too quick for him and she seemed to make him nervous and upset. She was very rough in her play, and when he was not looking she might quickly pull his tail. Though he loved to be petted and have his head scratched, he was sensitive about his tail. He never permitted me to touch it. Whenever I scratched his head, he would stand very still and close his eyes.
The little chimp consented to only one thing: she let Teddy pull her around in a little wagon. But she soon got impatient, since he stopped all the time to look for ants. When he sometimes turned to sniff her, she would jump away as fast as she could. He did not care if he was harnessed to the little wagon or not.
He was completely unconcerned about everything around him. He did take a mild interest in the lamb. Whenever their paths crossed, he would stop and lick it. He liked to lick things—hands, shoes, the chimp's feet
There were no signs of great intelligence, but he was not stupid. I didn't try to teach him anything and don't know if it would be possible to do so, but he learned to fit himself into our household in a very short time. He knew my voice and responded to his name. He knew that when I changed the little chimp's diapers on the table next to his cage, he could lick her feet without her objecting. He had to climb on top of his sleeping box to do this, which was not easy for him since the box was smooth; but he invariably managed it. When he saw me fold a newspaper, he would get very excited, expecting to be fed, because a newspaper was always spread under his bowl of food. He also recognized his food dish. When I came in the morning to put his leash on, he would be as docile as a lamb. He would come toward me and stand very still so I could fasten it. But in the evening it was a different story. He knew I had come to take him away from his ants, and he would rebel as best he could. In the cage he would rear up, threatening me with his claws and squeezing himself into the farthest corner. When tied to a tree, he would give me a merry chase around the tree until his leash got tangled; then he would pretend to fight. He never really struck out at me though, and I would tuck him under my arm and carry him in. Eventually he learned that the fight accomplished nothing, and he gave up trying.
But I always carried him in and out of his cage, since it would require up to twenty minutes to walk him about a hundred feet. Every other step he would stop to look and dig for ants. He was very strong, and I could not pull him against his will. He also learned to recognize an orange and would get very excited when he saw one. He got the juice of half an orange every other day after I found out how much he liked it. He also was fond of applesauce and grape juice and got those as a treat from time to time.
An anteater is not the most desirable pet for a home. Though Teddy appreciated a soft couch to some extent and learned to walk up and down stairs and drink from a cup at table, he never stopped looking for ants, and would dig for them in the pillows or rugs. Teddy was not housebroken, either, though I think he could have been trained to go to a box. He kept himself fairly clean by combing his fur with his long claws. The claws could be controlled like fingers, and he could grasp things tightly with them. He washed himself with his tongue, and his coat never felt sticky afterward. His tail received the most attention, probably because he could reach it best. The tongue was black but became pink at the base.
Most anteaters are nocturnal, but Teddy became so adjusted to the life of my house that he was awake from eleven A.M. to seven P.M. At seven he would curl up in his box, fold his tail over his head, and remain "dead to the world" until the next morning. I could almost set my clock by his habits. When I heard him snorting and pushing his empty bowl around in the morning, I would know it was eleven o'clock and that Teddy wanted to be fed.
It took him almost a half to three-quarters of an hour to finish his food. He got eight ounces of milk, two eggs, and some chopped beef and cereal twice daily. He usually lay down while eating and closed his eyes. Nothing would disturb him when he fed. The chimp would bang on the wire of his cage and poke her fingers in his food. When she could not reach it, she would shake the cage in anger, but Teddy went on eating. When he had finished he would walk up and down impatiently, eager to go outside so he could eat some ants.
Only once did I hear him make any other noise than the snorting and grunting sound and that was when he got tired of being photographed and pushed around for "just one more picture." He turned on me and gave a hissing snarl, almost like a tiger or lion. Otherwise he was very mute, and I don't know whether he had many other sounds. He was a very stubborn animal, always ready to protect himself with his only weapon, his claws. His movements were swift, almost graceful. He had but one thought in his head—ants. Though he made friends with man, he was not domesticated.