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Ch. 21: The Dying Huanaco

Lest any one should misread the title to this chapter, I hasten to say
that the huanaco, or guanaco as it is often spelt, is not a perishing
species; nor, as things are, is it likely to perish soon, despite the
fact that civilized men, Britons especially, are now enthusiastically
engaged in the extermination of all the nobler mammalians:--a very
glorious crusade, the triumphant conclusion of which will doubtless be
witnessed by the succeeding generation, more favoured in this respect
than ours. The huanaco, happily for it, exists in a barren, desolate
region, in its greatest part waterless and uninhabitable to human
beings; and the chapter-heading refers to a singular instinct of the
dying animals, in very many cases allowed, by the exceptional conditions
in which they are placed, to die naturally.

And first, a few words about its place in nature and general habits. The
huanaco is a small camel--small, that is, compared with its existing
relation--without a hump, and, unlike the camel of the Old World,
non-specializad; doubtless it is a very ancient animal on the earth, and
for all we know to the contrary, may have existed contemporaneously with
some of the earliest known representatives of the camel type, whose
remains occur in the lower and upper miocene deposits--Poebrotherium,
Protolabis, Procamelus, Pliauchenia, and Macrauchenia. It ranges from
Tierra del Fuego and the adjacent islands, northwards over the whole of
Patagonia, and along the Andes into Peru and Bolivia. On the great
mountain chain it is both a wild and a domestic animal, since the llama,
the beast of burden of the ancient Peruvians, is no doubt only a
variety: but as man's slave it has changed so greatly from the original
form that some naturalists have regarded the llama as a distinct
species, which, like the camel of the East, exists only in a domestic
state. It has had time enough to vary, as it is more than probable that
the tamed and useful animal was inherited by the children of the sun
from races and nations that came before them: and how far back Andean
civilization extends may be inferred from the belief expressed by the
famous American archaeologist, Squiers, that the ruined city of
Tiahuanaco, in the vicinity of Lake Titicaca, is as old as Thebes and
the Pyramids.

It is, however, with the wild animal, the huanaco, that I am concerned.
A full-grown male measures seven to eight feet in length, and four feet
high to the shoulder; it is well clothed in a coat of thick woolly hair,
of a pale reddish colour, Longest and palest on the under parts. In
appearance it is very unlike the camel, in spite of the long legs and
neck; in its finely-shaped head and long ears, and its proud and
graceful carriage, it resembles an antelope rather than its huge and,
from an aesthetic point of view, deformed Asiatic relation. In habits it
is gregarious, and is usually seen in small herds, but herds numbering
several hundreds or even a thousand are occasionally met with on the
stony, desolate plateaus of Southern Patagonia; but the huanaco is able
to thrive and grow fat where almost any other herbivore would starve.
While the herd feeds one animal acts as sentinel, stationed on the
hillside, and on the appearance of danger utters a shrill neigh of
alarm, and instantly all take to flight. But although excessively shy
and wary they are also very inquisitive, and have enough intelligence to
know that a single horseman can do them no harm, for they will not only
approach to look closely at him, but will sometimes follow him for
miles. They are also excitable, and at times indulge in strange freaks.
Darwin writes:--"On the mountains of Tierra del Fuego I have more than
once seen a huanaco, on being approached, not only neigh and squeal, but
prance and leap about in a most ridiculous manner, apparently in
defiance as a challenge." And Captain King relates that while sailing
into Port Desire he witnessed a chase of a huanaco after a fox, both
animals evidently going at their greatest speed, so that they soon
passed out of sight. I have known some tame huanacos, and in that state
they make amusing intelligent pets, fond of being caressed, but often so
frolicsome and mischievous as to be a nuisance to their master. It is
well known that at the southern extremity of Patagonia the huanacos have
a dying place, a spot to which all individuals inhabiting the
surrounding plains repair at the approach of death to deposit their
bones. Darwin and Fitzroy first recorded this strange instinct in their
personal narratives, and their observations have since been fully
confirmed by others. The best known of these dying or burial-places are
on the banks of the Santa Cruz and Gallegos rivers, where the river
valleys are covered with dense primeval thickets of bushes and trees of
stunted growth; there the ground is covered with the bones of countless
dead generations. "The animals," says Darwin, "in most cases must have
crawled, before dying, beneath and among the bushes." A strange instinct
in a creature so preeminently social in its habits; a dweller all its
life long on the open, barren plateaus and mountain sides! What a
subject for a painter! The grey wilderness of dwarf thorn trees, aged
and grotesque and scanty-leaved, nourished for a thousand years on the
bones that whiten the stony ground at their roots; the interior lit
faintly with the rays of the departing sun, chill and grey, and silent
and motionless--the huanacos' Golgotha. In the long centuries,
stretching back into a dim immeasurable past, so many of this race have
journeyed hither from the mountain and the plain to suffer the sharp
pang of death, that, to the imagination, something of it all seems to
have passed into that hushed and mournful nature. And now one more, the
latest pilgrim, has come, all his little strength spent in his struggle
to penetrate the close thicket; looking old and gaunt and ghostly in the
twilight; with long ragged hair; staring into the gloom out of
death-dimmed sunken eyes. England has one artist who might show it to us
on canvas, who would be able to catch the feeling of such a scene--of
that mysterious, passionless tragedy of nature--I refer to J. M. Swan,
the painter of the "Prodigal Son" and the "Lioness Defending her Cubs."

To his account of the animal's dying place and instinct, Darwin adds: "I
do not at all understand the reason of this, but I may observe that the
wounded huanacos at the Santa Cruz invariably walked towards the river."

It would, no doubt, be rash to affirm of any instinct that it is
absolutely unique; but, putting aside some doubtful reports about a
custom of the Asiatic elephant, which may have originated in the account
of Sindbad the Sailor's discovery of an elephant's burial place, we have
no knowledge of an instinct similar to that of the huanaco in any other
animal. So far as we know, it stands alone and apart, with nothing in
the actions of other species leading up, or suggesting any family
likeness to it. But what chiefly attracts the mind to it is its
strangeness. It looks, in fact, less like an instinct of one of the
inferior creatures than the superstitious observance of human beings,
who have knowledge of death, and believe in a continued existence after
dissolution; of a triba that in past times had conceived the idea that
the liberated spirit is only able to find its way to its future abode by
starting at death from the ancient dying-place of the tribe or family,
and thence moving westward, or skyward, or underground, over the
well-worn immemorial track, invisible to material eyes.

But, although alone among animal instincts-in its strange and useless
purpose--for it is as absolutely useless to the species or race as to
the dying individual--it is not the only useless instinct we know of:
there are many others, both simple and complex; and of such instincts we
believe, with good reason, that they once played an important part in
the life of the species, and were only rendered useless by changes in
the condition of life, or in the organism, or in both. In other words,
when the special conditions that gave them value no longer existed, the
correlated and perfect instinct was not, in these cases, eradicated, but
remained, in abeyance and still capable of being called into activity by
a new and false stimulus simulating the old and true. Viewed in this
way, the huanaco's instinct might be regarded as something remaining to
the animal from a remote past, not altogether unaffected by time
perhaps; and like some ceremonial usage among men that has long ceased
to have any significance, or like a fragment of ancient history, or a
tradition, which in the course of time has received some new and false
interpretation. The false interpretation, to continue the metaphor, is,
in this case, that the _purpose_ of the animal in going to a certain
spot, to which it has probably never previously resorted, is to die
there. A false interpretation, because, in the first place, it is
incredible that an instinct of no advantage to the species, in its
struggle for existence and predominance should arise and become
permanent; and, in the second place, it is equally incredible that it
could ever have been to the advantage of the species or race to, have a
dying place. We must, then, suppose that there is in the sensations
preceding death, when death comes slowly, some resemblance to the
sensations experienced by the animal at a period when its curious
instinct first took form and crystallized; these would be painful
sensations that threatened life; and freedom from them, and safety to
the animal, would only exist in a certain well-remembered spot. Further,
we might assume that it was at first only the memory of a few
individuals that caused the animals to seek the place of safety; that a
habit was thus formed; that in time this traditional habit became
instinctive, so that the animals, old and young, made their way
unerringly to the place of refuge whenever the old danger returned. And
such an instinct, slowly matured and made perfect to enable this animal
to escape extinction during periods of great danger to mammalian life,
lasting hundreds or even thousands of years, and destructive of
numberless other species less hardy and adaptive than the generalized
huanaco, might well continue to exist, to be occasionally called into
life by a false stimulus, for many centuries after it had ceased to be
of any advantage.

Once we accept this explanation as probable--namely, that the huanaco,
in withdrawing from the herd to drop down and die in the ancient dying
ground, is in reality only seeking an historically remembered place of
refuge, and not of death--the action of the animal loses much of its
mysterious character; we come on to firm ground, and find that we are no
longer considering an instinct absolutely unique, with no action or
instinct in any other animal leading up or suggesting any family
likeness to it, as I said before. We find, in fact, that there is at
least one very important and very well-known instinct in another class
of creatures, which has a strong resemblance to that of the huanaco, as
I have interpreted it, and which may even serve to throw a side light on
the origin of the huanaco's instinct. I refer to a habit of some
ophidians, in temperate and cold countries, of returning annually to
hybernate in the saine den.

A typical instance is that of the rattlesnake in the colder parts of
North America. On the approach of winter these reptiles go into hiding,
and it has been observed that in some districts a very large number of
individuals, hundreds, and even thousands, will repair from the
surrounding country to the ancestral den. Here the serpents gather in a
mass to remain in a wholly or semi-torpid condition until the return of
spring brings them out again, to scatter abroad to their usual summer
haunts. Clearly in this case the knowledge of the hyberna-ting den is
not merely traditional--that is, handed down from generation to
generation, through the young each year following the adults, and so
forming the habit of repairing at certain seasons to a certain place;
for the young serpent soon abandons its parent to lead an independent
life; and on the approach of cold weather the hybernating den may be a
long distance away, ten or twenty, or even thirty miles from the spot in
which it was born. The annual return to the hybernating den is then a
fixed unalterable instinct, like the autumnal migration of some birds to
a warmer latitude. It is doubtless favourable to the serpents to
hybernate in large numbers massed together; and the habit of resorting
annually to the same spot once formed, we can imagine that the
individuals--perhaps a single couple in the first place--frequenting
some very deep, dry, and well-sheltered cavern, safe from enemies, would
have a great advantage over others of their race; that they would be
stronger and increase more, and spread during the summer months further
and further from the cavern on all sides; and that the further afield
they went the more would the instinct be perfected; since all the young
serpents that did not have the instinct of returning unerringly to the
ancestral refuge, and that, like the outsiders of their race, to put it
in that way, merely crept into the first hole they found on the approach
of the cold season, would be more liable to destruction. Probably most
snakes get killed long before a natural decline sets in; to say that not
one in a thousand dies of old age would probably be no exaggeration; but
if they were as safe from enemies and accidents as some less prolific
and more highly-organized animals, so that many would reach the natural
term of life, and death came slowly, we can imagine that in such a
heat-loving creature the failure of the vital powers would simulate the
sensations caused by a falling temperature, and cause the old or sick
serpent, even in midsummer, to creep instinctively away to the ancient
refuge, where many a long life-killing frost had been safely tided over
in the past.

The huanaco has never been a hybernating animal; but we must assume
that, like the crotalus of the north, he had formed a habit of
congregating with his fellows at certain seasons at the same spot;
further, that these were seasons of suffering to the animal--the
suffering, or discomfort and danger, having in the first place given
rise to the habit. Assuming again that the habit had existed so long as
to become, like that of the reptile, a fixed, immutable instinct, a
hereditary knowledge, so that the young huanacos, untaught by the
adults, would go alone and unerringly to the meeting-place from any
distance, it is but an easy step to the belief, that after the
conditions had changed, and the refuges were no longer needed, this
instinctive knowledge would still exist in them, and that they would
take the old road when stimulated by the pain of a wound; or the
miserable sensations experienced in disease or during the decay of the
life-energy, when the senses grow dim, and the breath fails, and the
blood is thin and cold.

I presume that most persons who have observed animals a great deal have
met with cases in which the animal has acted automatically, or
instinctively, when the stimulus has been a false one. I will relate one
such case, observed by myself, and which strikes me as being apposite to
the question I am considering. It must be premised that this is an
instance of an acquired habit; but this does not affect my argument,
since I have all along assumed that the huanaco--a highly sagacious
species in the highest class of vertebrates--first acquired a habit from
experience of seeking a remembered refuge, and that such habit was the
parent, as it were, or the first clay model, of the perfect and
indestructible instinct that was to be.

It is not an uncommon thing in the Argentino pampas--I have on two
occasions witnessed it myself--for a riding-horse to come home, or to
the gate of his owner's house, to die. I am speaking of riding-horses
that are never doctored, nor treated mercifully; that look on their
master as an enemy rather than a friend; horses that live out in the
open, and have to be hunted to the corral or enclosure, or roughly
captured with a lasso as they run, when their services are required. I
retain a very vivid recollection of the first occasion of witnessing an
action of this kind in a horse, although I was only a boy at the time.
On going out one summer evening I saw one of the horses of the
establishment standing unsaddled and unbridled leaning his head over the
gate. Going to the spot, I stroked his nose, and then, turning to an old
native who happened to be near, asked him what could be the meaning of
such a thing. "I think he is going to die," he answered; "horses often
come to the house to die." And next morning the poor beast was found
lying dead not twenty yards from the gate; although he had not appeared
ill when I stroked his nose on the previous evening; but when I saw him
lying there dead, and remembered the old native's words, it seemed to me
as marvellous and inexplicable that a horse should act in that way, as
if some wild creature--a rhea, a fawn, or dolichotes--had come to exhale
his last breath at the gates of his enemy and constant persecutor, man.

I now believe that the sensations of sickness and approaching death in
the riding-horse of the pampas resemble or similate the pains, so often
experienced, of hunger, thirst and fatigue combined, together with the
oppressive sensations caused by the ponderous native saddle, or recado,
with its huge surcingle of raw hide drawn up so tightly as to hinder
free respiration. The suffering animal remembers how at the last relief
invariably came, when the twelve or fifteen hours' torture were over,
the toil and the want, and when the great iron bridle and ponderous gear
were removed, and he had freedom and food and drink and rest. At the
gate or at the door of his master's house, the sudden relief had always
come to him; and there does he sometimes go in his sickness, his fear
overmastered by his suffering, to find it again.

Discussing this question with a friend, who has a subtle mind and great
experience of the horse in semi-barbarous countries, and of many other
animals, wild and tame, in many regions of the globe, he put forward a
different explanation of the action of the horse in coming home to die,
which he thinks simpler and more probable than mine. It is, that a dying
or ailing animal instinctively withdraws itself from its fellows--an
action of self-preservation in the individual in opposition to the
well-known instincts of the healthy animals, which impels the whole herd
to turn upon and persecute the sickly member, thus destroying its
chances of recovery. The desire of the suffering animal is not only to
leave its fellows, but to get to some solitary place where they cannot
follow, or would never find him, to escape at once from a great and
pressing danger. But on the pastoral pampas, where horses are so
numerous that on that level, treeless area they are always and
everywhere visible, no hiding-place is discoverable. In such a case, the
animal, goaded by its instinctive fear, turns to the one spot that
horses avoid; and although that spot has hitherto been fearful to him,
the old fear is forgotten in the present and far more vivid one; the
vicinity of his master's house represents a solitary place to him, and
he seeks it, just as the stricken deer seeks the interior of some close
forest, oblivious for the time, in its anxiety to escape from the herd,
of the dangers lurking in it, and which he formerly avoided.

I have not set this explanation down merely because it does credit to my
friend's ingenuity, but because it strikes me that it is the only
alternative explanation that can be given of the animal's action in
coming home to die. Another fact concerning the ill-tamed and
barbarously treated horses of the pampas, which, to my mind, strengthens
the view I have taken, remains to be mentioned. It is not an uncommon
thing for one of these horses, after escaping, saddled and bridled, and
wandering about for anight or night and day on the plains, to return of
its own accord to the house. It is clear that in a case of this kind the
animal comes home to seek relief. I have known one horse that always had
to be hunted like a wild animal to be caught, and that invariably after
being saddled tried to break loose, to return in this way to the gate
after wandering about, saddled and bridled, for over twenty hours in
uncomfortable freedom.

The action of the riding-horse returning to a master he is accustomed to
fly from, as from an enemy, to be released of saddle and bridle, is, no
doubt more intelligent than that of the dying horse coming home to be
relieved from his sufferings, but the motive is the same in both cases;
at the gate the only pain the animal has ever experienced has invariably
begun, and there it has ended, and when the spur of some new pain
afflicts him--new and yet like the old--it is to the well-remembered
hated gate that it urges him.

To return to the huanaco. After tracing the dying instinct back to its
hypothetical origin--namely, a habit acquired by the animal in some past
period of seeking refuge from some kind of pain and danger at a certain
spot, it is only natural to speculate a little further as to the nature
of that danger and of the conditions the animal existed in.

If the huanaco is as old on the earth as its antique generalized form
have led naturalists to suppose, we can well believe that it has
survived not only a great many lost mammalian types, but many changes in
the conditions of its life. Let us then imagine that at some remote
period a change took place in the climate of Patagonia, and that it
became colder and colder, owing to some cause affecting only that
portion of the antarctic region; such a cause, for instance, as a great
accumulation of icebergs on the northern shores of the antarctic
continent, extending century by century until a large portion of the now
open sea became blocked up with solid ice. If the change was gradual and
the snow became deeper each winter and lasted longer, an intelligent,
gregarious, and exceedingly hardy and active animal like the huanaco,
able to exist on the driest woody fibres, would stand the beat chance of
maintaining its existence in such altered conditions, and would form new
habits to meet the new danger. One would be that at the approach of a
period of deep snow and deadly cold, all the herds frequenting one
place would gather together at the most favourable spots in the river
valleys, where the vegetation is dense and some food could be had while
the surrounding country continued covered with deep snow. They would, in
fact, make choice of exactly such localities as are now used for dying
places. There they would be sheltered from the cutting-winds, the twigs
and bark would supply them with food, the warmth from a great many
individuals massed together would serve to keep the snow partially
melted under foot, and would prevent their being smothered, while the
stiff and closely interlaced branches would keep a roof of snow above
them, and thus protected they would keep alive until the return of mild
weather released them. In the course of many generations all weakly
animals, and all in which the habit of seeking the refuge at the proper
time was weak or uncertain in its action would perish, but their loss
would be an advantage to the survivors.

It is worthy of remark that it is only at the southern extremity of
Patagonia that the huanacos have dying places. In Northern Patagonia,
and on the Chilian and Peruvian Andes no such instinct has been

W. H. Hudson