English : First Flight

Chapter 6 Mijbil the Otter

-by Gavin Maxwell


“Mijbil the Otter” is an account of the relationship between a pet and his master. A pet otter named Mijbil, filled the void created in his master. Maxwell’s life due to the death of his dog, Jonnie. Maxwell relates interesting accounts about how he obtained Mijbil, how the two of them travelled from Iraq to England, the domestication of Mijbil and the general unawareness of people about otters.


Maxwell travelled to Southern Iraq early in 1956. He had recently lost his dear dog, Jonnie and he was too sad to keep another dog as a pet. At this time, he thought about experimenting to keep an otter as a pet. Maxwell used to live in Camusfearna which was close to water and appeared to be a suitable place for keeping this sea animal. He mentioned this idea to one of his friends who had accompanied him to Iraq. The friend advised Maxwell to find an otter from the Tigris marshes, a place thathad countless otters often tamed by Arabs.

Maxwell and his friend were on their way to Basra to the Consulate General to collect and answer their mail from Europe. It so happened that his friend’s mail had arrived but Maxwell had to wait for his mail for another five days. Meanwhile his friend left and when Maxwell returned with his mail to his room, he found two Arabs waiting for him. They handed him a note from his friend which said “Here is your otter…”. The otter was in a sack. On opening it, Maxwell saw the animal which appeared to him like a very small, medievally conceived, dragon. It was thoroughly mud-smeared and Maxwell took a month to remove all the traces of mud from its chocolate coloured coat. Maxwell named the otter, Mijbil.

Mij remained aloof during the first twenty-four hours. He slept on the floor as far as possible from Maxwell. However, he soon became quite friendly and the very next day, hopped into Maxwell’s bed and slept in the crook of his knees. Maxwell then made a body-belt for him and led him to the bathroom. The sight of water brought immense joy to Mijbil. He rolled and plunged in the bathtub, creating quite a commotion. By observing Mijbil’s behaviour in water. Maxwell learnt that playing with water is a characteristic of otters. They love to splash it around and cannot resist the sight of it. Two days after Mij’s first visit to the bathroom. Maxwell was surprised to see that he had not only managed to get into the bathroom but had also turned the tap on with his paws. Soon, Mij learnt to follow his master without a lead and started responding to his name.

Mijbil enjoyed playing with a rubber ball, dribbling it all over the room and throwing it up powerfully to a great distance. At times, he would lie on his back and roll two or more marbles on his belly without letting them fall off his body. Then it was time to leave Basra.

Maxwell was worried about transporting his pet otter to England since the British airline to London did not fly animals. So, he had to book a flight via France and even this flight required the otter to be flown in an ‘eighteen by eighteen’ inches box to be placed on the floor at the passenger’s feet. Maxwell got this box ready and put Mij into it an hour before leaving for the airport to familiarize him with the closed area. Then he left to have a quick meal.

However, on his return, he was shocked to see that the otter had badly ripped the inner lining of the box and had injured himself in a bid to wriggle out. It took Max a long time to remove the shredded lining of the box. He then put Mij back into the box and made the driver of his car rush to the airport at a bullet’s speed. He was left with barely ten minutes to cover the distance of five miles to the airport. On reaching there, he found the aircraft waiting to take off. The angry officials rushed Maxwell through.

However, Maxwell felt lucky as he had been booked a seat at the extreme front. He covered the floor around his feet with newspapers and shared his worries about Mij with an airhostess. She suggested to try carrying the pet on his knee. Max was overwhelmed at this suggestion but little did he know that an otter out of the box could be difficult to manage.

As soon as Max opened the box, Mij dashed towards the seated passengers and created anawful confusion and panic in the aircraft. It wasn’t easy to get him back to his place, but fortunately he soon returned on his own and snuggled up to Max.

Mijbil lived with Maxwell in his flat in London for nearly a month. The pet otter would keep himself busy and entertained with different ‘toys’ like ping-pong balls, marbles, rubber fruit, and a terrapin shell. He would invent his own games that would keep him occupied for up to half an hour at a time. Maxwell exercised Mijbil on a lead like a dog.

The otter developed certain ‘compulsive habits’ while walking in the streets of London with his master. On his way home after the walk, he would jump on the low wall of the single-storied primary school opposite Maxwell’s flat. This would distract the students as well as the teachers because Mij would gallop the full length of thirty yards.

Another thing that Maxwell learnt was that an average Londoner is unfamiliar with otters. He was really amused at the wild guesses people in the streets made about Mijbil’s species. Some thought it to be a baby seal while others thought it to be a squirrel. Still others guessed that it was a beaver, a walrus, a bear cub, a leopard or even a hippopotamus. The most surprising was when a labourer digging a hole in the street laid down his tool, stared at the otter and inquired from Maxwell “what is that supposed to be?”


“Mijbil the Otter” is an apt title for the chapter, as it informs the reader about Mijbil, the otter. The author describes the sequence of events that first led him to keep an otter as a pet and then the strong bond of trust and love that developed between the two of them. He presents insightful information about Mijbil’s likes and dislikes, its irresistible desire to play with water, its eventful journey in a plane, and the curiosity it aroused in the onlookers.

Thus the chapter deals with nothing else except the otter and its pranks. So, “Mijbil the Otter” is a befitting title for the write-up.


The account “Mijbil the Otter” is based on the theme that keeping a pet is a serious responsibility, especially if the pet is an unusual animal like an otter. The author, Gavin Maxwell, introduces the reader to the habitat of this quaint animal, its characteristic love for water, its playful nature, and its love for toys. He also informs that otters are intelligent enough to invent games of their own and are very affectionate. In this way, he elaborates the theme of caring about pets by sharing his experiences.


The chapter “Mijbil the Otter” gives its readers the message that animals respond to love and tender care shown to them by human beings. The author wins over the confidence of Mijbil, his pet otter, by looking after him in an affectionate and loving way. He ensures the otter’s safety and provides him a suitable environment. The otter responds to the kindness of his master by surrendering himself fully.

Gradually, a strong bond of trust and love is built between the animal and his owner that brings immense mutual joy. The playful antics of an unusual and unpleasant looking creature endear him not only to his master but also to the onlookers.


The entire account is replete with subtle homour. This humour arises out of the interpretation done by the author. Maxwell, of the situations in which he finds himself because of his pet otter. His ‘thraldom’ amuses the reader endlessly. The manner, in which the otter is ‘presented’ to him in a sack, is funny. Adapting to its new environment by Mijbil is not only interesting but also humorous. Its childlike activities in the bathtub as well as the commotion it creates in the aeroplane give rise to abundant laughter. The manner in which he gallops the low boundary wall of the school is really funny. Besides, the wild guesses that the Londoners make about the species of Mijbil is yet another source of humour. People think him to be anything but an otter. Some consider him to a baby seal while others think that he is a squirrel. Still others guess that he is a beaver, a walrus, a bear cub, a leopard or even a hippopotamus.


Gavin Maxwell

  • Maxwell is a great lover of pets. So much so, that he finds it very difficult to accept the death of his pet dog, Jonnie. But he is an animal lover in the true sense. That is why he opts to keep an unusual animal like an otter as his pet. Maxwell is also a responsible and a caring pet owner. He looks after Mijbil, the otter, with a great sense of dedication.
  • He makes sure that he is comfortable and happy at all times. Maxwell is highly observant and trains the otter carefully allowing him to enjoy. He lets Mij play in the bathtub and splash water as much as he liked. His skill as a trainer of animals can be noted from the fact that a mute being begins to trust him completely.
  • Another trait of Maxwell’s character is that he has immense patience. When his mail doesn’t arrive in time at the Consulate in Iraq, he waits for five days without complaints or cribbing. Again, when people make weird queries about Mij, he does not get irritated but is rather amused.
  • Maxwell has yet another sterling quality – he does not panic even in difficult situations. So, whether he is dangerously late for the airport, or is running a race against time hurriedly ripping the shredded inner lining of a box, or is chasing Mijbil in the aircraft, he always keeps his cool.
  • At no stage does he get irritated with Mij, despite being embarrassed and putto inconvenience by Iris naughty little pet.

Pen Portrait of Mijbil

Mijbil is a cautious, naughty and playful otter. He doesn’t like the idea of being put in a sack when he is brought to Maxwell. He squirms and wriggles inside it till he is released. Although he adapts well to his new surroundings, still he takes some time before building trust for his owner. Initially, he views Maxwell with a sense of suspicion and stays aloof for an entire day. However, he intelligently assesses that his new owner would not harm him, so he climbs on to his bed and sleeps in the crook of his knees.

Mijbil is a sharp learner. He starts responding to Maxwell’s tender care and begins to understand Iris commands within two days. He is very smart and learns to open taps, too. Like other otters, he loves splashing water. He is also asensitive and active animal. He devises his own game with an old suitcase and balls. When put in a small box for his journey by air, Mijbil panics and injures himself while struggling to break open the box. He loves Maxwell and nuzzles his neck in the aeroplane to express his affection.

Although an animal, Mijbil’s temperament is like that of a young child. Like a small boy, he loves playing with toys. He would tug Maxwell to the low wall of the school opposite his flat. He would jump on to it, and gallop its full length of thirty yards distracting the students as well as the teachers. He eventually grows up into an intelligent and a playful creature who could invent his own games, amusing not only himself but also his master.

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