Delacroix's Big Cats

Jaguar Attacking a Horseman

Images by French painter Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). He's better known for his people and horses, but his carnivores show an uncanny vitality. 

Puma
Lion Devouring a Hare

Lion Mauling a Dead Arab

Lion Watching a Gazelle

Tiger Startled by a Snake

Johnny Cash Battles an Ostrich

MathKnight/Creative Commons

From Cash: The Autobiography comes this account of the singer's run-in with an exotic pet. 


I was almost killed by an ostrich.

Ostrich attacks are rare in Tennessee, it’s true, but this one really happened, on the grounds of the exotic animal park I’d established behind the House of Cash offices near my house on Old Hickory Lake. It occurred during a particularly bitter winter, when below-zero temperatures had reduced our ostrich population by half; the hen of our pair wouldn’t let herself be captured and taken inside the barn, so she froze to death. That, I guess, is what made her mate cranky. Before then he’d been perfectly pleasant with me, as had all the other birds and animals, when I walked through the compound.

That day, though, he was not happy to see me. I was walking through the woods in the compound when suddenly he jumped out onto the trail in front of me and crouched there with his wings spread out, hissing nastily.

Nothing came of that encounter. I just stood there until he laid his wings back, quit hissing, and moved off. Then I walked on. As I walked I plotted. He’d be waiting for me when I came back by there, ready to give me the same treatment, and I couldn’t have that. I was the boss. It was my land.

The ostrich didn’t care. When I came back I was carrying a good stout six-foot stick, and I was prepared to use it. And sure enough, there he was on the trail in front of me, doing his thing. When he started moving toward me I went on the offensive, taking a good hard swipe at him.


I missed. He wasn’t there. He was in the air, and a split second later he was on his way down again, with that big toe of his, larger than my size-thirteen shoe, extended toward my stomach. He made contact—I’m sure there was never any question he wouldn’t—and frankly, I got off lightly. All he did was break my two lower ribs and rip my stomach open down to my belt, If the belt hadn’t been good and strong, with a solid belt buckle, he’d have spilled my guts exactly the way he meant to. As it was, he knocked me over onto my back and I broke three more ribs on a rock—but I had sense enough to keep swinging the stick, so he didn’t get to finish me. I scored a good hit on one of his legs, and he ran off.

As mentioned in The Book of Deadly Animals, ostriches occasionally kill people, in circumstances pretty similar to these. 



"I hang my head and cry."

The Man-Eater of Seoni


Beginning in 1857, a man-eating leopard wreaked havoc in the Seoni district of India. As the number of its human victims rose—it eventually passed 200—people changed their way of living. They shut themselves indoors at dusk. At night one member of each household stayed awake to keep watch. These sentinels called to their friends on the hour, helping each other stay awake.

Such were the conditions a certain civil servant found when he passed through the area on business. He stopped for the night in the village of Kahani. He was welcomed into the house of a local official. Though he gladly accepted the hospitality, he scoffed at the villagers’ fear of the leopard. Leopards rarely attack people, and he was confident he could kill this one with his sword if it troubled him. When others shut themselves in for the night, he stayed on the veranda. His hosts heard him walking about and striking an occasional match for his pipe until midnight.

The next sound they heard from him happened at two in the morning. It was the scream he uttered the moment before he died. The leopard closed off that sound with a bite. They rushed out to help the man; the leopard fled at their noise; no one really saw it. But they saw its tracks and the killing wounds on his corpse.

It was a custom in that area for farmers to build a platform called a machan in the middle of a field. From the machan, the farmer could keep watch all night, protecting his ripening crops from wild boars and deer. It was important to do this, because the crop might provide both food for the family and its only source of income for the year. During the day, every member of the family might help guard the crops—even small children. The leopard changed all that for many families. Several times, it snatched a child in broad daylight, leaving a traumatized sibling to tell the parents what had happened. Adults on machans weren’t safe either. The leopard climbed or leaped onto several of them, killing the guardian farmers. Soon, people were abandoning their fields to the pigs and deer, even though they knew they’d face hunger and perhaps starvation in the coming months.

One young couple decided to build a hut in the middle of their field. They had a four-year-old child to provide for and debts to pay. They would protect themselves by keeping campfires burning at the entrance to the hut. One morning the woman heard rustling in the bushes near their hut. She roused her husband to tell him she suspected it was the man-eater, but he scoffed at the notion and went back to sleep. Suddenly the leopard rushed past the fire and into the hut. It seized the man by the throat and dragged him out through the fire. Probably it meant to drag him into the wilderness beyond the range of human interference and eat him in peace. The woman, however, took hold of her husband’s legs. A bizarre tug-of-war took place. The cat certainly would have overpowered the woman if the contest had gone on; leopards are strong enough to cache their kills in trees, carrying weights of 200 pounds straight up the trunk if necessary. But the woman screamed loud enough to bring help, and the sound startled the leopard. In an instant it was gone. The man lay dead, four deep punctures marking his throat where the cat’s fangs had seized him. He’d never made a sound.
He was its third victim that night.

As the leopard’s man-eating career carried on, it seemed to give up on other prey altogether. Sometimes, when it killed several people in one night, it didn’t bother to eat the corpses. English hunters in the area thought it was merely drinking the blood of its kills. (It probably wasn’t; cats often flense the hair from their prey with their rasp-like tongues before eating it, and that action can look like drinking.) Some people offered superstitious explanations for its vast appetite. In one story, for example, it was said to be a sorcerer who had turned into a leopard to more easily hunt the robust nilgai antelope, then found himself unable to change back. In his rage, he began killing every human he met.

In truth, this was merely a case of surplus killing. Like lions and many other members of the order Carnivora, leopards may kill more than they need in order to store some of it for later. They may do this because it allows them to eat abundantly of the choicest parts of the prey, such as the energy-rich brains, and leave the less-appealing parts alone. (In 2012, a leopard killed a man in India’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park and ate only his genitals.) They may kill in excess simply for practice; possibly they enjoy it, though it’s hard for us to know the emotions of other animals. In the case of this leopard, being driven away from some of its kills probably encouraged it to take new victims right away.

The Indian government put a bounty on the head of the leopard. At least two well-armed English parties tried and failed to collect.  The one who finally succeeded was a local hunter armed only with a primitive matchlock rifle. Like the farmers, hunters had found their occupation suddenly dangerous in those days of the man-eater. However, hunger trumped caution for Kurria Gond one night. He dug a foxhole and crouched hidden in it, hoping to shoot a wild boar. Once the moon went down, he knew it was too dark for him to shoot accurately, so he headed home.

His path took him past a bean-field and then a stand of trees. In their shelter he saw a shadow moving among other shadows. It could have been an animal suitable for eating—or an animal interested in eating him. In either case, shooting seemed the wisest move. He fired.

The roar of a leopard answered his shot.

He knew he had hit his mark, and the leopard sounded badly hurt. The usual response of a leopard when wounded is to kill its attacker, or die trying. Kurria Gond ran for shelter. The next day, he returned with friends—and a herd of water buffalo. Although individual buffalo often fall prey to leopards and tigers, the predators flee from the mighty hoofed animals when they approach in a group. People sometimes think of “herd behavior” as a sign of stupidity, but it’s an immensely effective deterrent to predation. In some cases, groups of buffalo have even rescued humans from tigers.
Following a wounded leopard into high grass and trees is possibly the most dangerous thing a hunter can do, but the buffalo made it safer. Soon one of the bull buffs bellowed with alarm. It had found something. If the leopard had been able to move, it would have fled. No leopard appeared. The people crept forward. They found the man-eater dead in the grass. Kurria Gond’s shot had struck its heart.


Earth Shots

A few interesting animal photos from Google Earth. 


Man pursues bear

Bird's-eye view

Horse rooting in trash

A tiger in town

The Death of Tilikum the Killer Whale


In the wild, killer whales (also called orcas) rarely harm people. There’s one case of an orca seemingly trying to knock a man off the polar ice into the water to eat him, and several cases of orcas sinking small craft. The only orcas to carry out fatal attacks, however, have been captives in aquariums. The most dangerous captive to date is a big bull named Tilikum, and his life in captivity has been one of abuse. He was captured as a calf and kept at Sea Land of the Pacific near Victoria, British Columbia. There he and the aquarium’s other two orcas were herded into a small steel cage at night. This cage allowed them little sensory stimulation. It also kept Tilikum from escaping when his peers became violent. Such violence is usually minor in the wild, a way of establishing a whale’s place in the pod. In the open ocean, a whale can keep his distance from aggressive pod-mates. Tilikum didn’t have that option. He often emerged from the cage in the morning bleeding, the older whales having raked his body with their teeth.

In 1991, Tilikum attacked a 20-year-old marine biology student and part-time animal trainer. He seized Keltie Byrne by the foot and dragged her into the pool. The other two orcas in his pool joined in the attack. They seemed to treat Byrne as a toy, dunking her and keeping her from reaching the side of the pool. When other trainers tossed her a flotation ring, the whales kept her from reaching it. Because she was a strong swimmer, she managed to surface and scream for help three times before the whales drowned her. Her body remained in the pool for hours. The whales continued to play with it. They would not allow other humans to fish it out.

Tilikum was sold to the SeaWorld aquarium in Orlando, Florida, where he continued to perform. One morning his keepers found a naked corpse draped across his back. The corpse was bruised and scraped literally from head to foot. Its scrotum and one testicle had been torn off. An autopsy revealed that these injuries had occurred after the man’s death by drowning. An investigation identified the man as Daniel Dukes, 27. Dukes had visited Sea World the day before as a paying customer, then apparently hidden inside so he could remain overnight. How he ended up in the whale tank is unknown; almost certainly, he chose to enter it. Perhaps, like many people, he hoped to commune with the animals. The fact that he was stripped and castrated may mean Tilikum perceived him as a rival; in fact, other species of toothed whales have attacked men in the groin.

Tilikum continued to work at SeaWorld, though he usually performed without trainers in the pool. Instead, the trainers directed him from poolside, feeding him fish as a reward when he did his work well. In February, 2010, a SeaWorld employee told a 911 dispatcher, “A whale has eaten one of the trainers.” As it turned out, the caller was mistaken; Tilikum had killed a trainer named Dawn Branchaeu, but had not eaten much of her.

She had just completed a show during which she led Tilikum through various tricks, such as waving to the audience. As she was on the edge of the pool petting and talking to him, Tilikum seized her by the arm and dragged her into the pool. Witnesses saw her sandals float away, knocked off her feet by the sudden motion. Brancheau swam for the surface; Tilikum struck her like a torpedo to keep her in the water. She tried again. This time Tilikum swam at her with his mouth agape, seized her by the neck and shoulder, and plunged. He thrashed her from side to side. Meanwhile, other employees were stringing nets, trying to herd him into a smaller pool so they could get her away from him. Tilikum dodged them. He changed his grip on the body to avoid having it taken away. They had seen him be equally possessive with toys tossed into his pool. They slapped the water, a signal requesting him to follow their orders. He ignored the slaps and seemed to become frantic in his efforts to keep the body. At one point he surfaced with Brancheau in his mouth. Her head lolled; she had a broken neck. An autopsy later showed that Tilikum had also broken her sternum, two ribs, and her jaw. And he had scalped her. Her scalp and hair were found at the bottom of one of the pools Tilikum had been herded through, along with the whistle Brancheau used during performances.

Eventually the workers managed to get Tilikum into a pool with a bottom that could be raised. As they raised it, Tilikum was stranded. They held him with nets and approached to take the corpse from his mouth. After they had done so, they realized her left arm was missing. They had to return one more time to fish the severed arm from the belly of the beast.

Tilikum died in captivity January 6, 2017, at the estimated age of 36—a full life span for a male orca.


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