Don't mess with This honey monster! A couple's adopted orphan badger has shown them who's boss

Don’t mess with This honey monster! A couple’s adopted orphan badger has shown them who’s boss

Professional safari guides Bookey Peek, 60, and her husband Rich, 61, run Stone Hills, a private wildlife sanctuary in Zimbabwe. Over 25 years, they have adopted a huge variety of wild creatures, from a warthog to an ancient mongoose.

Here, in our first extract from her touching new book, Wild Honey: More Stories From An African Wildlife Sanctuary, Bookey explains how none of the animals has made a mark on their lives quite like Badge the honey badger…

Booky Peek on the nature reserve where she lives in Zimbabwe, pictured here with the honey badger, Badge, that she adopted after a hunter killed its mother

That smells revolting.’ It was October 2004 and I could hear a woman’s voice in Mike ‘Brom’ Bromwich’s office as I climbed the stairs to his taxidermy studio. ‘Well, if you don’t like it, why not give it to the Peeks? Last time I was out there, they had a warthog on the sofa and God knows what else at large in their house.’

I put my head around the door. ‘Ah, Bookey,’ said Brom. ‘I was just trying to persuade Judith to give you their honey badger.’ But Judith was already shaking her head. ‘I’d be happy to get rid of it tomorrow, but for some reason Jack likes the little stinker and won’t let me. I’ve told him, though, if it destroys anything in my house, I’m going to stick a .22 up its backside.’

The honey badger’s mother had been carrying her baby in her mouth when a visiting hunter decided that she would make an interesting addition to his trophy room – which is how safari operators Judith and Jack had come upon the orphaned cub. I told Judith that if they changed their minds, we’d love to have him. We had been taking in vulnerable animals at Stone Hills, the sanctuary we set up as a sideline to our safari guide business, for years. Three weeks later he was ours.

But what was I letting myself in for? Described by safari author Robert Ruark as ‘the meanest animal in the world’, the honey badger is reputed to attack big game – even buffalo – by biting the groin and genitals, leaving the animal to bleed to death. Or so popular wisdom has it in Africa.

Badge playing in the nature reserve

There was a babble of excited voices coming from Brom’s office the day we picked him up and my first thought was that the badger had amputated someone’s fingers through the bars of the cage. ‘Ah, sweet!’ said one female voice. ‘Now let me hold him,’ demanded another.

We found a crush of adoring women gathered around a small cardboard box containing a black-and-white creature around the size of a Jack Russell puppy. He was whimpering while one of the women tickled his head.

Suffering from diarrhoea and still unable to walk, the tiny badger – barely a month old – had had trouble feeding and was weak.

The cardboard box lay by my side of the bed for that first night and many nights thereafter, the badger curled up on a nest of soft towels covering a hot-water bottle, with a blanket draped over the top for darkness and warmth.

For night feeds there were sterilised bottles, milk formula, flasks of boiling water, baby food, vitamin and mineral supplements. When the cub stirred and squeaked I put my hands under the blanket and lifted his warm little body out of the box.

first he lay prone like a bit of flotsam washed up on a beach, and then with a mighty effort he paddled forward a few inches. On the third day he managed to get to his feet, where he swayed back and forth before falling flat on his face.

Honey badgers are formally attired – pure black below with woolly legs and a short tail, and a pale-grey mantle above, rimmed with pure white. Rather like a skunk, they can spray a stream of foul-smelling liquid when threatened but it’s his unpredictable temperament, powerful jaws and sharp teeth that have earned him his spine-chilling reputation.

I was sitting in the shade with the baby Badger dozing on my lap a few days after he had arrived. ‘Ruthie!’ I called, spotting our cook. ‘Could you sit with him while I go inside? He’s very nervous if he’s left on his own.’

Badge the honey badger had a few lessons to learn as a cub, one of them not to fight with poisonous snakes. But Badge could dish out a few nips of his own too

Moments later, I heard an escalating roar as though someone had fired up a Harley Davidson in the backyard. Badger, who could barely stand, was up on trembling legs quivering with fury. Eyes popping, pink mouth wide open, tail up and bristling like a toilet brush, he bawled his rage inches away from a grey-faced Ruthie. And there was an appalling smell around him as his scent glands kicked in for the first time.

I squatted down next to him and very gingerly put out my hand. Only when it was right by his nose did the roars begin to subside into growls and finally into pathetic squeaks. Then, suddenly, Baby Badger was with us again, collapsed and shuddering in my arms.

Badge being bottle fed as a cub

‘Honey badgers don’t like surprises,’ I read later that day. Never again did we approach him without first calling his name and then slowly putting a reassuring hand to his nose.

For the first week or so, I carted Badge around in a portable dog box but we then adapted our spare room for him, laying a green tarpaulin on the floor, with his box in one corner and a few toys scattered about.

He settled in to his nursery well and life with baby Badge soon fell into a pattern. I’d get his evening meal of chicken or wildebeest ready in advance, put it down on his bedroom floor and open the veranda door, calling, ‘Supper!’, which galvanised him into motion.

“Don’t let him dominate you!’ we were warned at the beginning. ‘If he tries, pin his head on the ground with your finger and growl.’ Somehow, I couldn’t imagine it was going to be that easy”

The daily routines were simple in his infancy. I’d wake him by singing, ‘Good morning! Good morning!’ at the door, very softly, wait for him to finish his three yawns and three stretches, then go in and cuddle him for a while before giving him his bottle.

And at night, after the Teddy Bears’ Picnic and a few prayers I’d tuck him up in his blankets and creep out. Every day we saw changes as the helpless little blob began to wake up and grow into his reputation.

I had read that sometimes honey badgers could fly into ‘fury moods of an unusually intense blind ferocity’, but never once did our cub show signs of moodiness or unpredictability.

He was the most amenable little fellow, provided we followed the code of the badgers. Never surprise me, never, try to take something away from me, especially food, and what is yours becomes mine the minute I steal it from you. And if you try to challenge me I will bite you.

Badge hiding in a rock hole

When he was still very tiny Grant Neilson paid us a visit. As Bulawayo’s foremost animal rescue man, Grant knew how to behave. He sat down cross-legged and waited for Badge to come to him. And after much sniffing and a few false starts, our cub wobbled over and climbed on to his lap. Grant stroked his back. ‘Hard to believe all those nasty stories about them, isn’t it?’ he said. Suddenly, Badger stiffened and began to growl.

Grant whipped his hands away and looked down, horrified, at the bristling little beast now straddling the most vulnerable part of his anatomy. Earlier, I had laughingly repeated the fantastical stories of badgers ripping into the scrotum of animals as large as buffalo, and even of humans who had supposedly crossed them. How ridiculous!

‘Grant, what do you have in your pocket?’ I asked. ‘C-c-car keys,’ he said trembling, ‘and, um, a packet of cigarettes. He’s standing on them. They’re in the pouch in front of my tracksuit.’ ‘He’s after the fags, must be the smell. Right, as quick as you can, pull them out and stand up.’

Unwinding himself with the speed of a Chinese acrobat, Grant deposited a snarling Badger on the floor and hurled the keys and cigarettes over the half-door of the bedroom. And, almost immediately, Badge forgot what all the fuss was about and clambered back into my lap for a cuddle.

A badger’s strength of will and absolute determination to get what he wants (and keep it) can be likened to a two-year-old child at a sweet counter. Ankle-biters, the Australians call them.

A few months later, Badge really did become an ankle-biter. Every morning he’d be waiting for us on the other side of the door with his mouth open in readiness to attach himself to your shoe or, worse, to your Achilles tendon, into which he would sink his sharp little teeth. Once you were on the ground, he would wrap all four legs tightly around your arm and start to chew away on your funny-bone.

Dislodging him was like trying to unwrap an octopus – as soon as you prised one leg off, another one would grab hold of you. ‘Don’t let him dominate you!’ we were warned at the beginning. ‘If he tries, pin his head on the ground with your finger and growl.’ Somehow, I couldn’t imagine it was going to be quite that easy.

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