Pumas - Tapirs - Ant Eaters - Sloths
( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )
Pumas or Cougars.— Puma, the native name in Peru; Cougar, in Brazil.
" Well," said my host, an old Brazilian living in a province north of Rio de Janeiro, speaking good English, a rare accomplishment for one of his nationality, I hear you have been out exploring all the day. Did you see any wild animals in the forests? "
" No," I replied. But all the way back, two smooth-haired dogs with long tails kept alongside me in the underwood, though they never came near enough to let me clearly see what they were like. Do you keep big greyhounds, or mastiffs? "
" Two dogs! Why, they were cougars! And but for the succour of Our Lady" (here he crossed himself devoutly), " unarmed as you were, when darkness fell they might have attacked you! "
Thus, for the first time, I realised that cougars existed in Brazil, as well as in other countries of South America, and I recalled tales of their gently pulling at the ponchos of weary travellers who lay wrapped up in them fast asleep, and of their silently following hunters.
I also called to mind the fact that the great Edmund Kean, when in Clarges street, London, had a cougar called " Tom," given to him by Sir Edward Tucker. It used to follow him just like a dog in the crowded London thoroughfares, somewhat to the discomfort of the general public, who used to give it a wide berth. So did Kean's visitors, when brought unexpectedly face to face with the creature in his drawing-room. Kean tried to educate Tom, but the latter died before much progress had been made.
" So they were cougars, were they? " I exclaimed. " Have you many about here? "
" Not many. They are becoming very scarce; but I will tell you how you may know them. They are like lionesses, smooth-headed but not bigger than a large mastiff, of uniform fawn colour, without spots. I'm not surprised you mistook them for dogs, especially as you could not see them distinctly."
" When I was younger than I am now," he continued, " there used to be plenty of cougars about, and a great nuisance they were. I have heard my father, who was a great traveller, say that in the Southern States of North America they used to be a pest, killing the sheep and hogs, fifty at a time, and—unlike other wild cats—slaying wholesale before beginning to feed, and then sucking only a little blood from each victim. Luckily they have been exterminated by the American farmers.
" With us," he went on, " they are found near rivers and in forests. If they suspect deer are about they will lie in wait for them in a tree (they are splendid climbers) and drop down upon them as they pass below. I am told that in the jungles of the Rio Segundo, in the Cordoba district of the Argentines, there are many cougars. They revel, unmolested, in its grand hunting-grounds, where deer, carpinchos, and such like abound.
" My father used to say," he continued, " that in the Rio Grande province—the cattle-raising part of Brazil —when the guachos found a cougar had been prowling about their houses after poultry, they went for him with dogs, ran him down, and put an end to him with a knock on the head from their bolas, or they lassoo'd him, and dragged him along the road until he was dead. Here, however, we go after the cougar with a pack of curs, whose yelping so maddens him that he rushes up a tree, where he angrily purrs like a cat. The rifle does the rest. The skin is really useful and makes a nice warm covering in chilly weather, while its flesh looks and tastes like veal."
Tapirs.—High up and in the recesses of the picturesque Organ Mountains, near Rio, are pools of water wherein the tapir—largest of all South American animals—used to delight to wallow (this was before the railway to Petropolis had made the district accessible), and it was in this locality, on the banks of one of the numberless feeders of the Upper Tocantins (itself a great river, though a mere stream compared to its neighbour, the mighty Amazon), that I made their acquaintance.
I was meditating on the bird and insect life around me, and the aquatic life below, when I heard a rattling in the undergrowth and creeper-stems behind me, and just had time to see a large tapir with her calf crash through the reeds and dash into the water. This indicated that there was probably a jaguar or a cougar not far off, so I judiciously jumped into my boat and went elsewhere.
I had just time to observe that the tapir was a fine beast, about six feet long, but stumpy in body, legs, and tail, deep brown in colour, and with an absurdly short proboscis, a travesty of an elephant's trunk. This apology for a proboscis has no prehensile finger at the tip, and seems purposeless, for the creature eats and drinks in the ordinary manner. Perhaps it is of use in pulling down the tender wild fruit, and in grubbing up the aquatic plants that it feeds upon. The hair of the tapir is scanty, and lies so flat on the surface as to be hardly perceptible. The males have a mane of stiff bristles at the back of the neck. Its muscular strength, I believe, is enormous, and this, together with the toughness and thickness of the hide—almost impervious to a musket-ball — enables it to tear through the thorniest and closest thicket.
Peaceful by nature as the tapir is, when attacked by dogs it will seize them, and with its teeth cut the flesh clean off their limbs.
When tamed (an easy process) a tapir will let any liberty be taken with it, not even showing resentment when domestic animals run off with its food. Indians eat the flesh of the tapir, but it is dry and insipid.
Ant-eaters.—In the midst of the Tijuca, mountains, only eight miles from the city of Rio de Janeiro, on a lovely site in the forest primeval, there used to be :a boarding-house kept by a Mr. Bennett, an intelligent Englishman. He was a naturalist, and fond of collecting all kinds of animals as pets. Amongst them was a young ant-eater from Minas Geraes, the mining centre of Brazil, a creature I never tired of watching.
The arrival of a great ant-eater at the London Zoo was once regarded as a great event. Instead of its natural food, it had bread soaked in milk, yolk of eggs, and occasionally ant-eggs and the blood of freshly-killed rabbits.
But at " Bennett's " its dietary was simple enough, for " Bennett's " was in the land of ants, where they often rear mounds of earth forty yards round and two feet high. Certain kinds of ants build columnar hillocks of earth from three to six feet in height, which are baked exceedingly hard by the sun. These the ant-bear, as it is sometimes called, attacks and breaks down with its formidable claws, provided for that purpose. We see," says Charles Waterton, " that every portion of an animal's body is adapted to its journey through life, be that life of very short duration, or be it prolonged to a great extent. What could the ant-bear do without its tremendous claws and cylinder-shaped snout, so tough as to enable it to perforate huge nests of ants, which, in certain districts of Southern America, appear more like the roofs of Chinese temples than the work and habitai Lions of insignificant little insects?"
Bennett's ant-eater was taken at regular intervals by a boy into a forest to feed, and showed no disposition to escape. In fact, its movements were, like those of a sloth, too sluggish, and, with its claws doubled up under its feet, it could not have run if it had tried. It uttered no sound, and wherever the lad placed it there it remained until he came back. The ant-hills round about Bennett's were low and rather soft, and exactly suited its immature powers. It easily pulled them to pieces, and, thrusting its long saliva-covered flexible tongue into the seething mass, would withdraw it covered with ants, repeating the process until the ant-heap was exhausted.
When asleep, it lay on one side, its nose resting on its breast, its four legs drawn together, and its curled-up body completely covered by its bushy tail. It resembled nothing so such as a bundle of hay.
The ant-eater is larger than is generally supposed. For instance, the great ant-eater (there are several smaller kinds) sometimes measures eight feet from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail, which appendage, by the way, is a wonderful affair covered with very long hair that sweeps the ground like a lady's train, and can be raised like a plume. In Brazil it is called the banner ant-eater, because it has on each side of its shoulders a broad oblique black and grey stripe, somewhat resembling an heraldic flag. The general colour of its body is dark.
Helpless and harmless as the ant-bear looks, tricks should not be played with it. One of its habits is decidedly bear-like, as the following will show: A naturalist came suddenly upon a very fine specimen, and thoughtlessly seized it by its long snout. The bear instantly rose on its hind legs and clasped him round the middle so tightly that he was helpless. Luckily his companion came to his rescue, and after vainly trying to beat the bear off, fired at it, for nothing short of a pistol ball would have made the creature relax its hold. When measured, it was found to be six feet to the tip of its tail, its hair-tuft giving another four feet.
Sloths.—" Decidedly an uninteresting animal," was the general verdict when the first two-toed sloth arrived at the Zoological Gardens in London.
To be compelled to wait outside its cage, say, for an hour before one had the small satisfaction of seeing the creature even attempt to move, and then, perhaps, only to the extent of drooping its reversed head in miserable fashion, was hardly calculated to inspire enthusiasm. And when it had the enterprise to descend from the tree (to the branches of which it clung always from below, never from above), it was pronounced to be a deformity. This is because the peculiar formation of a sloth's fore legs, which are much longer than the hind ones, and the hooked claws doubled up under the toes, make any at-tempt at walking a farce. It can only contrive to drag itself along on its knees, as it were, yet, strangely enough, it can swim well, and often frequents rivers three hundred yards wide.
The sloth is a sylvan creature. Trees supply it with both board and lodging. It sleeps on the fork of a tree, tightly clinging to one of the branches, with its back resting in the angle, and its head pillowed on its breast. It looks like a wooly ball, and is impervious to the attack of the myriad insects that infest the woods.
When in search of fresh pasture the sloth goes from tree to tree at a good pace, but when at work upon one particular tree its movements are very deliberate, betokening caution rather than laziness. It never lets go its grasp of one branch before securing its hold of another, rising on its hind legs, Iooking around and grasping about in search of a new foothold. All who have studied the sloth's habits in its natural home, the forest, admit that the epithet " sloth," as applied to sluggish people, is a misnomer.
Monkeys.— South America, and especially Brazil, is the land of monkeys, varying in size and form, but alike in that they have prehensile tails, which the monkey denizens of the Old World have not.
Charles Waterton, the famous traveller, who had more practical acquaintance with wild monkeys than any one before or since, says:
" The prehensile tail is a most curious thing. It has been denominated very appropriately a fifth hand. It is of manifest advantage to the animal, either when sitting in repose on the branch of a tree or when on its journey onwards in the gloomy recesses of the wilderness. You may see this monkey catching hold of the branches with its hands and at the same moment twisting its tail round one of them, as if in want of additional support; and this prehensile tail is sufficiently strong to hold the animal in its place, even when all its four limbs are detached from the tree; so that it can swing to and fro and amuse itself solely through the instrumentality of its prehensile tail, which, by the way, would be of no manner of use to it did accident or misfortune force the monkey to take up a temporary abode on the ground. For several inches from the extremity, by nature and by constant use, this tail has assumed somewhat the appearance of the inside of a man's finger, entirely denuded of hair or fur.
" By way of recapitulation, then, let the young naturalist, when he turns his thoughts on the monkey family, always bear in mind that . . . when a monkey presents itself before him with a prehensile tail, he may be as sure as he is of the rising sun, it is from the never-ending forests of the New World."
So far so good. But the question naturally arises: Why have not the monkeys of the Old World? many of them arboreal, prehensile tails, since their requirements and surroundings are identical with those of South America?
In the Brazilian spider-monkey the tail as a prehensile organ attains to perfection, and its great length and its slenderness of body and limbs accounts for its designation.
A familiar picture in some. books of travel is that of a living bridge over a forest stream. This bridge, is composed of monkeys, one of which grasps a tree, another holding on to him, and another on to him, and so on, until a long chain of monkeys is formed, which, when violently oscillated, -swings to a tree on the opposite side and is immediately grasped by the last monkey.
If such a feat could be performed by monkeys, it would be by spider-monkeys. With their wonderful tails they can seize upon objects placed behind them without moving their bodies or letting their eyes cooperate in the action.
There are more spider-monkeys kept as pets in Brazil than any other kind, so readily tamed are they, and they become so accustomed to man and the human voice that, when scolded, they weep and wail like spoiled children.
There are some little monkeys that are pleasant companions. My favorites in Brazil were capuchins and marmosets, the former with hair so short on the top of their head as to give an appearance of baldness, and with a ring of long hair below, making them look not unlike tonsured monks.
There were both capuchins and marmosets at " Bennett's," and the guests used to play tricks on them. The little capuchins loved the smell of tobacco, and when puffs of smoke were blown towards them they would rub their faces ecstatically with their hands as though rubbing in some tangible substance, like soap.
Marmosets are charmingly unmonkeylike— something like very small cats in appearance (the body nine inches long and tail fifteen inches), as well as in disposition and habit. When angry they hiss and growl, and show their teeth. They are querulous when first captured, but soon become tame and familiar and playful as kittens. They are not unlike squirrels in their nimbleness among the trees. In face they are like miniature old men with whiskers. They have long black manes like diminutive lions, and thick, black, soft, chinchilla-like fur. Though their heads are small, they are very intelligent. They are able to recognise pictures; they like to look at them-selves in a looking-glass; at the sight of a wasp they will tightly shut their eyes (terrified at it, even in a picture), but woe betide the luckless spider or cockroach that enters their cage — it is captured and devoured instantly.
The marmosets at " Bennett's " were fond of oranges. One once accidentally squirted some juice into its face, and ever afterwards, when eating an orange, shut its eyes. I used to offer them pieces of meat, which they invariably refused, although they eagerly scooped out and ate the brains of dead chickens and rats. Their usual food was eggs, sugar, bread, soft-bodied insects, and tropical fruits, but I regret to say they had a surprising liking for stimulants. Once a mischievous visitor gave them some wine; they asked for more, and got it, and became helplessly intoxicated, in which deplorable condition they presented a most miserable appearance. I am glad to say that after that humiliating experience they, like Rip Van Winkle, " swore off."
One day a negro brought in from the forest a dead snake called a jararaca, a hideous reptile with a flat triangular head joined to the body by a thin neck, the bite of which is generally fatal. When it was thoughtlessly held up close to the marmoset cage, the poor little occupant went into convulsions of terror, and it was many hours before he recovered.
I took several marmosets back with me, and they became great favourites on board ship, though they were sometimes rather troublesome. When released they would run up the rigging more swiftly than any sailor, and decline to come down for several hours. They could not bear rough usage, and one of them, after having been systematically teased, died of grief.
I fed them on bread, apples, and as many black-beetles as I could procure in the well-kept mail-steamer. As a treat I gave them chicken bones to suck, and once a few mice that had been caught and killed, which they devoured in a curious way. Beginning at the top, they carefully pushed back the skin, eating the bones and all the body, until the tail was reached, when nothing was left but the pelt.
Vampires.— In the Middle Ages no superstition had a greater hold upon the minds of all classes of people than that of the existence of ghouls and vampires energised by fiends.
The former were supposed to be evil spirits that temporarily assumed human forms, visiting graves at night and feeding upon their gruesome contents, declining all food in the daytime yet preserving an appearance of perfect health.
Vampires were supposed to be dead people who retained a semblance of life, showing no outward signs of decay, though devoid of breath. After dark they were supposed to leave their tombs and, assuming various forms, generally those of huge bats, creep into bedrooms night after night, and suck the blood of some sleeping victim, who gradually pined away from sheer exhaustion.
When the identity of this kind of vampire could be determined one course only was open to stop its ravages. Its body was exhumed, taken into the church, and before the altar its evil spirit was solemnly exorcised,. and a sharp stake driven into its heart. With a horrible yell and terrible convulsions the fiend departed, and the corpse instantly resolved into natural decay.
No doubt these ideas hailed from the East, and when the early explorers of South America gravely asserted that they had both seen and felt vampire-bats at their fell work of blood-sucking, and when they exhibited the skin of one of them, its repulsive appearance confirmed the superstitution that they were emissaries of the Evil One.
Imagine a huge bat, twenty-eight to twenty inches in expanse of wing—the width of a guinea-fowl's. Nothing can be more hideous and diabolical than a side view of it. Huge leathery ears sticking out from the top and sides of the head, an erect, leaf-like appendage on the tip of the nose, eyes black and glistening, and a sardonic grin on its mouth.
In Brazil there are vampire-bats that are harmless, and others that undoubtedly suck the blood of animals and mankind. Though in Europe considerable scepticism has been expressed on the subject, there is abundant evidence that in South America they indulge their sanguinary appetite, as well as their healthy craving for a fruit diet.
They frequent hollow trees, and in the depth of the forest can be seen hanging from the branches in clusters, with their bodies downward, and their heads upturned on their reversed chests — an astounding position, unique in the animal world.
The modus operandi of these fiends is to fan their slumbering victims into a deeper sleep, then to make a fine incision (rather smaller than that produced by a leech) with one of their long canine teeth in the toes of human beings, the ears or shoulders of oxen and mules, and the combs of poultry; but accurate observers maintain that the puncture is made by the sharp hooked nail of the vampire's thumb, and the blood abstracted by the suctional power of its tongue and lip.
It is nothing unusual in Brazil to meet with negroes covered with scars, the result of vampire-bites. Vampires appear to prefer African to European blood, and although Charles Waterton lived eleven months in the middle of the forests of Guiana, in a deserted wood-cutter's hut, where vampires abounded, they never bit him, but they greatly plagued his negroes.