Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Character of the Cassowary

I wish I were a cassowary
Out on the plains of Timbuctoo.
I'd kill and eat a missionary--
Head, arms, legs, and hymn-book too.
The above lines have been kicking around since at least the 1850s, and nobody seems to know who wrote them. They're geographically inaccurate — cassowaries live in Australia, New Guinea, and thereabouts, not Africa — but they do contain a grain of truth, for this flightless bird is, at least according to most accounts, a singularly surly and aggressive customer, and though it eats neither missionaries nor heathens it does have lethal claws that have led to well-documented, if infrequent, fatalities in human beings who were foolhardy enough not to give the cassowary its space.

Julio Cortázar, who expressed memorable interspecies kinship with the axolotl, had no such empathy with the fearsome cassowary. He describes it in Cronopios & Famas as "unlikable in the extreme and repulsive." In Paul Blackburn's translation, these are its curious properties:
He lives in Australia, the cassowary; he is cowardly and fearsome at the same time; the guards enter his cage equipped with high leather boots and a flame thrower. When the cassowary stops his terrified running around the pan of bran they’ve put out for him and comes leaping at the keeper with great camel strides, there is no other recourse than to use the flame thrower. Then you see this: the river of fire envelops him and the cassowary, all his plumage ablaze, advances his last few steps bursting forth in an abominable screech. But his horn does not burn: the dry, scaly material which is his pride and his disdain goes into a cold melding, it catches fire with a prodigious blue, moving to a scarlet which resembles an excoriated fist, and finally congeals into the most transparent green, into an emerald, stone of shadow and of hope. The cassowary defoliates, a swift cloud of ash, and the keeper runs over greedily to possess the recently made gem. The zoo director always avails himself of this moment to institute proceedings against the keeper for the mistreatment of animals, and to dismiss him.
As entertaining as that fantasy is, reality is hardly less so, and the cassowary's true nature seems to be open to debate. During the travels he described in Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia, the naturalist and explorer George Bennett kept several specimens of what he called the mooruk in captivity, and even successfully shipped a pair to England. He found them generally congenial as housemates, although they were perhaps a bit too tame. They certainly weren't fussy about what they ate:
It is well to warn persons, inclined to keep these birds as pets, of their insatiable propensities. When about the house, they displayed extraordinary delight in a variety of diet ; for, as I have previously related, one day they satisfied their appetites with bones, whetstones, corks, nails, and raw potatoes, most of which passed perfectly undigested ; one dived into thick starch and devoured a muslin cuff, whilst the other evinced a great partiality for nails and pebbles; then they stole the Jabiru’s meat from the water. If eggs and butter were left upon the kitchen-table, they were soon devoured by these marauders ; and when the servants were at their dinner in the kitchen, they had to be very watchful ; for the long necks of the birds appeared between their arms, devouring everything off the plates ; or if the dinner-table was left for a moment, they would mount upon it and clear all before them. At other times they stood at the table, waiting for food to be given to them, although they did not hesitate to remove anything that was within their reach. I have often seen them stand at the window of our dining- room, with keen eye, watching for any morsel of food that might be thrown to them. The day previous to the departure of the pair for England, in February 1859, the male bird walked into the dining-room, and remained by my side during the dessert. I regaled him with pine-apple and other fruits, and he behaved very decorously and with great forbearance.
All in all, the presence of the birds seemed to be just one more challenge among many for the domestic staff:
One or both of them would walk into the kitchen ; while one was dodging under the tables and chairs, the other would leap upon the table, keeping the cook in a state of excitement; or they would be heard chirping in the hall, or walk into the library in search of food or information [sic], or walk up stairs, and then be quickly seen descending again, making their peculiar chirping, whistling noise ; not a door could be left open, but in they walked, familiar with all.
Perhaps the mooruk has a gentler disposition than its larger cousins. The smallest cassowary species, it is now often known as Bennett's cassowary in honor of its scientific discoverer.

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