Zhadi's Den

Random essays on wine, writing, moving to San Francisco, surfing, cats (exotic and otherwise) and zombies...depending on my mood.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

"A Leopard Sat On My Feet" - A True Tale of Terror

(Photo by Nancy Vandermey)

No, this isn't another gratuitous cute animal picture post. I mean, it IS a cute picture, but I'm not just being lazy, posting a picture and walking away without writing anything substantial.

I admit to being all about posting pictures of the feline residents of EFBC-FCC these days, but hey, I miss it. It was a huge part of my life for six years; for the first four years, I rarely missed a Saturday volunteering out at the compound.

This is Tao, an 11 year old North Chinese leopard. When I started working at EFBC, he was five years old and had the temperament -- and some of the mannerisms -- of a good-natured dog. Tao had been hand-raised by Sandy (EFBC's General Manager and surrogate mother to the babies that can't be mother-raised). He'd been a sickly baby and had needed a lot of extra attention and nursing, so Tao not only passed into puberty with an unusually sanguine temperament, but also a mother fixation rivaling Norman Bates. He'd be in the middle of leopard sex with his mate, Ran (a sexy little North Chinese leopard from a zoo in France), Sandy would walk outside, and Tao would abandon Ran to play hide and seek with his 'mother.'

Yes, hide and seek. "Where's Tao?" Sandy would say, walking up to the steel mesh walls of the enclosure. Tao, in the meantime, had found a rock or a log to hide behind. He'd peer over or around the edge of his cover, wait until Sandy turned her back to the cage, then gallop out at top speed to 'ambush' her by leaping up, front paws hooked into the mesh, nose pressing through the gaps to give Mom a kiss. "There's Tao!" was the signal for him to drop back down, rubbing back and forth against the bars so Sandy could scritch his side, head, chin, tail, and belly.

Ran, in the meantime, would sulk at the back of the enclosure, a big thought balloon that hissed "Slut!" floating above her head. As soon as Sandy left, Ran immediately rubbed against any part of the cage that she (Sandy) had touched to obscure the scent of man-stealing human with eau d' leopard.

Tao was one of the few full grown leopards that we went in with while cleaning. Ran was easy to lure into their den, but nine times out of 10 Tao refused to go inside. So, after locking Ran in the den, one person would go in to clean while someone else (preferably Sandy) distracted Tao from outside the enclosure. Tao loved attention and usually sat there blissfully receiving scritches as long as someone gave them. If he had enough, he'd roll onto his back and sprawl at the edge of the cage. In the meantime, the person inside raked up the poo, cleaned any excess foliage out of the pond so the pump wouldn't clog, and then quietly exited the enclosure. Sometimes Tao would glance at whoever was cleaning, but he was usually too busy soaking up adoration to care.

The first time I went inside with Tao, I was kind of nervous. Not scared; I wouldn't have gone in with him if I'd been scared because of all I'd heard about animals sensing and reacting to fear. But I'd be lying (and an idiot) if I said I wasn't apprehensive about the thought of being in an enclosure with a full grown leopard with claws and teeth intact. Tao was taught at a very early age to stay back from the business end of a rake (we were supposed to bop him on his nose if he got aggressive), but occasionally he would test someone the first time they went in with him. Testing Tao style involved intimidation and he'd actually run someone out of the enclosure. He hadn't attacked, but had kept advancing despite the threat of the rake.

And let's do the math here: Who is Mas Macho? Soft-fleshed human wielding a cheap rake or a leopard if he decided to attack? Every time I locked the door to the enclosure behind me after I'd finished cleaning, my heart beat a little faster and I'd heave a sigh of relief. Yup, I was very aware of my mortality when I went in with Tao that first time...and every time after that.

The first few times I cleaned Tao & Ran's enclosure, he stayed over at the side for his scritches. Then one day he decided to come over and check out my cleaning job. I never turned my back on him, kept the rake between us, and he was content to wander back over to whoever was paying him court that morning. And then came that memorable day when Tao decided that attention from the outside of the cage wasn't cutting it.

I remember it very clearly. I was raking in between the pond and a big log, keeping one eye on Tao and the other on the work, while Tao was visiting with Sandy at the front of the enclosure. Without warning, he suddenly jumped to his feet and very deliberately walked over to me, bumped the rake aside with his head, turned around and stepped onto on my feet with his hind paws. I have no idea why I wasn't terrified, but I sure as hell was surprised.

"Uh...Sandy? What...um...should I be worried?"

"Nah. He wants you to scratch his back."

Somewhat reassured by Sandy's confident reply, I scratched Tao's back for a few minutes, then slowly tried to extract one foot from underneath his paw. He promptly settled back and sat on my feet, just like my dog when she didn't want me to go anywhere.

I was in a quandary here. On one hand, here I was, in close quarters with -- and petting -- a leopard. It didn't get much cooler than that. On the other hand, how was I going to get out of there if Tao decided he didn't want me to go? When I shoved my dog off my feet, the only repercussion was a reproachful look. If I tried that with Tao, would I have any feet left?

Five minutes (and 10 numb toes) later, I gave a tentative push. To my relief, Tao allowed me to have my feet back...although he did give me a reproachful look as he walked away. I left the enclosure, both incredibly jazzed and hugely relieved.

A year or so later, Tao went after one of the keepers when she raked up a piece of chicken from the previous day's dinner. She used the rake to good effect and got out of the enclosure in one piece, which would indicate Tao wasn't necessarily serious about hurting her. He just didn't want her taking his chicken. But it was also the first time he'd seriously charged anyone, a reminder that Tao, hand-raised and amiable or not, was a leopard. And it was enough of a scare to put paid to any of the volunteers going in with him in the future.

I was content to stay out of there. By that time, Tao had sat on my feet more than once, and I'd experienced the same combination of exhilaration and relief every time. I'm not an adrenaline junkie and, while I'd never blame any of the cats if I got hurt, I'd rather not leave this world via evisceration by large feline. But I'm so glad I had the experience...and that I never had to test out that rake.


  • At 6:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Extremely cool story; I was on edge, and I even knew you got out okay! Have you ever written any other short fiction? If so, I think you should consider getting them published!
    You also sound very sexy -Rraower...

  • At 8:30 AM, Blogger zhadi said…

    Hmmm...I only know one other person that understands the term 'Rraower...'

    But thank you for the compliment!

  • At 12:49 PM, Blogger FreeThinker said…

    Rraower ...

    This is part of the lexicon of Tony The Tiger, no?

  • At 8:33 PM, Blogger zhadi said…

    Actually you'll understand all when you see Lost Skeleton of Cadavra...

  • At 9:52 AM, Blogger FreeThinker said…

    Ah, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra ...

    None Can Stand Its Mental Power!

    I gotta check this one out.

    Rraower ...

  • At 11:42 AM, Anonymous Jen C. said…

    Zhadi, you've got some big ovaries! I don't think I could have done it. You win the mas macho competition.

    Great story!

  • At 2:31 PM, Blogger zhadi said…

    Thank you, Jen! That was nothing compared to the time one of the not so nice leopards nearly got through a cage door when I was on the other side...hmmm, I'll have to write another True Tale of Terror!


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