Friday, January 18, 2008
Mammal of the Day: Tapir
I often assume that people are familiar with our planet's most amusing mammals, such as lemurs and wombats, and I am often wrong.
Yesterday at lunch, Liz told me she was going on vacation to Guatemala and asked if I knew anything about the country.
With admirable middle-aged self-restraint, I stopped myself from launching into a political diatribe.
Instead I sat quietly for a moment trying to think of something not related to American imperialism to say about Central America, where of course people go about their own lives without ranting about Ronald Reagan.
(I have been trying to follow the advice of American Buddhist Pema Chodron: she teaches the practice of not clenching up when we encounter something that jars us, but letting there be space around it.)
And I was rewarded.
The happiest of answers came to me:
Tapirs live there!
Liz didn't know what tapirs are.
I thought this was bizarre, but since then I've quizzed a couple other people who didn't know either. One of them said, "tape ears?" so Liz's not alone.
In fact, Stefan Seitz notes in his funny (but serious) paper In the Name of the Tapir that he recorded at least 2,000 misidentifications of the tapir by zoo-goers.
The top guess was anteater. Some Germans guessed coati, but only because the German name for coati means "nose bear."
Scientists tell us that tapirs are most closely related to horses and rhinos, who also have split hooves.
(So they aren't kosher, though people in South America and South Asia where tapirs live aren't generally concerned with this and eat them anyway.)
Personally I'm sure the tapir's closest relative is found in Edward Gorey's little book The Doubtful Guest (1957): the dear creature who appeared one Victorian day and has "shown no intention of going away."
Tapirs, however, alas, are on the endangered species list.
(Female Malayan tapir, above right, at the Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, Washington, USA, photo by Sasha Kopf, from Wikipedia "Tapir" entry.)