Sunday, August 11, 2019

The true history of the Great Kanchil Stalking

Adventure! Drama! High speed chases! Plot twists! Jungles!

We visited the Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich.

Meeting a live Mouse Deer has been on my bucket list for years. Some people travel hundreds of miles to meet their favorite actors, or see their favorite band live. Me, I got on a train and traveled six hours to Munich to see a tiny ungulate that looks like a chihuahua got bitten by a vampire. Sue me.

Mouse Deer bookmarks for
my new book, art by Diána Laurent
Of course if you know me you probably know why I am so obsessed with the little critters. Mouse Deer, or Kanchil is the trickster figure of the folklore of Indonesia and Malaysia. What Loki is to the Norse, Anansi is to the Ashanti, and Br'er Rabbit is to African-American tradition, that's Kanchil for Southeast Asia. Over the course of centuries of oral tradition he's turned from prey animal into the worst nightmare of bigger, stronger, dumber bullies wish as Tiger. In one story he tricks Tiger into eating elephant dung (claiming it is the king's gourmet pudding), and in another he escapes a pit trap by making everyone believe Doomsday is coming. Both tales, and many others, have been a part of my storytelling repertoire, and they never disappoint. Kanchil is a star whether the audience consists of children, adults, or even moody teenagers. Long story short: I was not visiting the zoo to look at animals. I was meeting a celebrity.

Obviously it is not easy to get an appointment with a trickster. I already tried once at the Prague zoo last year, where, after hours of searching, I was informed by a zookeeper that Kanchil is "staff only." Oh well, I thought, there have to be other Mouse Deer in Europe, so I got on this very useful website that lists all zoo holdings. Bingo: Munich, Hellabrunn Zoo, one Javan Mouse Deer. From here, it was easy-peasy to put the zoo on the itinerary of our Bavarian vacation.
(Any allegations that the whole vacation was planned around Mouse Deer have no basis in reality and I have a boyfriend who will confirm that statement.)

Wolverine having a splash
We visited the zoo on a nice, cloudy Thursday. It is an amazing place, one of the best I have ever seen - green, spacious,  lush, with large habitats and all kinds of modern comforts. We got there shortly after opening time at 9am, and spent a good six hours wandering around. The animals seemed content and active - the wolverine splashed around, the pallas cat was hunting frogs, the polar bears were diving, the tortoises raced each other, the red panda was climbing a tree, so all in all, there was a lot to see and enjoy. Kanchil was not marked on any map, but we kept our eyes open, thinking that eventually we would run into it. We did see a bunch of Chinese muntjaks, which are related to Kanchil and also appear in some stories, but no matter how we looked, we could not locate the genuine article. Eventually, around noon we sat down for an ice cream and turned to the Internet for help. With my sporadic knowledge of German (including the essential terms "wo ist" and "kleinkantschil") I figured out that we need to look for Kanchil in the Jungle House. We had already been there and missed him, but now we were going to do better. And not get distracted by the neighboring pallas cat.

Find anything in this, I dare you
The Jungle House is essentially a large tropical green house without fences or walls, in which many different animals share a space with visitors in peace, respect, and 90% humidity. The most noticeable residents are the tropical birds like the pretty white Bali mynas (one of my favorite birds) and the busy little crested partridges (under the amazing Latin name Rollulus rouloul) - but there is also a Mouse Deer in there. Somewhere.
Pretty birb
The problem with tropical green houses is that they emulate the jungle really well - so much so that you can't really find anything in them that does not want to be found. Case in point: we spent more than an hour poking our heads under palm leaves and into bushes, searching high and low, climbing on rocks and observing the foliage from the bridge above - but there was nor hide nor hair of Mouse Deer anywhere. The other visitors (of which there were many) must have thought we were some special kind of weirdos as we rustled around, looking for some imaginary being, and occasionally shot nasty glances at smaller toddling primates that ran around screaming, chasing the partridges. The latter in particular were getting on my nerves: every time something moved in the shadows, it turned out to be just another damn partridge.
There was a sign, someone just turned it
I was starting to get very annoyed at the jungle chickens when I finally spotted something else: a zookeper. I ran up to her and inquired about Kanchil; she told me that there were indeed Kanchil in the Jungle House, three in total, but they tend to hide from crowds and loud noises, and one only has a chance of seeing them early in the morning. I was very disappointed to hear that: for one, not one, but THREE Kanchil were hiding from me somewhere in there, and two, I had absolutely no chance to actually see them until people took their dozens of screaming children home from the zoo. With an aching heart I gave up the search, noting that one can only meet a trickster if the trickster itself wills it so.

Or... early in the morning.

I spent that evening weighing the pros and cons of returning to the zoo the next day (Daryl, my significant other, knows me well enough that he already knew we were going back). Paying the entrance fee another time just to see one puny Kanchil (or three) did not seem like a logical decision. On the other hand, my storyteller self pointed out, we could have been a mere arm's length away from the Mouse Deer the whole time, and trying once more is still cheaper than traveling all the way to Munich a second time, right? It's how you save money. Besides, if we failed again, at least we could say that we have done everything possible, paid the learning fees, and gave the whole mission maximum effort. The rest would be up to the trickster gods.

Jungle in the morning
Long story short, we returned to the zoo on Friday morning. We made a detailed action plan: We showed up half an hour before opening time at the back entrance, because it is closer to the Jungle House. We stood first in line at the gate, wallet at the ready, and spotted the closest cashier in advance. When the gates opened, we took a running start, left the other people behind, bought our tickets, and took off to the Jungle House at a brisk pace. We hurried past elephants and sleepy gibbons, and the few pensioners who got in before us because they have zoo passes, and we made it to the Jungle House way before any other visitor even got close.

There was no one there, except for us... and the maintenance crew.

Take a Boy Scout to the zoo
When we entered in Stealth Mode, we were greeted by metallic clanging and loud conversation: Two men were fixing something on top of one of the habitats. The sound almost made me cry. I could see my chances to meet Mouse Deet evaporating into thin air. It was a pity, really, because apart from the noise, the Jungle House was lovely in the early morning: Mist was covering everything, water dripped from the leaves, the fruit bats were fighting up in the trees, and there were colorful birds gathering in all the sunny spots. Even though I did not have much hope left for spotting a Mouse Deer, we still started on a close sweep of the area. We poked our heads into bushes and shrubbery for a good ten to fifteen minutes, when, walking off the jungle bridge, I noticed an elderly gentleman sitting in a rolling camp chair, staring at a sunny spot on the ground. When I got closer, he smiled at me, and started talking in German, pointing at the spot. I did not get what he was saying at all, except for one very important word. "Kleinkantschil?" I asked hopefully. He nodded with a smile. "Ja, kleinkantschil."
Kanchil chose that exact moment to poke his nose out into the clearing.

There is a Mouse Deer
in this photo
I am happy to say that I managed to cover my mouth before I squealed out in delight. Kanchil, placing his dainty little stick legs carefully on the fallen leaves, jogged across the clearing and hid behind a rock; then, a few moments later, poked his head out again, and jogged back the other way. It was too short an encounter to do anything but marvel and fangirl, but it was for sure: I had just seen my very first live Mouse Deer! While I kept staring at the sunny spot, Daryl, who has the practical training of a Boy Scout, circled around the bushes to the other side, and waved at me to follow. There, across the little stream, was Kanchil again, in person and full profile, a mere six feet away from us! He stared at us a little suspiciously, scratched his ears, nibbled on his own rump, then lifted one hind leg up and started licking it (at first I thought he was eating a stick, which says a lot about Kanchil aesthetics). I stared at the stunning display for long minutes until my legs fell asleep, and the Mouse Deer got bored and walked off into the bush.
Kanchil and Csenge
By now, however, we were on to Kanchil and his tricks: We knew exactly where to look. We returned to the sunny clearing, where we spotted Mouse Deer again. In fact, we spent the next hour and a half going back and forth between the clearing and the stream - and it only took us about thirty minutes to figure out that we were not looking at one Mouse Deer, but two (so much about the Tortoise and the Hare). Kanchil were doing their morning routine licking their fur, drinking water, licking their own eyes, and shaking their little tails. They even graciously allowed us to take some photos (despite the jungle chickens that kept trying to photobomb everything).
The fun came to a close when more and more people started showing up with their children, and the noise chased the Mouse Deer into the deeper shadows of the jungle. But by then I was content: For an hour and a half in that nice morning, we were at a private audience with Mouse Deer! We paid our price for the experience, but it was totally, completely worth it.

Go out into the world, people, and chase down your Mouse Deer!

1 comment:

  1. You met my niece, I took her to a Derby animal park, where she fell in love with a mouse deer. She said she would empty her suitcase and take him home.