My establishment is fortunate enough to hold one of the largest primate collections in Western Europe. Recently I was able to witness some previously undocumented behaviours from one of our most unusual occupants….
“And last but not least,” said Poppy, “this is our Sherlock.”
The Sherlock was standing on the top of an outcrop of rocks to one side of his enclosure, staring out over the zoo in a dramatic fashion. Posing, thought Poppy privately. Despite the lack of breeze his coat and scarf swirled around him as though caught up in a storm. No one had been able to work out how he did it.
“Oh I’ve heard about him,” said Emma. “He’s the only one in captivity isn’t he?”
Emma was a summer intern from the local University. She was keen and enthusiastic and shiny in a way Poppy supposed they must all have been once.
“As far as we know he’s the only one ever,” said Poppy. “And given he hardly ever eats, it’s amazing he’s made it to adulthood.”
Emma shaded her eyes and squinted upwards. “He looks healthy enough,” she said.
Poppy nodded. Dark haired with striking pale eyes and a magnificent coat, the Sherlock was undoubtedly a charismatic beast. It was a shame he lacked even basic self-preservation skills - compared to him the giant pandas had been a doddle.
There was a commotion to the far side of the enclosure as four men carried in a large crate. Up on his outcrop, the Sherlock cast a quick look over his shoulder before resuming his survey of his territory.
“Oh, I thought you might like to see this,” said Poppy. “Sherlocks don’t seem to be deliberately vicious, but they do become destructive if they’re bored.” This was a considerable understatement; the zoo was on its third Sherlock enclosure already. “We’re trying him with a variety of companions to see if that keeps him entertained.”
The crate opened and a small beige creature emerged, sneezed and stumped its way out into the open.
Emma leaned forward. “That’s a Watson isn’t it?”
Poppy smiled. “That’s right. Did you learn about them at all?”
“Found across three continents, diurnal, omnivorous…” Emma shook her head, “that’s about it really.”
“Well that is it for the most part: they forage and then they sit and then they forage and then they sit some more. They're fierce if attacked but if you don’t bother them they won’t bother you. This one’s a John Watson: you can tell by the characteristic jumper and his upright posture. He’s a little bit older, seems quite sedate. We’re hoping he calms the Sherlock down.”
“Do you think the Sherlock’s spotted him?” said Emma. “He doesn’t seem to be paying much attention.”
“Oh I would think so,” said Poppy dryly. “There’s not much that gets past the Sherlock. Can you see what he’s done?”
“No?” said Emma uncertainly.
“Have a look through my binoculars,” Poppy passed them over.
Emma looked through them frowning, then smiled. “He’s turned up his collar,” she said. “Is that a good sign?”
“Probably,” said Poppy. She didn’t think anyone was familiar enough with Sherlocks to say for certain but she was fairly sure that the lack of explosions (and no one was quite sure how the Sherlock managed those either) boded well.
The John ambled around the enclosure for a while then sat himself in a warm spot in the sun and blinked at them. Close up he was a droll little fellow with tufty hair and a twinkle in his eye.
“Would you like to feed him?” said Poppy. “I’ve got some snacks here if you want.”
Emma looked doubtful. “Is he safe?”
“Oh yes. Watsons are pretty good natured as a rule. As long as you don’t back him into a corner you’ll be fine.”
“What do you give them?”
“Milky tea, mostly. And this one has a particular fondness for bourbon biscuits.”
Emma took the offered thermos and packet of biscuits, waited for Poppy to unlock the gate and placed them carefully on the ground a few metres from the John. He watched politely until she’d left the enclosure then scooped them up, sat back down on his smooth piece of rock and tucked in with small hums of contentment.
“Oh,” said Emma. “He’s quite sweet.”
Poppy privately agreed. As senior keeper in charge of primates she wasn’t supposed to have favourites, but she’d always had a soft spot for the Watsons who were friendly, sensible creatures on the whole with the wherewithal to eat and mate of their own volition without driving the entire large mammal department to a nervous breakdown.
“The Sherlock’s coming,” said Emma suddenly and indeed the Sherlock was descending from his rock ledge at speed. “Are they going to fight?”
Poppy reached for her radio, uncertain. The Sherlock wasn’t usually physically aggressive, preferring instead to snarl at interlopers before ignoring them totally. Things had got a bit touch-and-go between him and the Anderson though: they'd snapped at each other for a good hour before the zoo staff had managed to separate them. In the ensuing melee the Sherlock had been hit in the left buttock by a tranquilliser dart and had refused to come out of his den for almost a week afterwards. She'd aged about a decade in the interim.
Before she could call for back-up, the Sherlock came to an abrupt quivering halt two metres away from where they were standing. The John looked up, noticed him for the first time, made a friendly noise and offered him a bourbon. Poppy held her breath. The Sherlock looked at the John, looked at the biscuit, looked back at the John, snatched the biscuit and retreated to a safe distance to nibble on it cautiously.
“Well,” breathed Poppy. “I’ve never seen him do that before. What are you playing at Sherlock?”
For a few minutes there was silence as the John sipped his tea while the Sherlock watched him intently. Then the Sherlock gave a low call, turned half away, looked back over his shoulder and began to twirl. He started off slowly but soon picked up speed, coat billowing open to reveal his soft blue undercoat and vibrant purple breast.
The John stared transfixed, biscuit halfway to mouth.
“What’s he doing?” whispered Emma.
“It’s a courting display,” said Poppy, suddenly certain. “Look he’s taking his scarf off,” and indeed the Sherlock had whisked off his scarf and was strutting back and forth, showing off his long pale throat.
“Are Sherlocks gay then?”
“Who knows?” said Poppy excited; this was worth a letter to Nature at least, maybe even an article. “He’s never shown any interest in anything like that before. Stay there, take a note of everything. I’m going to get a camera.”
When she returned five minutes later the John was still on his rock, surrounded by several piles of newspaper, a human skull and what looked suspiciously like Poppy’s old pair of binoculars. The Sherlock was sitting very close to him and chattering in a low voice. Occasionally the John would interject with soft cries and the Sherlock would break off to preen.
“The Sherlock’s been dashing backwards and forwards to a crack in the rocks and keeps bringing things out for the John to look at,” said Emma. “Where did he get a skull from though?”
“Oh, we've tried all kinds of things to keep him occupied,” said Poppy. “Anything else?”
“Well, I’m not completely sure, but I think he's started winking….”
The courting went on for hours. Every so often the Sherlock would break off his chatter to twirl around the enclosure while the John watched in silent admiration. Then, as the sun began to set, the Sherlock took his new companion by the hand and led him towards the crack in the rocks.
“Do you think they’re going to…?” said Emma.
“One way of finding out,” said Poppy. “We’ve got infra-red in the den.” She’d insisted on it after the Anderson debacle.
They made it to the keepers’ office in time to see the John and Sherlock crawl through the entrance. They nuzzled together for a few moments before the Sherlock shed his outer coat and laid it on the cavern floor. In the infra-red light his eyes shone strangely. Two seconds later the feed went dead.
“Little bugger,” said Poppy with feeling. The Sherlock had always struck her as too clever by half.
When they emerged the next morning the Sherlock was looking especially sleek and the John’s hair was tuftier than previously. They spent the day lazing in the sun and eating bourbons. If they went on like this Poppy thought, it might not be too bad after all....
Unfortunately the following day we found the gate blasted open and the enclosure empty. Despite our best efforts we have been unable to locate either the Sherlock or his companion John Watson.
For the time being therefore the mating behaviours, if any, of this most elusive of British animals must remain shrouded in mystery.
I remain, yours faithfully
Senior keeper (Primates)