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Ch. 2: The Puma

The Puma has been singularly unfortunate in its biographers. Formerly it
often happened that writers were led away by isolated and highly
exaggerated incidents to attribute very shining qualities to their
favourite animals; the lion of the Old World thus came to be regarded as
brave and I magnanimous above all beasts of the field--the Bayard of the
four-footed kind, a reputation which these prosaic and sceptical times
have not suffered it to keep. Precisely the contrary has happened with
the puma of literature; for, although to those personally acquainted
with the habits of this lesser lion of the New World it is known to
possess a marvellous courage and daring, it is nevertheless
always spoken of in books of natural history as the most pusillanimous
of the larger carnivores. It does not attack man, and Azara is perfectly
correct when he affirms that it never hurts, or threatens to hurt, man
or child, even when it finds them sleeping. This, however, is not a full
statement of the facts; the puma will not even defend itself against
man. How natural, then, to conclude that it is too timid to attack a
human being, or to defend itself, but scarcely philosophical; for even
the most cowardly carnivores we know--dogs and hyaenas, for
instance--will readily attack a disabled or sleeping man when pressed by
hunger; and when driven to desperation no animal is too small or too
feeble to make a show of resistance. In such a case "even the armadillo
defends itself," as the gaucho proverb says. Besides, the conclusion is
in contradiction to many other well-known facts. Putting-aside the
puma's passivity in the presence of man, it is a bold hunter that
invariably prefers large to small game; in desert places killing
peccary, tapir, ostrich, deer, huanaco, &c., all powerful, well-armed,
or swift animals. Huanaco skeletons seen in Patagonia almost invariably
have the neck dislocated, showing that the puma was the executioner.
Those only who have hunted the huanaco on the sterile plains and
mountains it inhabits know how wary, keen-scented, and fleet of foot it
is. I once spent several weeks with a surveying party in a district
where pumas were very abundant, and saw not less than half a dozen deer
every day, freshly killed in most cases, and all with dislocated necks.
Where prey is scarce and difficult to capture, the puma, after
satisfying its hunger, invariably conceals the animal it has killed,
covering it over carefully with grass and brushwood; these deer,
however, had all been left exposed to the caracaras and foxes after a
portion of the breast had been eaten, and in many cases the flesh had
not been touched, the captor having satisfied itself with sucking the
blood. It struck me very forcibly that the puma of the desert pampas is,
among mammals, like the peregrine falcon of the same district among
birds; for there this wide-ranging raptor only attacks comparatively
large birds, and, after fastidiously picking a meal from the flesh of
the head and neck, abandons the untouched body to the polybori and other
hawks of the more ignoble sort.

In pastoral districts the puma is very destructive to the larger
domestic animals, and has an extraordinary fondness for horseflesh. This
was first noticed by Molina, whose _Natural History of Chili_ was
written a century and a half ago. In Patagonia I heard on all sides that
it was extremely difficult to breed horses, as the colts were mostly
killed by the pumas. A native told me that on one occasion, while
driving his horses home through the thicket, a puma sprang out of the
bushes on to a colt following behind the troop, killing it before his
eyes and not more than six yards from his horse's head. In this
instance, my informant said, the puma alighted directly on the colt's
back, with one fore foot grasping its bosom, while with the other it
seized the head, and, giving it a violent wrench, dislocated the neck.
The colt fell to the earth as if shot, and he affirmed that it was dead
before it touched the ground.

Naturalists have thought it strange that the horse, once common
throughout America, should have become extinct over a continent
apparently so well suited to it and where it now multiplies so greatly.
As a fact wherever pumas abound the wild horse of the present time,
introduced from Europe, can hardly maintain its existence. Formerly in
many places horses ran wild and multiplied to an amazing extent, but
this happened, I believe, only in districts where the puma was scarce or
had already been driven out by man. My own experience is that on the
desert pampas wild horses are exceedingly scarce, and from all accounts
it is the same throughout Patagonia.

Next to horseflesh, sheep is preferred, and where the puma can come at a
flock, he will not trouble himself to attack horned cattle. In Patagonia
especially I found this to be the case. I resided for some time at an
estancia close to the town of El Carmen, on the Rio Negro, which during
my stay was infested by a very bold and cunning puma. To protect the
sheep from his attacks an enclosure was made of upright willow-poles
fifteen feet long, while the gate, by which he would have to enter, was
close to the house and nearly six feet high. In spite of the
difficulties thus put in the way, and of the presence of several large
dogs, also of the watch we kept in the hope of shooting him, every
cloudy night he came, and after killing one or more sheep got safely
away. One dark night he killed four sheep; I detected him in the act,
and going up to the gate, was trying to make out his invisible form in
the gloom as he flitted about knocking the sheep over, when suddenly he
leaped clear over my head and made his escape, the bullets I sent after
him in the dark failing to hit him. Yet at this place twelve or fourteen
calves, belonging to the milch cows, were every night shut into a small
brushwood pen, at a distance from the house where the enemy could easily
have destroyed every one of them. When I expressed surprise at this
arrangement, the owner said that the puma was not fond of calves' flesh,
and came only for the sheep. Frequently after his nocturnal visits we
found, by tracing his footprints in the loose sand, that he had actually
used the calves' pen as a place of concealment while waiting to make his
attack on the sheep.

The puma often kills full-grown cows and horses, but exhibits a still
greater daring when attacking the jaguar, the largest of American
carnivores, although, compared with its swift, agile enemy, as heavy as
a rhinoceros. Azara states that it is generally believed in La Plata and
Paraguay that the puma attacks and conquers the jaguar; but he did not
credit what he heard, which was not strange, since he had already set
the puma down as a cowardly animal, because it does not attempt to harm
man or child. Nevertheless, it is well known that where the two species
inhabit the same district they are at enmity, the puma being the
persistent persecutor of the jaguar, following and harassing it as a
tyrant-bird harasses an eagle or hawk, moving about it with such
rapidity as to confuse it, and, when an opportunity occurs, springing
upon its back and inflicting terrible wounds with teeth and claws.
Jaguars with scarred backs are frequently killed, and others, not long
escaped from their tormentors, have been found so greatly lacerated that
they were easily overcome by the hunters.

In Kingsley's American _Standard Natural History_, it is stated that the
puma in North California has a feud with the grizzly bear similar to
that of the southern animal with the jaguar. In its encounter with the
grizzly it is said to be always the victor; and this is borne out by the
finding of the bodies of bears, which have evidently perished in the

How strange that this most cunning, bold, and bloodthirsty of the
Felidae, the persecutor of the jaguar and the scourge of the ruminants
in the regions it inhabits, able to kill its prey with the celerity of a
rifle bullet, never attacks a human being! Even the cowardly,
carrion-feeding dog will attack a man when it can do so with impunity;
but in places where the puma is the only large beast of prey, it is
notorious that it is there perfectly safe for even a small child to go
out and sleep on the plain. At the same time it will not fly from man
(though the contrary is always stated in books of Natural History)
except in places where it is continually persecuted. Nor is this all: it
will not, as a rule, even defend itself against man, although in some
rare instances it has been known to do so.

The mysterious, gentle instinct of this ungentle species, which causes
the gauchos of the pampas to name it man's friend--"amigo del
cristiano"--has been persistently ignored by all travellers and
naturalists who have mentioned the puma. They have thus made it a very
incongruous creature, strong enough to kill a horse, yet so cowardly
withal that it invariably flies from a human being--even from a sleeping
child! Possibly its real reputation was known to some of those who havo
spoken about it; if so, they attributed what they heard to the love of
the marvellous and the romantic, natural to the non-scientific mind; or
else preferred not to import into their writings matter which has so
great a likeness to fable, and might have the effect of imperilling
their reputation for sober-mindedness.

It is, however, possible that the singular instinct of tho southern
puma, which is unique among animals in a state of nature, is not
possessed by the entire species, ranging as it does over a hundred
degrees of latitude, from British North America to Tierra del Fuego. The
widely different conditions of life in the various regions it inhabits
must necessarily have caused some divergence. Concerning its habits in
the dense forests of the Amazonian region, where it must have developed
special instincts suited to its semi-arboreal life, scarcely anything
has been recorded. Everyone is, however, familiar with the dreaded
cougar, catamount, or panther--sometimes called "painter"--of North
American literature, thrilling descriptions of encounters with this
imaginary man-eating monster being freely scattered through the
backwoods or border romances, many of them written by authors who have
the reputation of being true to nature. It may be true that this cougar
of a cold climate did occasionally attack man, or, as it is often
stated, follow him in the forest with the intention of springing on him
unawares; but on this point nothing definite will ever be known, as the
pioneers hunters of the past were only anxious to shoot cougar and not
to study its instinct and disposition. It is now many years since
Audubon and Bachman wrote, "This animal, which has excited so much
terror in the minds of the ignorant and timid, has been nearly
exterminated in all the Atlantic States, and we do not recollect a
single well-authenticated instance where any hunter's life fell a
sacrifice in a cougar hunt." It might be added, I believe, that no
authentic instance has been recorded of the puma making an unprovoked
attack on any human being. In South America also the traveller in the
wilderness is sometimes followed by a puma; but he would certainly be
very much surprised if told that it follows with the intention of
springing on him unawares and devouring his flesh,

I have spoken of the comparative ease with which the puma overcomes even
large animals, comparing it in this respect with the peregrine falcon;
but all predacious species are liable to frequent failures, sometimes to
fatal mishaps, and even the cunning, swift-killing puma is no exception.
Its attacks are successfully resisted by the ass, which does not, like
the horse, lose his presence of mind, but when assaulted thrusts his
head well down between its fore-legs and kicks violently until the enemy
is thrown or driven off. Pigs, when in large herds, also safely defy the
puma, massing themselves together for defence in their well-known
manner, and presenting a serried line of tusks to the aggressor. During
my stay in Patagonia a puma met its fate in a manner so singular that
the incident caused considerable sensation among the settlers on the Rio
Negro at the time. A man named Linares, the chief of the tame Indians
settled in the neighbourhood of El Carmen, while riding near the river
had his curiosity aroused by the appearance and behaviour of a young cow
standing alone in the grass, her head, armed with long and exceedingly
sharp horns, much raised, and watching his approach in a manner which
betokened a state of dangerous excitement. She had recently dropped her
calf, and he at once conjectured that it had been attacked, and perhaps
killed, by some animal of prey. To satisfy himself on this point he
began to search for it, and while thus engaged the cow repeatedly
charged him with the greatest fury. Presently he discovered the calf
lying dead among the long grass; and by its side lay a full-grown puma,
also dead, and with a large wound in its side, just behind the shoulder.
The calf had been killed by the puma, for its throat showed the wounds
of large teeth, and the puma had been killed by the cow. When he saw it
he could, he affirmed, scarcely believe the evidence of his own senses,
for was an unheard-of thing that a puma should be injured by any other
animal. His opinion was that it had come down from the hills in a
starving condition, and having sprung upon the calf, the taste of blood
had made it for a moment careless of its own safety, and during that
moment the infuriated cow had charged, and driving one of her long sharp
horns into some vital part, killed it instantly.

The puma is, with the exception of some monkeys, the most playful animal
in existence. The young of all the Felidae spend a large portion of
their time in characteristic gambols; the adults, however, acquire a
grave and dignified demeanour, only the female playing on occasions with
her offspring; but this she always does with a certain formality of
manner, as if the relaxation were indulged in not spontaneously, but for
the sake of the young and as being a necessary part of their education.
Some writer has described the lion's assumption of gaiety as more grim
than its most serious moods. The puma at heart is always a kitten,
taking unmeasured delight in its frolics, and when, as often happens,
one lives alone in the desert, it will amuse itself by the hour fighting
mock battles or playing at hide-and-seek with imaginary companions, and
lying in wait and putting all its wonderful strategy in practice to
capture a passing butterfly. Azara kept a young male for four months,
which spent its whole time playing with the slaves. This animal, he
says, would not refuse any food offered to it; but when not hungry it
would bury the meat in the sand, and when inclined to eat dig it up,
and, taking it to the water-trough, wash it clean. I have only known one
puma kept as a pet, and this animal, in seven or eight years had never
shown a trace of ill-temper. When approached, he would lie down, purring
loudly, and twist himself about a person's legs, begging to be caressed.
A string or handkerchief drawn about was sufficient to keep him in a
happy state of excitement for an hour; and when one person was tired of
playing with him he was ready for a game with the next comer.

I was told by a person who had spent most of his life on the pampas that
on one occasion, when travelling in the neighbourhood of Cape
Corrientes, his horse died under him, and he was compelled to continue
his journey on foot, burdened with his heavy native horse-gear. At night
he made his bed under the shelter of a rock, on the slope of a stony
sierra; a bright moon was shining, and about nine o'clock in the evening
four pumas appeared, two adults with their two half-grown young. Not
feeling the least alarm at their presence, he did not stir; and after a
while they began to gambol together close to him, concealing themselves
from each other among the rocks, just as kittens do, and frequently
while pursuing one another leaping over him. He continued watching them
until past midnight, then fell asleep, and did not wake until morning,
when they had left him.

This man was an Englishman by birth, but having gone very young to South
America he had taken kindly to the semi-barbarous life of the gauchos,
and had imbibed all their peculiar notions, one of which is that human
life is not worth very much. "What does it matter?" they often say, and
shrug their shoulders, when told of a comrade's death; "so many
beautiful horses die!" I asked him if he had ever killed a puma, and he
replied that he had killed only one and had sworn never to kill another.
He said that while out one day with another gaucho looking for cattle a
puma was found. It sat up with its back against a stone, and did not
move even when his companion threw the noose of his lasso over its neck.
My informant then dismounted, and, drawing his knife, advanced to kill
it: still the puma made no attempt to free itself from the lasso, but it
seemed to know, he said, what was coming, for it began to tremble, the
tears ran from its eyes, and it whined in the most pitiful manner. He
killed it as it sat there unresisting before him, but after
accomplishing the deed felt that he had committed a murder. It was the
only thing ho had ever done in his life, he added, which filled him with
remorse when he remembered it. This I thought a rather startling
declaration, as I knew that he had killed several individuals of his own
species in duels, fought with knives, in the fashion of the gauchos.

All who have killed or witnessed the killing of the puma--and I have
questioned scores of hunters on this point--agree that it resigns itself
in this unresisting, pathetic manner to death at the hands of man.
Claudio Gay, in his _Natural History of Chili,_ says, "When attacked by
man its energy and daring at once forsake it, and it becomes a weak,
inoffensive animal, and trembling, and uttering piteous moans, and
shedding abundant tears, it seems to implore compassion from a generous
enemy." The enemy is not often generous; but many gauchos have assured
me, when speaking on this subject, that although they kill the puma
readily to protect their domestic animals, they consider it an evil
thing to take its life in desert places, where it is man's only friend
among the wild animals.

When the hunter is accompanied by dogs, then the puma, instead of
drooping and shedding tears, is roused to a sublime rage: its hair
stands erect; its eyes shine like balls of green flame; it spits and
snarls like a furious torn cat. The hunter's presence seems at such
times to be ignored altogether, its whole attention being given to the
dogs and its rage directed against them. In Patagonia a sheep-farming
Scotchman, with whom I spent some days, showed me the skulls of five
pumas which he had shot in the vicinity of his ranche. One was of an
exceptionally large individual, and I here relate what he told me of his
encounter with this animal, as it shows just how the puma almost
invariably behaves when attacked by man and dogs. He was out on foot
with his flock, when the dogs discovered the animal concealed among the
bushes. He had left his gun at home, and having no weapon, and finding
that the dogs dared not attack it where it sat in a defiant attitude
with its back against a thorny bush, he looked about and found a large
dry stick, and going boldly up to it tried to stun it with a violent
blow on the head. But though it never looked at him, its fiery eyes
gazing steadily at the dogs all the time, he could not hit it, for with
a quick side movement it avoided every blow. The small heed the puma
paid him, and the apparent ease with which it avoided his best-aimed
blows, only served to rouse his spirit, and at length striking with
increased force his stick came to the ground and was broken to pieces.
For some moments he now stood within two yards of the animal perfectly
defenceless and not knowing what to do. Suddenly it sprang past him,
actually brushing against his arm with its side, and began pursuing the
dogs round and round among the bushes. In the end my informant's partner
appeared on the scene with his rifle, and the puma was shot.

In encounters of this kind the most curious thing is that the puma
steadfastly refuses to recognize an enemy in man, although it finds him
acting in concert with its hated canine foe, about whose hostile
intentions it has no such delusion.

Several years ago a paragraph, which reached me in South America,
appeared in the English papers relating an incident characteristic of
the puma in a wild beast show in this country. The animal was taken out
of its cage and led about the grounds by its keeper, followed by a large
number of spectators. Suddenly it was struck motionless by some object
in the crowd, at which it gazed steadily with a look of intense
excitement; then springing violently away it dragged the chain from the
keeper's hand and dashed in among the people, who immediately fled
screaming in all directions. Their fears were, however, idle, the object
of the puma's rage being a dog which it had spied among the crowd.

It is said that when taken adult pumas invariably pine away and die;
when brought up in captivity they invariably make playful, affectionate
pets, and are gentle towards all human beings, but very seldom overcome
their instinctive animosity towards the dog.

One of the very few authentic instances I have met with of this animal
defending itself against a human being was related to me at a place on
the pampas called Saladillo. At the time of my visit there jaguars and
pumas were very abundant and extremely destructive to the cattle and
horses. Sheep it had not yet been considered worth while to introduce,
but immense herds of pigs were kept at every estancia, these animals
being able to protect themselves. One gaucho had so repeatedly
distinguished himself by his boldness and dexterity in killing jaguars
that he was by general consent made the leader of every tiger-hunt. One
day the comandante of the district got twelve or fourteen men together,
the tiger-slayer among them, and started in search of a jaguar which had
been seen that morning in the neighbourhood of his estancia. The animal
was eventually found and surrounded, and as it was crouching among some
clumps of tall pampas grass, where throwing a lasso over its neck would
be a somewhat difficult and dangerous operation, all gave way to the
famous hunter, who at once uncoiled his lasso and proceeded in a
leisurely manner to form the loop. While thus engaged he made the
mistake of allowing his horse, which had grown restive, to turn aside
from the hunted animal. The jaguar, instantly taking advantage of the
oversight, burst from its cover and sprang first on to the haunches of
the horse, then seizing the hunter by his poncho dragged him to the
earth, and would no doubt have quickly despatched him if a lasso, thrown
by one of the other men, had not closed round its neck at this critical
moment. It was quickly dragged off, and eventually killed. But the
discomfited hunter did not stay to assist at the finish. He arose from
the ground unharmed, but in a violent passion and blaspheming horribly,
for he knew that his reputation, which he priced above everything, had
suffered a great blow, and that he would be mercilessly ridiculed by his
associates. Getting on his horse he rode away by himself from the scene
of his misadventure. Of what happened to him on his homeward ride there
were no witnesses; but his own account was as follows, and inasmuch as
it told against his own prowess it was readily believed: Before riding a
league, and while his bosom was still burning with rage, a puma started
up from the long grass in his path, but made no attempt to run away; it
merely sat up, he said, and looked at him in a provokingly fearless
manner. To slay this animal with his knife, and so revenge himself on it
for the defeat he had just suffered, was his first thought. He alighted
and secured his horse by tying its fore feet together, then, drawing his
long, heavy knife, rushed at the puma. Still it did not stir. Raising
his weapon he struck with a force which would have split the animal's
skull open if the blow had fallen where it was intended to fall, but
with a quick movement the puma avoided it, and at the same time lifted a
foot and with lightning rapidity dealt the aggressor a blow on the face,
its unsheathed claws literally dragging down the flesh from his cheek,
laying the bone bare. After inflicting this terrible punishment and
eyeing its fallen foe for a few seconds it trotted quietly away. The
wounded man succeeded in getting on to his horse and reaching his home.
The hanging flesh was restored to its place and the ghastly rents sewn
up, and in the end he recovered: but he was disfigured for life; his
temper also completely changed; he became morose and morbidly sensitive
to the ridicule of his neighbours, and he never again ventured to join
them in their hunting expeditions. I inquired of the comandante, and of
others, whether any case had come to their knowledge in that district in
which the puma had shown anything beyond a mere passive friendliness
towards man; in reply they related the following incident, which had
occurred at the Saladillo a few years before my visit: The men all went
out one day beyond the frontier to form a _cerco,_ as it is called, to
hunt ostriches and other game. The hunters, numbering about thirty,
spread themselves round in a vast ring and, advancing towards the
centre, drove the animals before them. During the excitement of the
chase which followed, while they were all engaged in preventing the
ostriches, deer, &c., from doubling back and escaping, it was not
noticed that one of the hunters had disappeared; his horse, however,
returned to its home during the evening, and on the next morning a fresh
hunt for the lost man was organized. He was eventually found lying on
the ground with a broken leg, where he had been thrown at the beginning
of the hunt. He related that about an hour after it had become dark a
puma appeared and sat near him, but did not seem to notice him. After a
while it became restless, frequently going away and returning, and
finally it kept away so long, that he thought it had left him for good.
About midnight he heard the deep roar of a jaguar, and gave himself up
for lost. By raising himself on his elbow he was able to see the outline
of the beast crouching near him, but its face was turned from him, and
it appeared to be intently watching some object on which it was about to
spring. Presently it crept out of sight, then he heard snarlings and
growlings and the sharp yell of a puma, and he knew that the two beasts
were fighting. Before morning he saw the jaguar several times, but the
puma renewed the contest with it again and again until morning appeared,
after which he saw and heard no more of them.

Extraordinary as this story sounds, it did not seem so to me when I
heard it, for I had already met with many anecdotes of a similar nature
in various parts of the country, some of them vastly more interesting
than the one I have just narrated; only I did not get them at first
hand, and am consequently not able to vouch for their accuracy; but in
this case it seemed to me that there was really no room for doubt. All
that I had previously heard had compelled me to believe that the puma
really does possess a unique instinct of friendliness for man, the
origin of which, like that of many other well-known instincts of
animals, must remain a mystery. The fact that the puma never makes an
unprovoked attack on a human being, or eats human flesh, and that it
refuses, except in some very rare cases, even to defend itself, does not
seem really less wonderful in an animal of its bold and sanguinary
temper thau that it should follow the traveller in the wilderness, or
come near him when he lies sleeping or disabled, and even occasionally
defend him from its enemy the jaguar. We know that certain sounds,
colours, or smells, which are not particularly noticed by most animals,
produce an extraordinary effect on some species; and it is possible to
believe, I think, that the human form or countenance, or the odour of
the human body, may also have the effect on the puma of suspending its
predatory instincts and inspiring it with a gentleness towards man,
which we are only accustomed to see in our domesticated carnivores or in
feral animals towards those of their own species. Wolves, when pressed
with hunger, will sometimes devour a fellow wolf; as a rule, however,
rapacious animals will starve to death rather than prey on one of their
own kind, nor is it a common thing for them to attack other species
possessing instincts similar to their own. The puma, we have seen,
violently attacks other large carnivores, not to feed on them, but
merely to satisfy its animosity; and, while respecting man, it is,
within the tropics, a great hunter and eater of monkeys, which of all
animals most resemble men. We can only conclude with Humboldt that there
is something mysterious in the hatreds and affections of animals.

The view here taken of the puma's character imparts, I think, a fresh
interest to some things concerning the species, which have appeared in
historical and other works, and which I propose to discuss briefly in
this place.

There is a remarkable passage in Byron's _Narrative of the loss of the
Wager,_ which was quoted by Admiral Fitzroy in his _Voyage of the
Beagle,_ to prove that tho puma inhabits Tierra del Fuego and the
adjacent islands; no other large beast of prey being known in that part
of America. "I heard," he says, "a growling close by me, which made me
think it advisable to retire as soon as possible: the woods were, so
gloomy I could see nothing; but, as I retired, this noise followed me
close till I got out of them. Some of our men did assure me that they
had seen a very large beast in the woods. . . I proposed to four of the
people to go to the end of the bay, about two miles distant from the
bell tent, to occupy the skeleton of an old Indian wigwam, which I had
discovered in a walk that way on our first landing. This we covered to
windward with seaweed; and, lighting a fire, laid ourselves down in
hopes of finding a remedy for our hunger in sleep; but we had not long
composed ourselves before one of our company was disturbed by the
blowing of some animal at his face; and, upon opening his eyes, was not
a little astonished to see by the glimmering of the fire, a large beast
standing over him. He had presence of mind enough to snatch a brand from
the fire, which was now very low, and thrust it at the nose of tho
animal, which thereupon made off. . . . In the morning we were not a
little anxious to know how our companions had fared; and this anxiety
was increased upon our tracing the footsteps of the beast in the sand,
in a direction towards the bell tent. The impression was deep and plain,
of a large round foot well furnished with claws. Upon acquainting the
people in the tent with the circumstances of our story, we found that
they had been visited by the same unwelcome guest."

Mr. Andrew Murray, in his work on the Geographical Distribution of
Mammals, gives the Straits of Magellan as the extreme southern limit of
the puma's range, and in discussing the above passage from Byron he
writes: "This reference, however, gives no support to the notion of the
animal alluded to having been a puma. . . . The description of the
footprints clearly shows that the animal could not have been a puma.
None of the cat tribe leave any trace of a claw in their footprints. . .
The dogs, on the other hand, leave a very well-defined claw-mark. . . .
Commodore Byron and his party had therefore suffered a false alarm. The
creature which had disturbed them was, doubtless, one of the harmless
domestic dogs of the natives."

The assurance that the bold hardy adventurer and his men suffered a
false alarm, and were thrown into a great state of excitement at the
appearance of one of the wretched domestic dogs of the Fuegians, with
which they were familiar, comes charmingly, it must be said, from a
closet naturalist, who surveys the world of savage beasts from his
London study. He apparently forgets that Commodore Byron lived in a time
when the painful accuracy and excessive minuteness we are accustomed to
was not expected from a writer, whenever he happened to touch on any
matters connected with zoology.

This kind of criticism, which seizes on a slight inaccuracy in one
passage, and totally ignores an important statement in another--as, for
instance, that of the "great beast" seen in the woods--might be extended
to other portions of the book, and Byron's entire narrative made to
appear as purely a work of the imagination as Peter Wilkin's adventures
in those same antarctic seas.

Mr. J. W. Boddam Whetham, in his work _Across Central America_ (1877),
gives an anecdote of the puma, which he heard at Sacluk, in Guatemala,
and which strangely resembles some of the stories I have heard on the
pampas. He writes: "The following event, most extraordinary if true, is
said to have occurred in this forest to a mahogany-cutter, who had been
out marking trees. As he was returning to his hut, he suddenly felt a
soft body pressing against him, and on looking down saw a cougar, which,
with tail erect, and purring like a cat, twisted itself in and out of
his legs, and glided round him, turning up its fierce eyes as if with
laughter. Horror-stricken and with faltering steps he kept on, and the
terrible animal still circled about, now rolling over, and now touching
him with a paw like a cat playing with a mouse. At last the suspense
became too great, and with a loud shout he struck desperately at the
creature with his axe. It bounded on one side and crouched snarling and
showing its teeth. Just as it was about to spring, the man's companion,
who had heard his call, appeared in the distance, and with a growl the
beast vanished into the thick bushes."

Now, after allowing for exaggeration, if there is no foundation for
stories of this character, it is really a very wonderful coincidence
that they should be met with in countries so widely separated as
Patagonia and Central America. Pumas, doubtless, are scarce in
Guatemala; and, as in other places where they have met with nothing but
persecution from man, they are shy of him; but had this adventure
occurred on the pampas, where they are better known, the person
concerned in it would not have said that the puma played with him as a
cat with a mouse, but rather as a tame cat plays with a child; nor,
probably, would he have been terrified into imagining that the animal,
even after its caresses had met with so rough a return, was about to
spring on him.

In Clavigero's _History of Lower California,_ it is related that a very
extraordinary state of things was discovered to exist in that country by
the first missionaries who settled there at the end of the seventeenth
century, and which was actually owing to the pumas. The author says that
there were no bears or tigers (jaguars); these had most probably been
driven out by their old enemies; but the pumas had increased to a
prodigious extent, so that the whole peninsula was overrun by them; and
this was owing to the superstitious regard in which they were held by
the natives, who not only did not kill them, but never ventured to
disturb them in any way. The Indians were actually to some extent
dependent on the puma's success in hunting for their subsistence; they
watched the movements of the vultures in order to discover the spot in
which the remains of any animal it had captured had been left by the
puma, and whenever the birds were seen circling about persistently over
one place, they hastened to take possession of the carcass, discovered
in this way. The domestic animals, imported by the missionaries, were
quickly destroyed by the virtual masters of the country, and against
these enemies the Jesuits preached a crusade in vain: for although the
Indians readily embraced Christianity and were baptized, they were not
to be shaken in their notions concerning the sacred _Chimbicá,_ as the
puma was called. The missions languished in consequence; the priests
existed in a state of semi-starvation, depending on provisions sent to
them at long intervals from the distant Mexican settlements; and for
many years all their efforts to raise the savages from their miserable
condition were thrown away. At length, in 1701, the mission of Loreto
was taken charge of by one Padre Ugarte, described by Clavigero as a
person of indomitable energy, and great physical strength and courage, a
true muscular Christian, who occasionally varied his method of
instruction by administering corporal chastisements to his hearers when
they laughed at his doctrines, or at the mistakes he made in their
language, while preaching to them. Ugarte, like his predecessors, could
not move the Indians to hunt the puma, but he was a man of action, with
a wholesome belief in the efficacy of example, and his opportunity came
at last.

One day, while riding in the wood, he saw at a distance a puma walking
deliberately towards him. Alighting from his mule, he took up a large
stone and advanced to meet the animal, and when sufficiently near hurled
the missile with such precision and force that he knocked ifc down
senseless. After killing it, he found that the heaviest part of his task
remained, as it was necessary for the success of his project to carry
the beast, still warm and bleeding, to the Indian village; but mow his
mule steadfastly refused to approach it. Father Ugarte was not,
however, to be defeated, and partly by stratagem, partly by force, he
finally succeeded in getting the puma on to the mule's back, after which
he rode in triumph to the settlement. The Indians at first thought it
all a trick of their priest, who was so anxious to involve them in a
conflict with the pumas, and standing at a distance they began jeering
at him, and exclaiming that he had found the animal dead! But when they
were induced to approach, and saw that it was still warm and bleeding,
they were astonished beyond measure, and began to watch the priest
narrowly, thinking that he would presently drop down and die in sight of
them all. It was their belief that death would quickly overtake the
slayer of a puma. As this did not happen, the priest gained a great
influence over them, and in the end they were persuaded to turn their
weapons against the Chimbicá.

Clavigero has nothing to say concerning the origin of this Californian
superstition; but with some knowledge of the puma's character, it is not
difficult to imagine what it may have been. No doubt these savages had
been very well acquainted from ancient times with the animal's instinct
of friendliness toward man, and its extreme hatred of other carnivores,
which prey on the human species; and finding it ranged on their side, as
it were, in the hard struggle of life in the desert, they were induced
to spare it, and even to regard it as a friend; and such a feeling,
among primitive men, might in the course of time degenerate into such a
superstition as that of the Californians.

I shall, in conclusion, relate here the story of Maldonada, which is not
generally known, although familiar to Buenos Ayreans as the story of
Lady Godiva's ride through Coventry is to the people of that town. The
case of Maldonada is circumstantially narrated by Rui Diaz de Guzman, in
his history of the colonization of the Plata: he was a person high in
authority in the young colonies, and is regarded by students of South
American history as an accurate and sober-minded chronicler of the
events of his own times. He relates that in the year 1536 the settlers
at Buenos Ayres, having exhausted their provisions, and being compelled
by hostile Indians to keep within their pallisades, were reduced to the
verge of starvation. The Governor Mendoza went off to seek help from the
other colonies up the river, deputing his authority to one Captain Ruiz,
who, according to all accounts, displayed an excessively tyrannous and
truculent disposition while in power. The people were finally reduced to
a ration of sis ounces of flour per day for each person; but as the
flour was putrid and only made them ill, they were forced to live on any
small animals they could capture, including snakes, frogs and toads.
Some horrible details are given by Rui Diaz, and other writers; one, Del
Barco Centenera, affirms that of two thousand persons in the town
eighteen hundred perished of hunger. During this unhappy time, beasts of
prey in large numbers were attracted to the settlement by the effluvium
of the corpses, buried just outside the pallisades; and this made the
condition of the survivors more miserable still, since they could
venture into the neighbouring woods only at the risk of a violent death.
Nevertheless, many did so venture, and among these was the young woman
Maldonada, who, losing herself in the forest, strayed to a distance, and
was eventually found by a party of Indians, and carried by them to their

Some months later, Captain Ruiz discovered her whereabouts, and
persuaded the savages to bring her to the settlement; then, accusing her
of having gone to the Indian village in order to betray the colony, he
condemned her to be devoured by wild beasts. She was taken to a wood at
a distance of a league from the town, and left there, tied to a tree,
for the space of two nights and a day. A party of soldiers then went to
the spot, expecting to find her bones picked clean by the beasts, but
were greatly astonished to find Maldonada still alive, without hurt or
scratch. She told them that a puma had come to her aid, and had kept at
her side, defending her life against all the other beasts that
approached her. She was instantly released, and taken back to the town,
her deliverance through the action of the puma probably being looked on
as direct interposition of Providence to save her.

Rui Diaz concludes with the following paragraph, in which he affirms
that he knew the woman Maldonada, which may be taken as proof that she
was among the few that survived the first disastrous settlement and
lived on to more fortunate times: his pious pun on her name would be
lost in a translation:--"De esta manera quedo libre la que ofrecieron a
las fieras: la cual mujer yo la conoci, y la llamaban la Maldonada, que
mas bien se le podia llamar la BIENDONADA; pues por este suceso se ha de
ver no haber merecido el castigo á que la ofrecieron."

If such a thing were to happen now, in any portion of southern South
America, where the puma's disposition is best known, it would not be
looked on as a miracle, as it was, and that unavoidably, in the case of

W. H. Hudson