War with the Newts

Chapter 9 - Andrew Scheuchzer

One Thursday morning, when the London Zoo was closed to the public, it so happened that Mr Thomas Greggs, a keeper in the Lizard House, was cleaning out the tanks and enclosures of his charges. He was alone in the salamander section, whose exhibits consisted of the Japanese Giant Salamander, the American Heilbender, Andrias Scheuchzeri, and a great number of lesser newts, salamanders, axolotis, eels, sirenia and amphibians, pleurodeles and branchiates. Mr Greggs was busying himself with a broom and a cloth, and whistling Annie Laurie, when suddenly somebody behind him spoke with a croak.

'Look, mummy.'

Mr Thomas Greggs looked round, but there was nobody there; only the hellbender was smacking about in its swampy pool, and that big newt, that Andrias, was leaning with his forepaws on the edge of the tank and twisting its body. Must have dreamt it, thought Mr Greggs, and went on sweeping the floor for all he was worth.

'Look, a newt,' came a voice from behind him.

Mr Greggs spun round; that black newt, that Andrias, was looking at him, blinking its lower lids.

'Yuk, isn't it ugly?' the newt suddenly said. 'Let's go on, darling.'

Mr Greggs's mouth gaped in amazement. 'What's that?'

'Does it bite?' the newt croaked.

'You . . . you can talk?' stammered Mr Greggs, not believing his senses.

'I'm scared of it,' the newt jerked out. 'Mummy, what does it eat?'

'Say good morning,' said the startled Mr Greggs.

The newt twisted its body. 'Good morning,' it croaked. 'Good morning. Good morning. Can I feed him some cake?'

Confused, Mr Greggs fished into his pocket and produced a piece of roll. 'Here you are.

The newt took the roll in its paw and started to nibble it. 'Look, a newt,' it grunted contentedly. 'Daddy, why is he so black?' Suddenly it slipped into the water, leaving only its head sticking out. 'Why is he in the water? Why? Yuk, isn't he horrid?'

Mr Thomas Greggs scratched his neck in surprise. I see, it repeats what it hears people say. 'Say Greggs,' he tried.

'Say Greggs,' the newt repeated.

'Mister Thomas Greggs.'

'Mister Thomas Greggs.'

'Good morning, sir.

'Good morning, sir. Good morning. Good morning, sir.' It seemed the newt would never tire of talking; but Mr Thomas Greggs was not a very talkative person. 'OK, now you shut up,' he said. 'And when I'm through I'll teach you to talk.'

'OK, now you shut up,' the newt mumbled. 'Good morning, sir. Look, a newt. I'll teach you to talk.'

However, the Zoo management did not like the keepers to teach their animals any tricks; an elephant was different, but the rest of the animals were there for instructional purposes and not to perform any circus tricks. That was why Mr Greggs spent his time in the salamander section more or less surreptitiously, when everybody had left. As he was a widower nobody thought his recluse's life in the Reptile House at all odd. Everyone had his hobbies. Besides, the salamander section was not visited by a lot of people: the crocodile might enjoy universal popularity, but Andrias Scheuchzeri spent his days in relative seclusion.

One day -- it was beginning to get dark -- Sir Charles Wiggam, the Director of the Zoo, was touring some of the houses to make sure everything was all right. As he passed through the salamander section there was a splash in one of the tanks and somebody said in a croaking voice: 'Good evening, sir.

'Good evening,' the Director replied in surprise. 'Who's that?'

'Excuse me, sir,' said the croaking voice. 'This isn't Mr Greggs.'

'Who's that?' the Director repeated.

'Andy. Andrew Scheuchzer.'

Sir Charles walked up closer to the tank. There was only one erect and motionless newt sitting there. 'Who spoke?'

'Andy, sir,' the newt said. 'Who are you?'

'Wiggam,' Sir Charles blurted out in amazement.

'Delighted,' Andrias said politely. 'How are you?'

'Dammit,' Sir Charles roared. 'Greggs! I say, Greggs!' The newt flipped over and like lightning hid in the water.

Mr Thomas Greggs burst in, breathless and worried. 'Yes, sir?'

'Greggs, what's the meaning of this?' Sir Charles began.

'Is anything wrong, sir?' Mr Greggs stammered nervously.

'This animal here talks!'

'I'm sorry, sir,' Mr Greggs said, crestfallen. 'We shouldn't do that, Andy. I've told you a thousand times we don't annoy people with our chattering. I beg your pardon, sir, it won't happen again.'

'Was it you who taught this newt to talk?'

'But he started it, sir,' Greggs defended himself.

'I hope this won't happen again, Greggs,' Sir Charles said severely. 'I'll have my eye on you.'

Some time later Sir Charles was sitting beside Professor Petrov: they were discussing so-called animal intelligence, conditioned reflexes, and how popular belief overrated the intellectual activity of animals. Professor Petrov expressed his doubts about the Elberfeld horses which were credited with being able not only to do sums but to raise numbers to a higher power and find square roots; after all, how many normal educated people could do square roots, said the great scientist. Sir Charles remembered Greggs's talking newt. 'I've got a newt here,' he began hesitantly, 'it's that famous Andrias Scheuchzeri, and it's learned to talk like a parrot.'

'Impossible,' said the scientist. 'Surely newts have a reflexed tongue.'

'Why don't you come along and look,' said Sir Charles. 'It's cleaning day today, so the place won't be full of people.' And off they went.

At the entrance to the salamanders Sir Charles stopped. From inside they could hear the scratching of a broom and a monotonous voice awkwardly articulating something.

'Wait,' whispered Sir Charles Wiggam.

'IS MARS INHABITED?' the monotonous voice articulated. 'Want me to read that?'

'Something else, Andy,' replied another voice.


'Pelham Beauty will,' said the other voice. 'But read on.'

Sir Charles quietly opened the door. Mr Thomas Greggs was sweeping the floor with his broom; in the little pool sat Andrias Scheuchzeri, slowly and croakingly reading from an evening paper he was holding in his front paws.

'Greggs,' Sir Charles called out. The newt flicked its body and disappeared under the water.

Mr Greggs dropped his broom with fright. 'Yes, sir?'

'What is the meaning of this?'

'I beg your pardon, sir,' the unhappy Greggs stammered. 'Andy is reading to me while I do the sweeping. And when he sweeps I read to him.'

'Who taught him that?'

'He learns by himself by just watching, sir. I . . . I give him my paper so he doesn't talk so much. He was always wanting to talk, sir. So I thought he might as well learn to speak proper like - '

'Andy,' Sir Charles called out.

The black head appeared out of the water. 'Yes, sir,' it croaked.

'Professor Petrov here has come to take a look at you.

'Pleased to meet you, sir. I'm Andy Scheuchzer.'

'How d'you know your name is Andrias Scheuchzer?'

'Why, it's written up here, sir. Andreas Scheuchzer, Gilbert Islands.'

'D'you read the paper often?'

'Yes, sir. Every day, sir.'

'And what interests you most in it?'

'Police Court news, horse racing, football -'

'Have you ever seen a football match?'

'No, sir.'

'Or a horse?'

'No, sir.'

'So why do you read about it?'

'Because it's in the paper, sir.

'You're not interested in politics?'


'No one can tell, Andy.'


'You read that in the paper, didn't you?' asked Sir Charles.


'What do you think, Andy?'

'Gobernador, sir. But Mr Greggs thinks Pelham Beauty.'


'Thank you, Andy. That will do.'


Professor Petrov's hair and beard were bristling. 'Excuse me, Sir Charles,' he muttered, 'but I must be off.'

'Very well, we'll go. Andy, would you mind if I sent a few learned gentlemen to take a look at you? I think they would like to talk to you?'

'I shall be delighted, sir,' the newt croaked. 'Good-bye, Sir Charles. Good-bye, professor.'

Professor Petrov was hurrying away, snorting and muttering with irritation. 'Forgive me, Sir Charles,' he said at last. 'But couldn't you show me some animal that doesn't read the paper?'

The learned gentlemen were Sir John Bertram, D.M., Professor Ebbigham, Sir Oliver Dodge, Julian Foxley and others. We quote part of the report on their experiment with Andrias Scheuchzer.

What is your name?

A.: Andrew Scheuchzer.

How old are you?

A.: I don't know. Do you want to look young? Wear a Libella bra.

What is today's date?

A.: Monday. Lovely weather, sir. Gibraltar will be running at Epsom this Saturday.

How much is three times five?

A.: Why?

Can you do arithmetic?

A.: Yes, sir. How much is seventeen times twenty-nine?

We shall ask the questions, Andrew. Give us the names of some English rivers.

A.: The Thames .

Any more?

A.: The Thames.

You don't know any others, do you? Who reigns over England?

A.: King George. God bless him.

Well done, Andy. Who is the greatest English writer?

A.: Kipling.

Very good. Have you read anything by him?

A.: No. How do you like Mae West?

We will ask the questions, Andy. What do you know of English history?

A.: Henry the Eighth.

What do you know about him?

A.: Best film in recent years. Marvellous decor. Terrific spectacle.

Have you seen it?

A.:I haven't. Want to see England? Buy a Baby Ford.

What would you most like to see, Andy?

A.: The Oxford-Cambridge boat race, sir.

How many continents are there?

A.: Five.

Very good. Which are they?

A.: England and the rest.

Which are the rest?

A.: The Bolsheviks and the Germans. And Italy.

Where are the Gilbert Islands?

A.: In England. England will not tie herself to the Continent. England needs ten thousand aircraft. Visit the English south coast.

May we look at your tongue, Andy?

A.: Yes, sir. Brush your teeth with Fresh. It saves you money, it's the best, and it's British. Do you want perfumed breath? Use Fresh toothpaste.

Thank you, that will do. And now tell us, Andy . . .

And so on. The report of the conversation with Andrias Scheuchzer ran to sixteen full pages and was published in Natural Science. At the end of the report the expert commission summed up the results of its experiment in these words:

(I) Andrias Scheuchzeri, the salamander kept at the London Zoo, can talk, though with something of a croak; it has a vocabulary of about four hundred words; it says what it has heard or read. There can, of course, be no suggestion of independent thought. Its tongue is sufficiently flexible; in the circumstances it was not possible to examine its vocal cords more closely.

(2) The same salamander can read, though only the evening papers. It is interested in the same things as the average Englishman and reacts to them in a similar manner, i.e. in the direction of established general views. Its intellectual life - in so far as one may speak of any - consists precisely of ideas and opinions current at the present time.

(3) There is absolutely no need to overrate its intelligence, since in no respect does it exceed the intelligence of the average person of our time.

In spite of this sober assessment by the experts the talking newt became the sensation of the London Zoo. Darling Andy was besieged by people anxious to discuss with him anything, from the weather to the economic recession and the political situation. In consequence he received so much chocolate and sweets from his visitors that he became seriously ill with an inflammation of the stomach and the intestines. In the end, the salamander section had to closed, but by then it was too late: Andrias Scheuchzeri, known as Andy, died of the consequences of his popularity. As can be seen, fame demoralises even newts.