Have You Heard the One About the Hitch-Hiking Hyrax?

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The Cape of Good Hope SPCA Wildlife Department has been receiving a lot of phone calls and emails from people contacting us about dassies in their Daewoos, hyraxes in their Hi-Luxes and otherwise big brown rodents in their Range Rovers. Why are dassies so keen on hitching rides in our cars all of a sudden?

In South Africa, we know them by their Afrikaans name “dassie” (‘das’ meaning ‘badger’ in Dutch), while elsewhere they go by the more formal name of rock hyrax (Procavia capensis).

Whatever name you call them by, one thing remains certain: these cute and curious critters are hitching rides in our cars, trucks and even sometimes trains, in numbers never seen before…

The Cape of Good Hope SPCA Wildlife Department responds to around three calls a month from people arriving home from a weekend get-away only to see a dassie darting out from underneath their car the moment they pull up and park in the drive. If the horrified holidaymakers haven’t actually seen a dassie alighting from their vehicles, they have noticed a strange and “pungent” odour emanating from beneath their cars’ bonnet and on closer inspection discovered a dassie midden (fancy name for an animal’s toilet) in their motor.

In the latest case of daring dassies, a family in Ottery returned from a fun weekend away to find not one but four dassies of different ages having stowed away in their Fortuna’s engine compartment!

SPCA Wildlife Office Jon Friedman explains: “Dassies are cave dwellers; they are attracted to dark, cavernous spaces that offer them safety and good cover from predators (such as birds of prey, snakes and caracals.) Add in warmth, easy access and a labyrinth of pipes, wires and bulky engine parts to hide behind and your car’s motor bay is a very attractive option for a dassie. Until you start driving…”

“Dassies are also extremely territorial creatures,” adds Friedman.

“They live in communal colonies comprising several families ruled over by a dominant male and his harem of females and their kids. Young dassies engage in games of chase which may see the game spilling out of the colony and into your car’s engine bay. Older dassies may be chased out of the colony by a dominant member, your car’s chassis providing a convenient safe space in which to hide.”

What to do if you find a dassie in your Datsun?

It may be impossible to safely extricate the dassie from your car’s engine (too many small places to hide), where our hands and nets just can’t reach but it is possible to lure them out with a tasty treat (dassies cannot resist peanut butter or fresh carrots), once they get hungry.

It is then possible to trap the dassie in a box or cat trap as it ventures from the safety of the car engine.

Dassies can bite so take care if you have to handle one.

Another option to prise a dassie from your Prius is to use a spray bottle with some water in it to spritz the dassie.

Once a dassie feels that an engine is no longer a safe place to be, it will bail out from the Beemer on its own.

Just be careful as dassies will run from the safety of one car to the safety of the next closest one parked nearby, transferring the problem from one car to another.

Do not drive the vehicle anywhere for a day or two at least to give the dassie time to leave the vehicle on its own.

Dassies can get seriously hurt in your car’s engine once you turn the key; burns from hot components, engine fumes and mechanical risk of injury are all present dangers to a stowaway dassie.

You’ve managed to safely catch the dassie, now what?

Is it possible to release a dassie anywhere in the wild?   

No! Unless you are absolutely, 100% certain where the dassie came from and the exact spot where it climbed into your car, chances of releasing him successfully back into the wild anywhere but in that exact same spot it came from are slim to none.

A dassie released into an area he is not from will cause the other resident dassies in that area to viciously attack and seek to kill the “intruder”, resulting in a terrifying and gruesome death for the newcomer.

It’s not yet certain whether dassies are hitchhiking on purpose but we have seen dassies popping up out of stormwater drains (where they seem to be capable of making themselves very much at home, thank you!) in very urban neighbourhoods where they should not be!

So, the next time you get back home from that good time in Goudini or that lovely sojourn in the Cedarberg only to see a furry brown flash darting from beneath your vehicle, call your nearest SPCA. 

Here are some interesting things you might not know about our dassie friends:

  • – Dassies are the closest living relative of African elephants (manatees and dugongs too)!
  • – Dassies are able to scale vertical rock surfaces with speed thanks to the presence of special glands on the soles of their feet that secrete a substance giving them extra cling power.
  • – Dassies are found across the African continent and into the Middle East.
  • – Dassies have a wide vocabulary and will use grunts, squeaks, barks and snorts to communicate, sometimes over long distances.
  • – Dassies can live up to ten years in the wild.
  • – Dassie meat is quite sought after in some rural areas across our continent.
  • – Dassies themselves are vegetarians, eating a wide range of plants including some plant types that are considered poisonous to other animals.
  • – Baby dassies are born between September and October in the Western Cape. They are born fully furred with all their teeth in place and their eyes fully open.
  • – Dassie excrement is an ingredient in some fancy perfumes! Fossilised urine and faeces (in the form of a hard black substance called Hyraceum or “dassiepis”) is scraped off rock cliffs and the floor of caves of colonies where it has built up over hundreds or even thousands of years. Back in the perfume factory, it is dissolved in alcohol where it is then added to expensive perfumes (expect to pay as much as R1 500 for 50 ml of good quality hyraceum!)

Listen to our recent interview on Cape Talk radio talking about dassies in motor cars

The Cape of Good Hope SPCA Wildlife Department responds to around three calls a month from people arriving home from a weekend get-away only to see a dassie darting out from underneath their car the moment they pull up and park in the drive.

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