Little Criminals

A true story of a lonely plant ecologist and his mischievous neighbors

I began keeping a pile of small rocks by my cot. Bopping a hyrax is, as you can by now imagine, an immensely satisfying achievement, but the hyraxes learned so quickly that I rarely got a second shot. So I upped the ante. Instead of merely disallowing hyraxes inside the tent, I decided to draw an imaginary line several feet beyond the door and reclaim the territory. This led to a renewed but short-lived bout of pebble tossing. These guys learned too quickly for me to alleviate months of pent-up frustration.

Then a friend brought me a long-awaited gift from the United States, on order since my early run-ins with my neighbors. It was one of those guns that shoot plastic darts with suction cups that are supposed to stick to your little sister's forehead but never do. I was determined that this ultimate weapon would finally turn the tide.

By this time, all the hyraxes had memorized the location of my imaginary line and would not cross it. I sat with gun in hand for hours, for days, but they never transgressed. The time was not wasted. Hours of practice made me a crack shot. Still they did not put so much as a toe across the line. I took to pretending that I was engrossed in a book, hiding the gun between the pages. No go.

Each of us has a breaking point. It may come when your hard disk crashes. It may come after climbing the twelve flights of stairs to the office for research clearance for the twentieth time. It may come when your discover your thousands of individually placed plant identification tags have become local collector's items. It often happens in the presence of your mechanic.

For me it came several frustrating weeks after the arrival of the gun, as I watched Elizabeth carefully tiptoe the line between her territory and mine. It became clear to me at that moment that she was taunting me, teasing me with her baleful eyes. There comes a time when the rules of appropriate human conduct no longer hold. I slowly lifted the gun, aimed just behind her left shoulder, and fired.

It was a perfect shot. The dart hit true and rebounded harmlessly a few feet away. Elizabeth let out a little squeak and bounced back herself. She gave me look of outraged disbelief. It was not the new weapon or my marksmanship that amazed her. It was that she was hit on her side of the line. I had broken the rules. I managed to suppress a twinge of guilt. I had no conscience. I was in charge.

I stared back, smug. She looked from her adversary to the dart and back again. I did the same. She looked long and hard at the dart. So did I. She looked at me again, but this time there was something other than sadness in her eyes. We looked at each other. We looked at the dart. We made our moves simultaneously, but she was quicker and closer. I arrived a half second too late. Elizabeth grabbed the dart in her mouth and took off just ahead of my desperate leap, disappearing into the boulder rubble.

I still had two darts left, but it didn't matter. I was defeated. Morally, intellectually, and strategically, the hyrax had won. Life would never be the same. Luckily, my thesis committee never found out, and a few months later they awarded a doctorate to a guy who couldn't outsmart a pack of five-pound rock hoppers.

Adapted from a chapter in I've Been Gone Far Too Long: Field Study Fiascoes and Expedition Disasters, edited by Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and Wendy Logsdon (RDR Books, 1996)

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