The Naturalist in La Plata
W. H. Hudson

Part 5 out of 5

instinct of one and all is to lord it over the others, with the result
that one more powerful or domineering gets the mastery, to keep it
thereafter as long as he can. The lower animals are, in this respect,
very much like us; and in all kinds that are at all fierce-tempered the
mastery of one over all, and of a few under him over the others, is most
salutary; indeed, it is inconceivable that they should be able to exist
together under any other system.

On cattle-breeding establishments on the pampas, where it is usual to
keep a large number of fierce-tempered dogs, I have observed these
animals a great deal, and presume that they are very much like feral
dogs and wolves in their habits. Their quarrels are incessant; but when
a fight begins the head of the pack as a rule rushes to the spot,
whereupon the fighters separate and march off in different directions,
or else cast themselves down and deprecate their tyrant's wrath with
abject gestures and whines. If the combatants are both strong and have
worked themselves into a mad rage before their head puts in an
appearance, it may go hard with him: they know him no longer, and all he
can do is to join in the fray; then, if the fighters turn on him, he may
be so injured that his power is gone, and the next best dog in the pack
takes his place. The hottest contests are always between dogs that are
well matched; neither will give place to the other, and so they fight it
out; but from the foremost in strength and power down to the weakest
there is a gradation of authority; each one knows just how far he can
go, which companion he can bully when he is in a bad temper or wishes to
assert himself, and to which he must humbly yield in his turn. In such a
state the weakest one must always yield to all the others, and cast
himself down, seeming to call himself a slave and worshipper of any
other member of the pack that chooses to snarl at him, or command him to
give up his bone with a good grace.

This masterful or domineering temper, so common among social mammals, is
the cause of the persecution of the sick and weakly. When an animal
begins to ail he can no longer hold his own; he ceases to resent the
occasional ill-natured attacks made on him; his non-combative condition
is quickly discovered, and he at once drops down to a place below the
lowest; it is common knowledge in the herd that he may be buffeted with
impunity by all, even by those that have hitherto suffered buffets but
have given none. But judging from my own observation, this persecution,
is not, as a rule, severe, and is seldom fatal.

It is often the case that a sick or injured animal withdraws and hides
himself from the herd; the instinct of the "stricken deer" this might be
called. But I do not think that we need assume that the ailing
individual goes away to escape the danger of being ill-used by his
companions. He is sick and drooping and consequently unfit to be with
the healthy and vigorous; that is the simplest and probably the true
explanation of his action; although in some cases he might be driven
from them by persistent rough usage. However peaceably gregarious
mammals may live together, and however fond of each other's company they
may be, they do not, as a rule, treat each other gently. Furthermore,
their games are exceedingly rough and require that they shall be in a
vigorous state of health to escape injury. Horned animals have no
buttons to the sharp weapons they prod and strike each other with in a
sportive spirit. I have often witnessed the games of wild and half-wild
horses with astonishment; for it seemed that broken bones must result
from the sounding kicks they freely bestowed on one another. This
roughness itself would be a sufficient cause for the action of the
individual, sick and out of tune and untouched by the glad contagion of
the others, in escaping from them; and to leave them would be to its
advantage (and to that of the race) since, if not fatally injured or
sick unto death, its chances of recovery to perfect health would be
thereby greatly increased.

It remains now to speak of that seemingly most cruel of instincts which
stands last on my list. It is very common among gregarious animals that
are at all combative in disposition, and still survives in our domestic
cattle, although very rarely witnessed in England. My first experience
of it was just before I had reached the age of five years. I was not at
that early period trying to find out any of nature's secrets, but the
scene I witnessed printed itself very vividly on my mind, so that I can
recall it as well as if my years had been five-and-twenty; perhaps
better. It was on a summer's evening, and I was out by myself at some
distance from the house, playing about the high exposed roots of some
old trees; on the other side of the trees the cattle, just returned from
pasture, were gathered on the bare level ground. Hearing a great
commotion among them, I climbed on to one of the high exposed roots,
and, looking over, saw a cow on the ground, apparently unable to rise,
moaning and bellowing in a distressed way, while a number of her
companions were crowding round and goring her.

What is the meaning of such an instinct? Darwin has but few words on the
subject. "Can we believe," he says, in his posthumous _Essay on
Instinct, "_when a wounded herbivorous animal returns to its own herd
and is then attacked and gored, that this cruel and very common instinct
is of any service to the species?" At the same time, he hints that such
an instinct might in some circumstances be useful, and his hint has been
developed into the current belief among naturalists on the subject. Here
it is, in Dr. Romanes' words: "We may readily imagine that the instinct
displayed by many herbivorous animals of goring sick and wounded
companions, is really of use in countries where the presence of weak
members in a herd is a source of danger to the herd from the prevalence
of wild beasts." Here it is assumed that the sick are set upon and
killed, but this is not the fact; sickness and decay from age or some
other cause are slow things, and increase imperceptibly, so that the
sight of a drooping member grows familiar to the herd, as does that of a
member with some malformation, or unusual shade of colour, or altogether
white, as in the case of an albino.

Sick and weak members, as we have seen, while subject to some
ill-treatment from their companions (only because they can be
ill-treated with impunity), do not rouse the herd to a deadly animosity;
the violent and fatal attack is often as not made on a member in perfect
health and vigour and unwoundecl, although, owing to some accident, in
great distress, and perhaps danger, at the moment.

The instinct is, then, not only useless but actually detrimental; and,
this being so, the action of the herd in destroying one of its members
is not even to be regarded as an instinct proper, but rather as an
aberration of an instinct, a blunder, into which animals sometimes fall
when excited to action in unusual circumstances.

The first thing that strikes us is that in these wild abnormal moments
of social animals, they are acting in violent contradiction to the whole
tenor of their lives; that in turning against a distressed fellow they
oppose themselves to the law of their being, to the whole body of
instincts, primary and secondary, and habits, which have made it
possible for them to exist together in communities. It is, I think, by
reflecting on the abnormal character of such an action that we are led
to a true interpretation of this "dark saying of Nature."

Every one is familiar with Bacon's famous passage about the dog, and the
noble courage which that animal puts on when "maintained by a man; who
is to him in place of a God, or _melior natura;_ which courage is
manifestly such as that creature, without the confidence of a better
nature than its own, could never attain." Not so. The dog is a social
animal, and acts instinctively in concert with his fellows; and the
courage he manifests is of the family, not the individual. In the
domestic state the man he is accustomed to associate with and obey
stands to him in the place of the controlling pack, and to his mind,
which is canine and not human, _is_ the pack. A similar "noble courage,"
greatly surpassing that exhibited on all other occasions, is displayed
by an infinite number of mammals and birds of gregarious habits, when
repelling the attacks of some powerful and dangerous enemy, or when they
rush to the rescue of one of their captive fellows. Concerning this rage
and desperate courage of social animals in the face of an enemy, we see
(1) that it is excited by the distressed cries, or by the sight of a
member of the herd or family dying from or struggling in the clutches of
an enemy; (2) that it affects animals when a number af individuals are
together, and is eminently contagious, like fear, that communicates
itself, quick as lightning, from one to another until all are in a
panic, and like the joyous emotion that impels the members of a herd or
flock to rush simultaneously into play.

Now, it is a pretty familiar fact that animals acting instinctively, as
well as men acting intelligently, have at times their delusions and
their illusions, and see things falsely, and are moved to action by a
false stimulus to their own disadvantage. When the individuals of a herd
or family are excited to a sudden deadly rage by the distressed cries of
one of their fellows, or by the sight of its bleeding wounds and the
smell of its blood, or when they see it frantically struggling on the
ground, or in the cleft of a tree or rock, as if in the clutches of a
powerful enemy, they do not turn on it to kill but to rescue it.

In whatever way the rescuing instinct may have risen, whether simply
through natural selection or, as is more probable, through an
intelligent habit becoming fixed and hereditary, its effectiveness
depends altogether on the emotion of overmastering rage excited in the
animal--rage against a tangible visible enemy, or invisible, and excited
by the cries or struggles of a suffering companion; clearly, then, it
could not provide against the occasional rare accidents that animals
meet with, which causes them to act precisely in the way they do when
seized or struck down by an enemy. An illusion is the result of the
emotion similar to the illusion produced by vivid expectation in
ourselves, which has caused many a man to see in a friend and companion
the adversary he looked to see, and to slay him in his false-seeing

An illusion just as great, leading to action equally violent, but
ludicrous rather than painful to witness, may be seen in dogs, when
encouraged by a man to the attack, and made by his cries and gestures to
expect that some animal they are accustomed to hunt is about to be
unearthed or overtaken; and if, when they are in this disposition, he
cunningly exhibits and sets them on a dummy, made perhaps of old rags
and leather and stuffed with straw, they will seize, worry, and tear it
to pieces with the greatest fury, and without the faintest suspicion of
its true character.

That wild elephants will attack a distressed fellow seemed astonishing
to Darwin, when he remembered the case of an elephant after escaping
from a pit helping its fellow to escape also. But it is precisely the
animals, high or low in the organic scale, that are social, and possess
the instinct of helping each other, that will on occasions attack a
fellow in misfortune--such an attack being no more than a blunder of the
helping instinct.

Felix de Azara records a rather cruel experiment on the temper of some
tame rats confined in a cage. The person who kept them caught the tail
of one of the animals and began sharply pinching it, keeping his hand
concealed under the cage. Its cries of pain and struggles to free itself
greatly excited the other rats; and after rushing wildly round for some
moments they flew at their distressed companion, and fixing their teeth
in its throat quickly dispatched it. In this case if the hand that held
the tail had been visible and in the cage, the bites would undoubtedly
have been inflicted on it; but no enemy was visible; yet the fury and
impulse to attack an enemy was present in the animals. In such
circumstances, the excitement must be discharged--the instinct obeyed,
and in the absence of any other object of attack the illusion is
produced and it discharges itself on the struggling companion. It is
sometimes seen in dogs, when three or four or five are near together,
that if one suddenly utters a howl or cry of pain, when no man is near
it and no cause apparent, the others run to it, and seeing nothing, turn
round and attack each other. Here the exciting cause--the cry for
help--is not strong enough to produce the illusion which is sometimes
fatal to the suffering member; but each dog mistakingly thinks that the
others, or one of the others, inflicted the injury, and his impulse is
to take the part of the injured animal. If the cry for help--caused
perhaps by a sudden cramp or the prick of a thorn--is not very sharp or
intense, the other dogs will not attack, but merely look and growl at
each other in a suspicious way.

To go back to Azara's anecdote. Why, it may be asked--and this question
has been put to me in conversation--if killing a distressed companion is
of no advantage to the race, and if something must be attacked--why did
not these rats in this instance attack the cage they were shut in, and
bite at the woodwork and wires? Or, in the case related by Mr. Andrew
Lang in _Longman's Magazine_ some time ago, in which the members of a
herd of cattle in Scotland turned with sudden amazing fury on one of the
cows that had got wedged between two rocks and was struggling with
distressed bellowings to free itself--why did they not attack the
prisoning rocks instead of goring their unfortunate comrade to death?
For it is well known that animals will, on occasions, turn angrily upon
and attack inanimate objects that cause them injury or hinder their
freedom of action. And we know that this mythic faculty--the mind's
projection of itself into visible nature--survives in ourselves, that
there are exceptional moments in our lives when it comes back to us; no
one, for instance, would be astonished to hear that any man, even a
philosopher, had angrily kicked away or imprecated a stool or other
inanimate object against which he had accidentally barked his shins. The
answer is, that there is no connection between these two things--the
universal mythic faculty of the mind, and that bold and violent instinct
of social animals of rushing to the rescue of a stricken or distressed
companion, which has a definite, a narrow, purpose--namely, to fall upon
an enemy endowed not merely with the life and intelligence common to all
things, including rocks, trees, and waters, but with animal form and

I had intended in this place to give other instances, observed in
several widely-separated species, including monkeys; but it is not
necessary, as I consider that all the facts, however varied, are covered
by the theory I have suggested--even a fact I like the one mentioned in
this chapter of cattle bellowing and madly digging up the ground where
the blood of one of their kind had been spilt: also such a fact as that
of wild cattle and other animals caught in a trap or enclosure attacking
and destroying each other in their frenzy; and the fact that some
fierce-tempered carnivorous mammals will devour the companion they have
killed. It is an instinct of animals like wolves and peccaries to devour
the enemy they have overcome and slain: thus, when the jaguar captures a
peccary out of a drove, and does not quickly escape with his prize into
a tree, he is instantly attacked and slain and then consumed, even to
the skin and bones. This is the wolf's and the peccary's instinct; and
the devouring of one of their own companions is an inevitable
consequence of the mistake made in the first place of attacking and
killing it. In no other circumstances, not even when starving, do they
prey on their own species.

If the explanation I have offered should seem a true or highly probable
one, it will, I feel sure, prove acceptable to many lovers of animals,
who, regarding tins seemingly ruthless instinct, not as an aberration
but as in some vague way advantageous to animals in their struggle for
existence, are yet unable to think of it without pain and horror;
indeed, I know those who refuse to think of it at all, who would gladly
disbelieve it if they could.

It should be a relief to them to be able to look on it no longer as
something ugly and hateful, a blot on nature, but as an illusion, a
mistake, an unconscious crime, so to speak, that has for its motive the
noblest passion that animals know--that sublime courage and daring which
they exhibit in defence of a distressed companion. This fiery spirit in
animals, which makes them forget their own safety, moves our hearts by
its close resemblance to one of the most highly-prized human virtues;
just as we are moved to intellectual admiration by the wonderful
migratory instinct in birds that simulates some of the highest
achievements of the mind of man. And we know that this beautiful
instinct is also liable to mistakes--that many travellers leave us
annually never to return. Such a mistake was undoubtedly the cause of
the late visitation of Pallas' sand-grouse: owing perhaps to some
unusual atmospheric or dynamic condition, or to some change in the
nervous system of the birds, they deviated widely from their usual
route, to scatter in countless thousands over the whole of Europe and
perish slowly in climates not suited to them; while others, overpassing
the cold strange continent, sped on over colder, stranger seas, to drop
at last like aerolites, quenching their lives in the waves.

Whether because it is true, as Professor Freeman and some others will
have it, that humanity is a purely modern virtue; or because the
doctrine of Darwin, by showing that we are related to other forms of
life, that our best feelings have their roots low down in the temper and
instincts of the social species, has brought us nearer in spirit to the
inferior animals, it is certain that our regard for them has grown, and
is growing, and that new facts and fresh inferences that make us think
more highly of them are increasingly welcome.



There is no mode of progression so delightful as riding on horseback.
Walking, rowing, bicycling are pleasant exercises in their way, but the
muscular exertion and constant exercise of judgment they call for occupy
the mind partly to the exclusion of other things; so that a long walk
may sometimes be only a long walk and nothing more. In riding
we are not conscious of exertion, and as for that close observation and
accurate discernment necessary in traversing the ground with speed and
safety, it is left to the faithful servant that carries us. Pitfalls,
hillocks, slippery places, the thousand little inequalities of the
surface that have to be measured with infallible eye, these disturb us
little. To fly or go slowly at will, to pass unshaken over rough and
smooth alike, fording rivers without being wet, and mounting hills
without climbing, this is indeed unmixed delight. It is the nearest
approach to bird-life we seem capable of, since all the monster bubbles
and flying fabrics that have been the sport of winds from the days of
Montgolfier downwards have brought us no nearer to it. The aeronaut
gasping for breath above the clouds offers only a sad spectacle of the
imbecility of science and man's shattered hopes. To the free inhabitants
of air we can only liken the mounted Arab, vanishing, hawklike, over the
boundless desert.

In riding there is always exhilarating motion; yet, if the scenery
encountered be charming, you are apparently sitting still, while,
river-like, it flows toward and past you, ever giving place to fresh
visions of beauty. Above all, the mind is free, as when one lies idly on
the grass gazing up into the sky. And, speaking of myself, there is even
more than this immunity from any tax on the understanding such as we
require in walking; the rhythmic motion, the sensation as of night,
acting on the brain like a stimulus. That anyone should be able to think
better lying, sitting, or standing, than when speeding along on
horseback, is to me incomprehensible. This is doubtless due to early
training and long use; for on those great pampas where I first saw the
light and was taught at a tender age to ride, we come to look on man as
a parasitical creature, fitted by nature to occupy the back of a horse,
in which position only he has full and free use of all his faculties.
Possibly the gaucho--the horseman of the pampas--is born with this idea
in his brain; if so, it would only be reasonable to suppose that its
correlative exists in a modification of structure. Certain it is that an
intoxicated gaucho lifted on to the back of his horse is perfectly safe
in his seat. The horse may do his best to rid himself of his burden; the
rider's legs--or posterior arms as they might appropriately be
called--retain their iron grip, notwithstanding the fuddled brain.

The gaucho is more or less bow-legged; and, of course, the more crooked
his legs are, the better for him in his struggle for existence. Off his
horse his motions are awkward, like those of certain tardigrade mammals
of arboreal habits when removed from their tree. He waddles in his walk;
his hands feel for the reins; his toes turn inwards like a duck's. And
here, perhaps, we can see why foreign travellers, judging him from their
own standpoint, invariably bring against him the charge of laziness. On
horseback he is of all men most active. His patient endurance under
privations that would drive other men to despair, his laborious days and
feats of horsemanship, the long journeys he performs without rest or
food, seem to simple dwellers on the surface of the earth almost like
miracles. Deprive him of his horse, and he can do nothing but sit on
the ground cross-legged, or _en cuclillas_,--on his heels. You have, to
use his own figurative language, cut off his feet.

Darwin in his earlier years appears not to have possessed the power of
reading men with that miraculous intelligence always distinguishing his
researches concerning other and lower orders of beings. In the _Voyage
of a Naturalist,_ speaking of this supposed indolence of the gauchos, he
tells that in one place where workmen were in great request, seeing a
poor gaucho sitting in a listless attitude, he asked him why he did not
work. The man's answer was that _he was too poor to work!_ The
philosopher was astonished and amused at the reply, but failed to
understand it. And yet, to one acquainted with these lovers of brief
phrases, what more intelligible answer could have been returned? The
poor fellow simply meant to say that his horses had been stolen--a thing
of frequent occurrence in that country, or, perhaps, that some minion of
the Government of the moment had seized them for the use of the State.

To return to the starting point, the pleasures of riding do not flow
exclusively from the agreeable sensations attendant on flight-like
motion; there is also the knowledge, sweet in itself, that not a mere
cunningly fashioned machine, like that fabled horse of brass "on which
the Tartar king did ride," sustains us; but a something with life and
thought, like ourselves, that feels what we feel, understands us, and
keenly participates in our pleasures. Take, for example, the horse on
which some quiet old country gentleman is accustomed to travel; how
soberly and evenly he jogs along, picking his way over the ground. But
let him fall into the hands of a lively youngster, and how soon he picks
up a frisky spirit! Were horses less plastic, more the creatures of
custom than they are, it would always be necessary, before buying one,
to inquire into the disposition of its owner.

When I was thirteen years old I was smitten with love for a horse I once
saw--an untamable-looking brute, that rolled his eyes, turbulently,
under a cloud of black mane tumbling over his forehead. I could not take
my sight off this proud, beautiful creature, and I longed to possess him
with a great longing. His owner--a worthless vagabond, as it
happened--marked my enthusiastic admiration, and a day or two
afterwards, having lost all his money at cards, he came to me, offering
to sell me the horse. Having obtained my father's consent, I rushed off
to the man with all the money I possessed--about thirty or thirty-five
shillings, I believe. After some grumbling, and finding he could get no
more, he accepted the money. My new possession filled me with unbounded
delight, and I spent the time caressing him and leading him about the
grounds in search of succulent grasses and choice leaves to feed him on.
I am sure this horse understood and loved me, for, in spite of that
savage look, which his eyes never quite lost, he always displayed a
singular gentleness towards me. He never attempted to upset me, though
he promptly threw--to my great delight, I must confess--anyone else who
ventured to mount him. Probably the secret of his conduct was that he
hated the whip. Of this individual, if not of the species, the
celebrated description held true:--"The horse is a docile animal, but if
you flog him he will not do so." After he had been mine a few days, I
rode on him one morning to witness a cattle-marking on a neighbouring
estate. I found thirty or forty gauchos on the ground engaged in
catching and branding the cattle. It was rough, dangerous work, but
apparently not rough enough to satisfy the men, so after branding an
animal and releasing him from their lassos, several of the mounted
gauchos would, purely for sport, endeavour to knock it down as it rushed
away, by charging furiously on to it. As I sat there enjoying the fun,
my horse stood very quietly under me, also eagerly watching the sport.
At length a bull was released, and, smarting from the fiery torture,
lowered his horns and rushed away towards the open plain. Three horsemen
in succession shot out from the crowd, and charged the bull at full
speed; one by one, by suddenly swerving his body round, he avoided them,
and was escaping scot-free. At this moment my horse--possibly
interpreting a casual touch of my hand on his neck, or some movement of
my body, as a wish to join in the sport--suddenly sprang forward and
charged on the flying bull like a thunderbolt, striking him full in the
middle of his body, and hurling him with a tremendous shock to earth.
The stricken beast rolled violently over, while my horse stood still as
a stone watching him. Strange to say, I was not unseated, but,
turning-round, galloped back, greeted by a shout of applause from the
spectators--the only sound of that description I have ever had the
privilege of listening to. They little knew that my horse had
accomplished the perilous feat without his rider's guidance. No doubt he
had been accustomed to do such things, and, perhaps, for the moment, had
forgotten that he had passed into the hands of a new owner--one of
tender years. He never voluntarily attempted an adventure of that kind
again; he knew, I suppose, that he no longer carried on his back a
reckless dare-devil, who valued not life. Poor Picaso! he was mine till
he died. I have had scores of horses since, but never one I loved so

With the gauchos the union between man and horse is not of so intimate a
nature as with the Indians of the pampas. Horses are too cheap, where a
man without shoes to his feet may possess a herd of them, for the
closest kind of friendship to ripen. The Indian has also less
individuality of character. The immutable nature of the conditions he is
placed in, and his savage life, which is a perpetual chase, bring him
nearer to the level of the beast he rides. And probably the acquired
sagacity of the horse in the long co-partnership of centuries has become
hereditary, and of the nature of an instinct. The Indian horse is more
docile, he understands his master better; the slightest touch of the
hand on his neck, which seems to have developed a marvellous
sensitiveness, is sufficient to guide him. The gaucho labours to give
his horse "a silken mouth," as he aptly calls it; the Indian's horse has
it from birth. Occasionally the gaucho sleeps in the saddle; the Indian
can die on his horse. During frontier warfare one hears at times of a
dead warrior being found and removed with difficulty from the horse that
carried him out of the fight, and about whose neck his rigid fingers
were clasped in death. Even in the gaucho country, however, where, I
grieve to confess, the horse is not deservedly esteemed, there are very
remarkable instances of equine attachment and fidelity to man, and of a
fellowship between horse and rider of the closest kind. One only I will

When Rosas, that man of "blood and iron," was Dictator of the Argentine
country--a position which he held for a quarter of a centuiy--desertors
from the army were inexorably shot when caught, as they generally were.
But where my boyhood was spent there was a deserter, a man named Santa
Anna, who for seven years, without ever leaving the neighbourhood of his
home, succeeded in eluding his pursuers by means of the marvellous
sagacity and watchful care exercised by his horse. When taking his rest
on the plain--for he seldom slept under a roof--his faithful horse kept
guard. At the first sight of mounted men on the horizon he would fly to
his master, and, seizing his cloak between his teeth, rouse him with a
vigorous shake. The hunted man would start up, and in a moment man and
horse would vanish into one of the dense reed-beds abounding in the
place, and where no man could follow. I have not space to tell more
about this horse; but at last, in the fulness of time, when the figs
were ripe--literally as well as figuratively, for it happened in the
autumn of the year--the long tyrannous rule ended, and Santa Anna came
out of the reed-beds, where he had lived his wild-animal life, to mix
with his fellows. I knew him some years later. He was a rather
heavy-looking man, with little to say, and his reputation for honesty
was not good in the place; but I dare say there was something good in

Students of nature are familiar with the modifying effects of new
conditions on man and brute. Take, for example, the gaucho: he must
every day traverse vast distances, see quickly, judge rapidly, be ready
at all times to encounter hunger and fatigue, violent changes of
temperature, great and sudden perils. These conditions have made him
differ widely from the peasant of the Peninsula; he has the endurance
and keen sight of a wolf, is fertile in expedients, quick in action,
values human life not at all, and is in pain or defeat a Stoic.
Unquestionably the horse he rides has also suffered a great change. He
differs as much from the English hunter, for instance, as one animal can
well differ from another of the same species. He never pounds the earth
and wastes his energies in vain parade. He has not the dauntless courage
that performs such brilliant feats in the field, and that often as not
attempts the impossible. In the chase he husbands all his strength,
carrying his head low, and almost grazing the ground with his hoofs, so
that he is not a showy animal. Constant use, or the slow cumulative
process of natural selection, has served to develop a keenness of sense
almost preternatural. The vulture's eye, with all the advantage derived
from the vulture's vast elevation above the scene surveyed, is not so
far-reaching as the sense of smell in the pampa horse. A common
phenomenon on the pampas is a sudden migration of the horses of a
district to some distant place. This occurs in seasons of drought, when
grass or water fails. The horses migrate to some district where, from
showers having fallen or other circumstances, there is a better supply
of food and drink. A slight breeze blowing from the more favoured
region, which may be forty or fifty miles away, or even much further, is
enough to start them off. Yet, during the scorching days of midsummer,
very little moisture or smell of grass can possibly reach them from such
a distance.

Another phenomenon, even more striking, is familiar to every
frontiersman. For some reason, the gaucho horse manifests the greatest
terror at an Indian invasion. No doubt his fear is, in part at any rate,
an associate feeling, the coming of the Indians being always a time of
excitement and com-motion, sweeping like a great wave over the country;
houses are in flames, families flying, cattle being driven at frantic
speed to places of greater safety. Be this as it may, long before the
marauders reach the settlement (often when they are still a whole day's
journey from it) the horses take the alarm and come wildly flying in:
the contagion quickly spreads to the horned cattle, and a general
stampede ensues. The gauchos maintain that the horses _smell_ the
Indians. I believe they are right, for when passing a distant Indian
camp, from which the wind blew, the horses driven before me have
suddenly taken fright and run away, leading me a chase of many miles.
The explanation that ostriches, deer, and other fleet animals driven in
before the invaders might be the cause of the stampede cannot be
accepted, since the horses are familiar with the sight of these animals
flying from their gaucho hunters.

There is a pretty fable of a cat and dog lying in a dark room, aptly
illustrating the fine senses of these two species. "Listen! I heard a
feather drop!" said the dog. "Oh, no!" said the cat, "it was a, needle;
I saw it." The horse is not commonly believed to have senses keen as
that, and a dog tracing his master's steps over the city pavement is
supposed to be a feat no other animal can equal. No doubt the artificial
life a horse lives in England, giving so little play to many of his most
important faculties, has served to blunt them. He is a splendid
creature; but the noble bearing, the dash and reckless courage that
distinguish him from the modest horse of the desert, have not been
acquired without a corresponding loss in other things. When ridden by
night the Indian horse--and sometimes the same habit is found in the
gaucho's animal--drops his head lower and lower as the darkness
increases, with the danger arising from the presence of innumerable
kennels concealed in the grass, until his nose sweeps the surface like a
foxhound's. That this action is dictated by a powerful instinct of
self-preservation is plain; for, when I have attempted to forcibly drag
the animal's head up, he has answered such an experiment by taking the
bit in his teeth, and violently pulling the reins out of my hand. His
miraculous sense of smell measures the exact position of every hidden
kennel, every treacherous spot, and enables him to pass swiftly and
securely over it.

On the desert pampa the gaucho, for a reason that he knows, calls the
puma the "friend of man." The Arab gives this designation to his horse;
but in Europe, where we do not associate closely with the horse, the dog
naturally takes the foremost place in our affections. The very highest
praise yet given to this animal is probably to be found in Bacon's essay
on Atheism. "For take an example of a dog," he says, "and mark what a
generosity and courage he will put on when he finds himself maintained
by a man, who is to him in place of a god, or _melior natura,_ which
courage is manifestly such as that creature, without the confidence of a
better nature than its own, could never attain!" Can we not say as much
of the horse? The very horses that fly terror-stricken from the smell of
an Indian will, when "maintained by a man," readily charge into a whole
host of yelling savages.

I once had a horse at home, born and bred on the place, so docile that
whenever I required him I could go to him where the horses were at
pasture, and, though they all galloped off at my approach, he would
calmly wait to be caught. Springing on to his back, I would go after the
other horses, or gallop home with only my hand on his neck to guide him.
I did not often ride him, as he was slow and lazy, but with timid women
and children he was a favourite; he was also frequently used for farm
work, in or out of harness, and I could shoot from his back. In the
peach season he would roam about the plantation, getting the fruit, of
which he was very fond, by tugging at the lower branches of the trees
and shaking it down in showers. One intensely dark night I was riding
home on this horse. I came through a road with a wire fence on each
side, two miles in length, and when I had got nearly to the end of this
road my horse suddenly stopped short, uttering a succession of loud
terrified snorts. I could see nothing but the intense blackness of the
night before me and tried to encourage him to go on. Touching him on
the neck, I found his hair wet with the sudden profuse sweat of extreme
fear. The whip made no impression on him. He continued to back away, his
eyes apparently fixed on some object of horror just before him, while he
trembled to such a degree that I was shaken in the saddle. He attempted
several times to wheel round and run away, but I was determined not to
yield to him, and continued the contest. Suddenly, when I was beginning
to despair of getting home by that road, he sprang forward, and
regularly charged the (to me) invisible object before him, and in
another moment, when he had apparently passed it, taking the bit between
his teeth he almost flew over the ground, never pausing till he brought
me to my own door. When I dismounted his terror seemed gone, but he hung
his head in a dejected manner, like a horse that has been under the
saddle all day. I have never witnessed another such instance of almost
maddening fear. His terror and apprehension were like what we can
imagine a man experiencing at sight of a ghost in some dark solitary

Yet he did not forcibly carry me away from it, as he might so easily
have done; but, finding himself maintained by a "nature superior to his
own," he preferred to face it. I have never met in the dog a more
striking example of this noblest kind of brute courage. The incident did
not impress me very much at the moment, but when I came to reflect that
my sight was mere blindness compared with that of my horse, and that it
was not likely his imagination clothed any familiar natural object with
fantastic terrors, it certainly did impress me very deeply.

I am loth to finish with, my subject, in which, to express myself in the
manner of the gauchos, I have passed over many matters, like good grass
and fragrant herbs the galloping horse sniffs at but cannot stay to
taste; and especially loth to conclude with this last incident, which
has in it an element of gloom. I would rather first go back for a few
moments to my original theme--the pleasures of riding, for the sake of
mentioning a species of pleasure my English reader has probably never
tasted or even heard of. When riding by night on the pampas, I used to
enjoy lying back on my horse till my head and shoulders rested well on
his back, my feet also being raised till they pressed against his neck;
and in this position, which practice can make both safe and comfortable,
gaze up into the starry sky. To enjoy this method of riding thoroughly,
a sure-footed unshod horse with perfect confidence in his rider is
necessary; and he must be made to go at a swift and smooth pace over
level grassy ground. With these conditions the sensation is positively
delightful. Nothing of earth is visible, only the vast circle of the
heavens glittering with innumerable stars; the muffled sound of the
hoofs on the soft sward becomes in fancy only the rushing of the wings
of our Pegasus, while the enchanting illusion that we are soaring
through space possesses the mind. Unfortunately, however, this method of
riding is impracticable in England. And, even if people with enthusiasm
enough could be found to put it in practice by importing swift
light-footed Arabian or pampa horses, and careering about level parks on
dark starry nights, probably a shout of derision would be raised against
so undignified a pastime.

_Apropos_ of dignity, I will relate, in conclusion, an incident in my
London life which may possibly interest psychologists. Some time ago in
Oxford Street I got on top of an omnibus travelling west. My mind was
preoccupied, I was anxious to get home, and, in an absent kind of way, I
became irritated at the painfully slow rate of progress. It was all an
old familiar experience, the deep thought, lessening pace, and
consequent irritation. The indolent brute I imagined myself riding was,
as usual, taking advantage of his rider's abstraction; but I would soon
"feelingly persuade" him that I was not so far gone as to lose sight of
the difference between a swinging gallop and a walk. So, elevating my
umbrella, I dealt the side of the omnibus a sounding blow, very much to
the astonishment of my fellow-passengers. So overgrown are we with
usages, habits, tricks of thought and action springing from the soil we
inhabit; and when we have broken away and removed ourselves far from it,
so long do the dead tendrils still cling to us!



We can imagine what the feelings of a lapidary would be--an enthusiast
whose life is given to the study of precious stones, and whose sole
delight is in the contemplation of their manifold beauty--if a stranger
should come in to him, and, opening his hand, exhibit a new unknown gem,
splendid as ruby or as sapphire, yet manifestly no mere variety of any
familiar stone, but differing as widely from all others as diamond from
opal or cat's-eye; and then, just when he is beginning to rejoice in
that strange exquisite loveliness, the hand should close and the
stranger, with a mocking smile on his lips, go forth and disappear from
sight in the crowd. A feeling such as that would be is not unfrequently
experienced by the field naturalist whose favoured lot it is to live in
a country not yet "thoroughly worked out," with its every wild
inhabitant scientifically named, accurately described, and skilfully
figured in some colossal monograph. One swift glance of the practised
eye, ever eagerly searching for some new-thing, and he knows that here
at length is a form never previously seen by him; but his joy is perhaps
only for a few moments, and the prize is snatched from sight for ever.
The lapidary might have some doubts; he might think that the stranger
had, after all, only mocked him with the sight of a wonderful artificial
gem, and that a close examination would have proved its worthlessness;
but the naturalist can have no doubts: if he is an enthusiast, well
acquainted with the fauna of his district, and has good eyesight, he
knows that there is no mistake; for there it is, the new strange form,
photographed by instantaneous process on his mind, and there it will
remain, a tantalizing image, its sharp lines and fresh colouring
unblurred by time.

Walking in some open forest glade, he may look up just in time to see a
great strange butterfly--a blue Morpho, let us say, wandering in some
far country where this angel insect is unknown--passing athwart his
vision with careless, buoyant flight, the most sylph-like thing in
nature, and all blue and pure like its aerial home, but with a more
delicate and wonderful brilliance in its cerulean colour, giving such
unimaginable glory to its broad airy wings; and then, almost before his
soul has had time to feel its joy, it may soar away unloitering over the
tall trees, to be seen no more.

But the admiration, the delight, and the desire are equally great, and
the loss just as keenly felt, whether the strange species seen happens
to be one surpassingly beautiful or not. Its newness is to the
naturalist its greatest attraction. How beautiful beyond all others
seems a certain small unnamed brown bird to my mind! So many years have
passed and its image has not yet grown dim; yet I saw it only for a few
moments, when it hopped out from, the thick foliage and perched within
two or three yards of me, not afraid, but only curious; and after
peering at me first with one eye and then the other, and wiping its
small dagger on a twig, it flew away and was seen no more. For many days
I sought for it, and for years waited its reappearance, and it was more
to me than ninety and nine birds which I had always known; yet it was
very modest, dressed in a brown suit, very pale on the breast and white
on the throat, and for distinction a straw-coloured stripe over the
eye--that ribbon which Queen Nature bestows on so many of her feathered
subjects, in recognition, I suppose, of some small and common kind of
merit. If I should meet with it in a collection I should know it again;
only, in that case it would look plain and homely to me--this little
bird that for a time made all others seem unbeautiful.

Even a richer prize may come in sight for a brief period--one of the
nobler mammalians, which are fewer in number, and bound to earth like
ourselves, and therefore so much better known than the wandering
children of air. In. some secluded spot, resting amidst luxuriant
herbage or forest undergrowth, a slight rustling makes us start, and,
lo! looking at us from the clustering leaves, a strange face; the
leaf-like ears erect, the dark eyes round with astonishment, and the
sharp black nose twitching and sniffing audibly, to take in the
unfamiliar flavour of a human presence from the air, like the pursed-up
and smacking lips of a wine-drinker tasting a new vintage. No sooner
seen than gone, like a dream, a phantom, the quaint furry face to be
thereafter only an image in memory.

Sometimes the prize may be a very rich one, and actually within reach of
the hand--challenging the hand, as it were, to grasp it, and yet
presently slip away to be seen no more, although it maybe sought for day
after day, with a hungry longing comparable to that of some poor tramp
who finds a gold doubloon in the forest, and just when he is beginning
to realize all that it means to him drops it in the grass and cannot
find it again. There is not the faintest motion in the foliage, no
rustle of any dry leaf, and yet we know that something has
moved--something has come or has gone; and, gazing fixedly at one spot,
we suddenly see that it is still there, close to us, the pointed
ophidian head and long neck, not drawn back and threatening, but sloping
forward, dark and polished as the green and purple weed-stems springing
from marshy soil, and with an irregular chain of spots extending down
the side. Motionless, too, as the stems it is; but presently the tongue,
crimson and glistening, darts out and flickers, like a small jet of
smoke and flame, and is withdrawn; then the smooth serpent head drops
down, and the thing is gone.

How I saw and lost the noble wrestling frog has been recounted in
Chapter IV.: other tantalizing experiences of the same kind remain to be
told in the present chapter, which is not intended for the severe
naturalist, but rather for such readers as may like to hear something
about the pains and pleasures of the seeker as well as the result of the

One of my earliest experiences of seeing and losing relates to a
humming-bird--a veritable "jewel of ornithology." I was only a boy at
the time, but already pretty well acquainted with the birds of the
district I lived in, near La Plata River, and among them were three
species of the hummingbird. One spring day I saw a fourth--a wonderful
little thing, only half as big as the smallest of the other three--the
well-known Phaithornis splendens--and scarcely larger than a bumble-bee.
I was within three feet of it as it sucked at the flowers, suspended
motionless in the air, the wings appearing formless and mist-like from
their rapid vibratory motion, but the rest of the upper plumage was seen
distinctly as anything can be seen. The head and neck and upper part of
the back were emerald green, with the metallic glitter usually seen in
the burnished scale-like feathers of these small birds; the lower half
of the back was velvet-black; the tail and tail-coverts white as snow.
On two other occasions, at intervals of a few days, I saw this brilliant
little stranger, always very near, and tried without success to capture
it, after which, it disappeared from the plantation. Four years later I
saw it once again not far from the same place. It was late in summer,
and I was out walking on the level plain where the ground was carpeted
with short grass, and nothing else grew there except a solitary stunted
cardoou thistle-bush with one flower on its central stem above the
grey-green artichoke-like leaves. The disc of the great thorny blossom
was as broad as that of a sunflower, purple in colour, delicately
frosted with white; on this flat disc several insects were
feeding--flies, fireflies, and small wasps--and I paused for a few
minutes in my walk to watch them. Suddenly a small misty object flew
swiftly downwards past my face, and paused motionless in the air an inch
or two above the rim of the flower. Once more my lost humming-bird,
which I remembered so well! The exquisitely graceful form, half circled
by the misty moth-like wings, the glittering green and velvet-black
mantle, and snow-white tail spread open like a fan--there it hung like a
beautiful bird-shaped gem suspended by an invisible gossamer thread.
One--two--three moments passed, while I gazed, trembling with rapturous
excitement, and then, before I had time to collect my faculties and make
a forlorn attempt to capture it with my hat, away it flew, gliding so
swiftly on the air that form and colour were instantly lost, and in
appearance it was only an obscure grey line traced rapidly along the,
low sky and fading quickly out ol sight. And that was the last I ever
saw of it.

The case of this small "winged gem," still wandering nameless in the
wilds, reminds me of yet another bird seen and lost, also remarkable for
its diminutive size. For years I looked for it, and when the wished-for
opportunity came, and it was in my power to secure it, I refrained; and
Fate punished me by never permitting me to see it again. On several
occasions while riding on the pampas I had caught glimpses of this
minute bird flitting up mothlike, with uncertain tremulous flight, and
again dipping into the weeds, tall grass, or thistles. Its plumage was
yellowish in hue, like sere dead herbage, and its extremely slender body
looked longer and slimmer than it was, owing to the great length of its
tail, or of the two middle tail-feathers. I knew that it was a
Synallaxis--a genus of small birds of the Woodhewer family. Now, as I
have said in a former chapter, these are wise little birds, more
interesting--I had almost said more beautiful--in their wisdom, or
wisdom-simulating instincts, than the quatzel in its resplendent green,
or the cock-of-the-rock in its vivid scarlet and orange mantle. Wrens
and mocking-birds have melody for their chief attraction, and the name
of each kind is, to our minds, also the name of a certain kind of sweet
music; we think of swifts and swallows in connection with the mysterious
migratory instinct; and humming-birds have a glittering mantle, and the
miraculous motions necessary to display its ever-changing iridescent
beauty. In like manner, the homely Dendrocolaptidae possess the genius
for building, and an account of one of these small birds without its
nest would be like a biography of Sir Christopher Wren that made no
mention of his works. It was not strange then that when I saw this small
bird the question rose to my mind, what kind of nest does it build?

One morning in the month of October, the great breeding-time for birds
in the Southern Hemisphere, while cautiously picking my way through a
bed of eardoon bushes, the mysterious little creature flitted up and
perched among the clustering leaves quite near to me. It uttered a
feeble grasshopper-like chirp; and then a second individual, smaller,
paler-coloured, and if possible shyer than the first, showed itself for
two or three seconds, after which both birds dived once more into
concealment. How glad I was to see them! for here they were, male and
female, in a suitable spot in my own fields, where they evidently meant
to breed. Every day after that I paid them one cautious visit, and by
waiting from five to fifteen minutes, standing motionless among the
thistles, I always succeeded in getting them to show themselves for a
few moments. I could easily have secured them then, but my wish was to
discover their nesting habits; and after watching for some days, I was
rewarded by finding their nest; then for three days more I watched it
slowly progressing towards completion, and each time I approached it one
of the small birds would flit out to vanish into the herbage. The
structure was about six inches long, and not more than two inches in
diameter, and was placed horizontally on a broad stiff eardoon leaf,
sheltered by other leaves above. It was made of the finest dry grass
loosely woven, and formed a simple perfectly straight tube, open at both
ends. The aperture was so small that I could only insert my little
finger, and the bird could not, of course, have turned round in so
narrow a passage, and so always went in at one end and left by the
other. On visiting the spot on the fourth day I found, to my intense
chagrin, that the delicate fabric had been broken and thrown down by
some animal; also, that the birds had utterly vanished--for I sought
them in vain, both there and in every weedy and thistly spot in the
neighbourhood. The bird without the nest had seemed a useless thing to
possess; now, for all my pains, I had only a wisp of fine dry grass in
my hand, and no bird. The shy, modest little creature, dwelling
violet-like amidst clustering leaves, and even when showing itself still
"half-hidden from the eye," was thereafter to be only a tantalizing
image in memory. Still, my case was not so hopeless as that of the
imagined lapidary; for however rare a species may be, and near to its
final extinction, there must always be many individuals existing, and I
was cheered by the thought that I might yet meet with one at some future
time. And, even if this particular species was not to gladden my sight
again, there were others, scores and hundreds more, and at any moment I
might expect to see one shining, a living gem, on Nature's open extended

Sometimes it has happened that an animal would have been overlooked or
passed by with scant notice, to be forgotten, perhaps, but for some
singular action or habit which has instantly given it a strange
importance, and made its possession desirable.

I was once engaged in the arduous and monotonous task of driving a large
number of sheep a distance of two hundred and fifty miles, in
excessively hot weather, when sheep prefer standing still to travelling.
Five or six gauchos were with me, and we were on the southern pampas of
Buenos Ayres, near to a long precipitous stony sierra which rose to a
height of five or six hundred feet above the plain. Who that has
travelled for eighteen days on a dead level in a broiling sun can resist
a hill? That sierra was more sublime to us than Conon-dagua, than

Leaving the sheep, I rode to it with three of the men; aad after
securing our horses on the lower slope, we began our laborious ascent.
Now the gaucho when taken from his horse, on which he lives like a kind
of parasite, is a very slow-moving creature, and I soon left my friends
far behind. Coming to a place where ferns and flowering herbage grew
thick, I began to hear all about me sounds of a character utterly unlike
any natural sound I was acquainted with--innumerable low clear voices
tinkling or pealing like minute sweet-toned, resonant bells--for the
sounds were purely metallic and perfectly bell-like. I was completely
ringed round with the mysterious music, and as I walked it rose and sank
rhythmically, keeping time to my steps. I stood still, and immediately
the sounds ceased. I took a step forwards, and again the fairy-bells
were set ringing, as if at each step my foot touched a central meeting
point of a thousand radiating threads, each thread attached to a peal of
little bells hanging concealed among the herbage. I waited for my
companions, and called their attention to the phenomenon, and to them
also it was a thing strange and perplexing. "It is the bell-snake!"
cried one excitedly. This is the rattle-snake; but although at that time
I had no experience of this reptile, I knew that he was wrong. Yet how
natural the mistake! The Spanish name of "bell-snake" had made him
imagine that the whirring sound of the vibrating rattles, resembling
muffled cicada music, is really bell-like in character. Eventually we
discovered that the sound was made by grasshoppers; but they were seen
only to be lost, for I could not capture one, so excessively shy and
cunning had the perpetual ringing of their own little tocsins made them.
And presently I had to return to my muttons; and afterwards there was no
opportunity of revisiting the spot to observe so singular a habit again
and collect specimens. It was a very slender grasshopper, about an inch
and a half long, of a uniform, tawny, protective colour--the colour of
an old dead leaf. It also possessed a protective habit common to most
grasshoppers, of embracing a slender vertical stem with its four fine
front legs, and moving cunningly round so as to keep the stem always in
front of it to screen itself from sight. Only other grasshoppers are
silent when alarmed, and the silence and masking action are related, and
together prevent the insect from being detected. But this particular
species, or race, or colony, living on the sides of the isolated sierra,
had acquired a contrary habit, resembling a habit of gregarious birds
and mammals. For this informing sound (unless it mimicked some
_warning-sound,_ as of a rattlesnake, which it didn't) could not
possibly be beneficial to individuals living alone, as grasshoppers
generally do, but, on the contrary, only detrimental; and such a habit
was therefore purely for the public good, and could only have arisen in
a species that always lived in communities.

On another occasion, in the middle of the hot season, I was travelling
alone across-country in a locality which was new to me, a few leagues
east of La Plata River, in its widest part. About eleven o'clock in the
morning I came to a low-lying level plain where the close-cropped grass
was vivid green, although elsewhere all over the country the vegetation
was scorched and dead, and dry as ashes. The ground being so favourable,
I crossed this low plain at a swinging gallop, and in about thirty
minutes' time. In that half-hour I saw a vast number of snakes, all of
one kind, and a species new to me; but my anxiety to reach my
destination before the oppressive heat of the afternoon made me hurry
on. So numerous were the snakes in that green place that frequently I
had as many as a dozen in sight at one time. It looked to me like a
coronelia--harmless colubrine snakes--but was more than twice as large
as either of the two species of that genus I was already familiar with.
In size they varied greatly, ranging from two to fully five feet in
length, and the colour was dull yellow or tan, slightly lined and
mottled with shades of brown. Among dead or partially withered grass and
herbage they would have been undistinguishable at even a very short
distance, but on the vivid green turf they were strangely conspicuous,
some being plainly visible forty or fifty yards away; and not one was
seen coiled up. They were all lying motionless, stretched out full
length, and looking like dark yellow or tan-coloured ribbons, thrown on
to the grass. It was most unusual to see so many snakes together,
although not surprising in the circumstances. The December heats had
dried up all the watercourses and killed the vegetation, and made the
earth hard and harsh as burnt bricks; and at such times snakes,
especially the more active non-venomous kinds, will travel long
distances, in their slow way, in search of water. Those I saw during my
ride had probably been attracted by the moisture from a large area of
country; and although there was no water, the soft fresh grass must have
been grateful to them. Snakes are seen coiled up when they are at home;
when travelling and far afield, they lie as a rule extended full length,
even when resting--and they are generally resting. Pausing at length,
before quitting this green plain, to give my horse a minute's rest, I
got off and approached a large snake; but when I was quite twelve yards
from it, it lifted its head, and, turning deliberately round, came
rather swiftly at me. I retreated, and it followed, until, springing on
to my horse, I left it, greatly surprised at its action, and beginning
to think that it must be venomous. As I rode on the feeling of surprise
increased, conquering haste; and in the end, seeing more snakes, I
dismounted and approached the largest, when exactly the same thing
occurred again, the snake rousing itself and coming angrily at me when I
was still (considering the dull lethargic character of the deadliest
kinds) at an absurd distance from it. Again and again I repeated the
experiment, with the same result. And at length I stunned one with a
blow of my whip to examine its mouth, but found no poison-fangs in it.

I then resumed my journey, expecting to meet with more snakes of the
same kind at my destination; but there were none, and very soon business
called me to a distant place, and I never met with this species
afterwards. But when I rode away from that green spot, and was once more
on the higher, desolate, wind-swept plain surrounding it--a rustling sea
of giant thistles, still erect, although dead, and red as rust, and
filling the hot blue sky with silvery down--it was with a very strange
feeling. The change from the green and living to the dead and dry and
dusty was so great! There seemed to be something mysterious,
extra-natural, in that low level plain, so green and fresh and snaky,
where my horse's hoofs had made no sound--a place where no man dwelt,
and no cattle pastured, and no wild bird folded its wing. And the
serpents there were not like others--the mechanical coiled-up thing we
know, a mere bone-and-muscle man-trap, set by the elements, to spring
and strike when trodden on: but these had a high intelligence, a lofty
spirit, and were filled with a noble rage and astonishment that any
other kind of creature, even a man, should venture there to disturb
their sacred peace. It was a fancy, born of that sense of mystery which
the unknown and the unusual in nature wakes in us--an obsolescent
feeling that still links us to the savage. But the simple fact was
wonderful enough, and that has been set down simply and apart from all
fancies. If the reader happens not to be a naturalist, it is right to
tell him that a naturalist cannot exaggerate consciously; and if he be
capable of unconscious exaggeration, then ho is no naturalist. He
should hasten "to join the innumerable caravan that moves" to the
fantastic realms of romance. Looking at the simple fact scientifically,
it was a case of mimicry--the harmless snake mimicking the fierce
threatening gestures and actions proper to some deadly kind. Only with
this difference: the venomous snake, of all deadly things in nature, is
the slowest to resentment, the most reluctant to enter into a quarrel;
whereas in this species angry demonstrations were made when the intruder
was yet far off, and before he had shown any hostile intentions.

My last case--the last, that is, of the few I have selected--relates to
a singular variation in the human species. On this occasion I was again
travelling alone in a strange district on the southern frontier of
Buenos Ayres. On a bitterly cold midwinter day, shortly before noon, I
arrived, stiff and tired, at one of those pilgrims' rests on the pampas
--a wayside _pulperia,_ or public house, where the traveller can procure
anything he may require or desire, from a tumbler of Brazilian rum to
make glad his heart, to a poncho, or cloak of blue cloth with fluffy
scarlet lining, to keep him warm o' nights; and, to speed him on his
way, a pair of cast-iron spurs weighing six pounds avoirdupois, with
rowels eight inches in diameter, manufactured in this island for the use
of barbarous men beyond the sea. The wretched mud-and-grass building was
surrounded by a foss crossed by a plank drawbridge; outside of the
enclosure twelve or fourteen saddled horses were standing, and from the
loud noise of talk and laughter in the bar I conjectured that a goodly
company of rough frontiersmen were already making merry at that early
hour. It was necessary for me to go in among them to see the proprietor
of the place and ask permission to visit his kitchen in order to make
myself a "tin of coffee," that being the refreshment I felt inclined
for. When I went in and made my salutation, one man wheeled round square
before me, stared straight into my oyes, and in an exceedingly
high-pitched reedy or screechy voice and a sing-song tone returned my
"good morning," and bade me call for the liquid I loved best at his
expense. I declined with thanks, and in accordance with gaucho etiquette
added that I was prepared to pay for his liquor. It was then for him to
say that he had already been served and so let the matter drop, but he
did not do so: he screamed out in his wild animal voice that he would
take gin. I paid for his drink, and would, I think, have felt greatly
surprised at his strange insolent behaviour, so unlike that of the
usually courteous gaucho, but this thing affected me not at all, so
profoundly had his singular appearance and voice impressed me; and for
the rest of the time I remained in the place I continued to watch him
narrowly. Professor Huxley has somewhere said, "A variation frequently
occurs, but those who notice it take no care about noting down the
particulars." That is not a failing of mine, and this is what I noted
down while the man's appearance was still fresh in memory. He was about
five feet eleven inches in height--very tall for a gaucho--straight and
athletic, with exceedingly broad shoulders, which made his round head
look small; long arms and huge hands. The round flat face, coarse black
hair, swarthy reddish colour, and smooth hairless cheeks seemed to show
that he had more Indian than Spanish blood in him, while his round black
eyes were even more like those of a rapacious animal in expression than
in the pure-blooded Indian. He also had the Indian or half-breed's
moustache, when that natural ornament is permitted to grow, and which is
composed of thick bristles standing out like a cat's whiskers. The mouth
was the marvellous feature, for it was twice the size of an average
mouth, and the two lips were alike in thickness. This mouth did not
smile, but snarled, both when he spoke and when he should have smiled;
and when he snarled the wliolo of his teeth and a part of the gums were
displayed. The teeth were not as in other human beings--incisors,
canines, and molars: they were all exactly alike, above and below, each
tooth a gleaming white triangle, broad at the gum where it touched its
companion teeth, and with a point sharp as the sharpest-pointed dagger.
They were like the teeth of a shark or crocodile. I noticed that when he
showed them, which was very often, they were not set together as in
dogs, weasels, and other savage snarling animals, but apart, showing the
whole terrible serration in the huge red mouth.

After getting his gin he joined in the boisterous conversation with the
others, and this gave me an opportunity of studying his face for several
minutes, all the time with a curious feeling that I had put myself into
a cage with a savage animal of horrible aspect, whose instincts were
utterly unknown to me, and were probably not very pleasant. It was
interesting to note that whenever one of the others addressed him
directly, or turned to him when speaking, it was with a curious
expression, not of fear, but partly amusement and partly something else
which I could not fathom. Now, one might think that this was natural
enough purely on account of the man's extraordinary appearance. I do not
think that a sufficient explanation; for however strange a man's
appearance may be, his intimate friends and associates soon lose all
sense of wonder at his strangeness, and even forget that he is unlike
others. My belief is that this curiosity, or whatever it was they showed
in their faces, was due to something in his character--a mental
strangeness, showing itself at unexpected times, and which might flash,
out at any moment to amuse or astonish them. There was certainly a
correspondence between the snarling action of the mouth and the
dangerous form of the teeth, perfect as that in any snarling animal; and
such animals, it should be remembered, snarl not only when angry and
threatening, but in their playful moods as well. Other and more
important correspondences or correlations might have existed; and the
voice was certainly unlike any human voice I have ever heard, whether in
white, red, or black man. But the time I had for observation was short,
the conversation revealed nothing further, and by-and-by I went away in
search of the odorous kitchen, where there would be hot water for
coffee, or at all events cold water and a kettle, and materials for
making a fire--to wit, bones of dead cattle, "buffalo chips," and rancid

I have never been worried with the wish, or ambition to be a head-hunter
in the Dyak sense, but on this one occasion I did wish that it had been
possible, without violating any law, or doing anything to a
fellow-creature which I should not like done to myself, to have obtained
possession of this man's head, with its set of unique and terrible
teeth. For how, in the name of Evolution, did he come by them, and by
other physical peculiarities--the snarling habit and that high-pitched
animal voice, for instance--which made him a being different from
others--one separate and far apart? Was he, so admirably formed, so
complete and well-balanced, merely a freak of nature, to use an
old-fashioned phrase--a sport, or spontaneous individual variation--an
experiment for a new human type, imagined by Nature in some past period,
inconceivably long ago, but which she had only now, too late, found time
to carry out? Or rather was he like that little hairy maiden exhibited
not long ago in London, a reproduction of the past, the mystery called
reversion--a something in the life of a species like memory in the life
of an individual, the memory which suddenly brings back to the old man's
mind the image of his childhood? For no dream-monster in human form ever
appeared to me with so strange and terrible a face; and this was no
dream but sober fact, for I saw and spoke with this man; and unless cold
steel has given him his quietus, or his own horse has crushed him, or a
mad bull sored him--all natural forms of death in that wild land--he is
probably still living and in the prime of life, and perhaps at this very
moment drinking gin at some astonished traveller's expense at that very
bar where I met him. The old Palaeolithic man, judging from the few
remains we have of him, must have had an unspeakably savage and, to our
way of thinking, repulsive and horrible aspect, with his villainous low
receding forehead, broad nose, great projecting upper jaw, and
retreating chin; to meet such a man face to face in Piccadilly would
frighten a nervous person of the present time. But his teeth were not
unlike our own, only very much larger and more powerful, and well
adapted to their work of masticating the flesh, underdone and possibly
raw, of mammoth and rhinoceros. If, then, this living man recalls a type
of the past, it is of a remoter past, a more primitive man, the volume
of whose history is missing from the geological record. To speculate on
such a subject seems idle and useless; and when I coveted possession of
that head it was not because I thought that it might lead to any fresh
discovery. A lower motive inspired the feeling. I wished for it only
that I might bring it over the sea, to drop it like a new apple of
discord, suited to the spirit of the times, among the anthropologists
and evolutionists generally of this old and learned world. Inscribed, of
course, "To the most learned," but giving no locality and no
particulars. I wished to do that for the pleasure--not a very noble kind
of pleasure, I allow--of witnessing from some safe hiding-place the
stupendous strife that would have ensued--a battle more furious, lasting
and fatal to many a brave knight of biology, than was ever yet fought
over any bone or bony fragment or fabric ever picked up, including the
celebrated cranium of the Neanderthal.



The following passage occurs in an article on "The Naturalist in La
Plata," by the late Professor Piomanes, which appeared in the
_Nineteenth Century,_ May, 1893. After quoting the account of the puma's
habits and character given in the book, the writer says:--"I have
received corroboration touching all these points from a gentleman who,
when walking alone and unarmed on the skirts of a forest, was greatly
alarmed by a large puma coming out to meet him. Deeming it best not to
stand, he advanced to meet the animal, which thereupon began to gambol
around his feet and rub against his legs, after the manner of an
affectionate cat. At first he thought these movements must have been
preliminary to some peculiar mode of attack, and therefore he did not
respond, but walked quietly on, until the puma suddenly desisted and
re-entered the forest. This gentleman says that, until the publication
of Mr. Hudson's book, he had always remained under the impression that
that particular puma must have been insane."


I have found among my papers the following mislaid note on the subject
of sportive displays of mammalians, which should have been used on page
281, where the subject is briefly treated:--Most mammalians are
comparatively silent and live on the ground, and not having the power to
escape easily, which birds have, and being more persecuted by man, they
do not often disport themselves unrestrainedly in his presence; it is
difficult to watch any wild animal without the watcher's presence being
known or suspected. Nevertheless, their displays are not so rare as we
might imagine. I have more than once detected species, with which I was,
or imagined myself to be, well acquainted, disporting themselves in a
manner that took me completely by surprise. While out tinamou shooting
one day in autumn, near my own home in La Plata, I spied a troop of
about a dozen weasels racing madly about over a vizcacha village--the
mound and group of pit-like burrows inhabited by a community of
vizcachas. These weasels were of the large common species, Galictis
barbara, about the size of a cat; and were engaged in a pastime
resembling a complicated dance, and so absorbed were they on that
occasion that they took no notice of me when I walked up to within nine
or ten yards of them, and stood still to watch the performance. They
were all swiftly racing about and leaping over the pits, always doubling
quickly back when the limit of the mound was reached, and although
apparently carried away with excitement, and crossing each other's
tracks at all angles, and this so rapidly and with so many changes of
direction that I became confused when trying to keep any one animal in
view, they never collided nor even came near enough to touch one
another. The whole performance resembled, on a greatly magnified scale
and without its beautiful smoothness and lightning swiftness, the
fantastic dance of small black water-beetles, frequently seen on the
surface of a pool or stream, during which the insects glide about in a
limited area with such celerity as to appear like black curving lines
traced by flying invisible pens; and as the lines everywhere cross and
intersect, they form an intricate pattern on the surface, After watching
the weasel dance for some minutes, I stepped up to the mound, whereupon
the animals became alarmed and rushed pell-mell into the burrows, but
only to reappear in a few seconds, thrusting up their long ebony-black
necks and flat grey-capped heads, snarling chattering at me, glaring
with fierce, beady eyes.


In November and December, 1893, a short correspondence appeared in the
_Field_ on the curious subject of "Dogs burying their dead." It arose
through a letter from a Mr. Gould, of Albany, Western Australia,
relating the following incident:--

A settler shot a bitch from a neighbouring estate that had formed the
habit of coming on to his land to visit and play with his dog. The dog,
finding his companion dead, was observed to dig a large hole in the
ground, into which he dragged the carcase; but he did not cover it with
earth. The writer wished to know if any reader of the _Field_ had met
with a similar case. Some notes, which I contributed in reply to this
letter, bear on one of the subjects treated in the chapter on "strange
instincts," namely, the instinct of social animals to protect and shield
their fellows; and for this reason I have thought it best to reproduce
them in this place.

I remember on one occasion watching at intervals, for an entire day, a
large and very savage dog keeping watch over the body of a dead bitch
that had been shot. He made no attempt to bury the dead animal, but he
never left it. He was observed more than once trying to drag the body
away, doubtless with the intention of hiding it; not succeeding in these
attempts, he settled down by its side again, although it was evident
that he was suffering greatly from thirst and heat. It was at last only
with the greatest trouble that the people of the house succeeded in
getting the body away and burying it out of his sight.

Another instance, more to the point, occurred at my own house on the
pampas, and I was one of several persons who witnessed it. A small, red,
long-haired bitch--a variety of the common native cur--gave birth to
four or five pups. A peon was told to destroy them, and, waiting until
the bitch was out of sight, he carried them off to the end of the
orchard, some 400 or 500 yards from the house, and threw them into a
pool of water which was only two to three feet deep. The bitch passed
the rest of the day in rushing frantically about, searching for her
young, and in the evening, a little after dark, actually succeeded in
finding them, although they were lying at the bottom of the pool. She
got them all out, and carried them, one by one, to another part of the
grounds, where she passed the night with them, uttering at intervals the
most piercing cries. In the morning she carried them to still another
spot, where there was a soft mould, and then dug a hole large and deep
enough to bury them all, covering them over with the loose earth. Her
task done, she returned to the house to sleep all day, but when night
came again the whole piteous performance was repeated: the pups were dug
up, and she passed the long, piercingly cold night--for it was in the
depth of winter--trying to keep them warm, and uttering, as before,
distressing cries. Yet a third time the whole thing was repeated; but
after the third night, when the dog came home to sleep, the dead pups
were taken out of the ground and buried at a distance.

Such an action as this strikes one with astonishment only because we
have the custom of burying our dead, and are too ready at all times to
regard the dog as human-like. But the explanation of the action in this
case is to be found in the familiar fact that very many animals,
including the dog, have the habit or instinct of burying or concealing
the thing they wish to leave in safety. Thus, the dog buries the bone it
does not want to eat, and when hungry digs it up again. When a dog
buries or hides the dead body of the she dog it was attached to, or the
she dog buries her dead young, it is with the same motive--namely, to
conceal the animal that cannot be roused, and that it would not be safe
to leave exposed,

It is plain to all who observe their actions that the lower animals have
no comprehension of death. In the case of two animals that are
accustomed to play or to be much together, if one dies, or is killed,
and its body left, the other will come to sniff at, touch, and at last
try to rouse it; but finding all attempts vain, it will at length go
away to seek companionship elsewhere. In cases where the attachment is
much stronger, the dead body may he watched over for an indefinite
period. A brother of mine once related to me a very pathetic incident
which occurred at an estancia on the pampas where he was staying. A
large portion of the land was a low, level, marshy plain, partly
overgrown with reeds and rushes; and one day, in this wilderness, a
little boy of eight or nine, from the estancia, lost himself. A small
dog, his invariable attendant, had gone out with him, but did not
return. Seven days later the poor boy was found, at a great distance
from the house, lying on the grass, where he had died of exhaustion. The
dog was lying coiled up at his side, and appeared to be sleeping; but,
when spoken to, he did not stir, and was presently found to be dead too.
The dog could have gone back at any moment to the estancia, but his
instinct of attachment overcame all others; he kept guard over his
little master, who slept so soundly and so long, until he, too, slept in
the same way.

A still more remarkable case of this kind was given in one of my books,
of a gaucho, accompanied by his dog, who was chased and overtaken by a
troop of soldiers during one of the civil wars in Uruguay. Suspecting
him of being a spy, or, at all events, an enemy, his captors cut his
throat, then rode away, calling to the dog to follow them; but the
animal refused to leave his dead master's side. Returning to the spot a
few days later, they saw the body of the man they had killed surrounded
by a large number of vultures, which the dog, in a frenzy of excitement,
was occupied in keeping at a respectable distance. It was observed that
the dog, after making one of his sallies, driving the birds away with
furious barkings, would set out at a run to a small stream not far from
the spot; but when half way to it he would look back, and, seeing the
vultures advancing once more to the corpse, would rush back to protect
it. The soldiers watched him for some time with great interest, and once
more they tried in vain to get him to follow them. Two days afterwards
they revisited the spot, to find the dog lying dead by the side of his
dead master. I had this story from the lips of one of the witnesses.

In all such cases, whether the dog watches over, conceals, or buries a
dead body, he is doubtless moved by the same instinct which leads him to
safeguard the animal he is attached to--another dog or his human master.
But, as the dead animal is past help, it is, of course, a blunder of the
instinct; and the blunder must be of very much less frequent occurrence
among wild than among domestic animals. In a state of nature, when a
gregarious animal dies, he dies, as a rule, alone; his body is not seen
by his former companions, and he is not missed. When he dies by
violence--which is the common fate--the body is carried off or devoured
by the killer. This being the usual order, there is no instinct, except
in a very few species, relating to the disposal of the dead among
mammals and other vertebrates, such as is found in ants and other social
insects. There are a few mammalians that live together in small
communities, in a habitation made to last for many generations, in which
such an instinct would appear necessary, and it accordingly exists, but
is very imperfect. This is the case with the vizcacha, the large rodent
of the pampas, which lives with its fellows, to the number of twenty or
thirty, in a cluster of huge burrows. When a vizcacha dies in a burrow,
the body is dragged out and thrown on to the mound among the mass of
rubbish collected on it--but not until he has been dead a long time, and
there is nothing left of him but the dry bones held together by the
skin. In that condition the other members of the community probably
cease to look on him as one of their companions who has fallen into a
long sleep; he is no more than so much rubbish, which must be cleared
out of an old disused burrow. Probably the beaver possesses some rude
instinct similar to that of the vizcacha.

_Apropos_ of animals burying their treasures (or connections) for
safety, it is worth mentioning that the skunk of the pampas occasionally
buries her young in the kennel, when hunger compels her to go out
foraging. I had often heard of this habit of the female skunk from the
gauchos, and one day had the rare good fortune to witness an animal
engaged in obliterating her own kennel. The senses of the skunk are so
defective that one is able at times to approach very near to without
alarming them. In this instance I sat on my horse at a distance of
twenty yards, and watched the animal at work, drawing in the loose earth
with her fore feet until the entrance to the kennel was filled up to
within three inches of the surface; then, dropping into the shallow
cavity, she pressed the loose mould down with her nose. Her task
finished, she trotted away, and the hollow in the soil, when I examined
it closely, looked only like the mouth of an ancient choked-up burrow.
The young inhabit a circular chamber, lined with fine dry grass, at the
end of a narrow passage from 3 ft. to 5 ft. long, and no doubt have air
enough to serve them until their parent returns; but I believe the skunk
only buries her young when they are very small.


Back to Full Books