an adult ocelot (“OH-see-LOT” — scientific name Leopardus pardalis),
a beautiful small American leopard that someone had "liberated" as a young cub from his
native jungle somewhere in South America and brought to Towson, Maryland, where he
and I often frolicked in my friend "Set" Fitchett's gun store. We were great buddies,
Speedy and I – until one dark night in an extremely unlikely location far from his old
jungle home when I got in the way of his panicky attempt to flee from a new and
fearsome enemy, and our old acquaintance quickly became forgot as he reverted to his
wild old mind set from his days of yore in the jungle before our “auld lang syne.” Then I
found my shoulder being gnawed and my belly being clawed viciously by a “tame” South
In my first civilian job between my discharge from the Navy and my freshman
year in forestry school, I was a supervisor in charge of several counselors to the older
boys’ group at a children's camp in the Maryland farm country north of Baltimore. The
camp provided a free vacation to groups of underprivileged kids from Baltimore. At the
camp, they learned a few simple crafts, a bit about the outdoors, and in general a passel of
simple things that were totally unlike anything that was familiar to their lives on the
sorrier streets of Baltimore.
The camp was more about having fun in the outdoors than it was about dry
learning, however. For example, Ken Dashiell, one of my counselors and an expert on the
old ways and lore of several eastern American Indian tribes, did not just tell his group of
boys about traditional Indian ways – he showed 'em, even to the point of entertaining ‘em
by dressing in authentic Indian garb and dancing authentic Indian dances around a big
fire one night. He entertained the entire camp, in fact, even though the scantiness of his
Indian get-up (which showed a lot of bare skin that was not then commonly seen in
public) scandalized some of the old ladies of both sexes on the camp staff.
To acquaint my boys with Set's beautiful cat from South America, I borrowed
Speedy and took him out to the camp for a week or two. He of course charmed
everybody and immediately became such a friend of the camp staff and kids that he
could safely roam freely anywhere on the camp grounds, with anyone whom he chose to
go along with. He was good company — playful and of course strikingly beautiful. The
boys loved him. The girls loved him. The camp staff loved him. He gave us no trouble of
any kind, day after day. I was able to forget about him, not to worry about him or to look
after him, as I went about my usual camp duties, pursuits, and amusements. I didn’t even
have to make sure that he was fed and watered — staff and kids were constantly
smuggling food to him from the mess hall, and he could drink from the camp’s pond or
stream at any time.
The camp had several nice brand-new, big canvas tepees for the older boys’ group.
I loved ‘em, especially the biggest one, which I immediately made my camp
“headquarters.” We had Spartan but good-enough personal quarters in the camp’s
permanent buildings, and as head counselor, I had a “room” (more like a cell) of my own
in one of the barracks. But that uninsulated building got terribly hot during the day and
stayed uncomfortably hot late into the humid night, so when we had set-up the tepees, I
took my sleeping bag down the hill and rolled it out on the ground in the big tepee. The
counselors and their boys still slept in the barracks.
After sundown, it got cool enough, early enough in the night, to make a fire inside
the tepee feel awfully good. It wasn’t a big fire — it didn’t have to be big to be
comfortable — so it added the pleasure of “ambience” to the convenience of light and the
comfort of mild warmth in the cool of the evening and early night.
But when Speedy saw the flames leap and flicker into life, it was immediately
obvious that he was seeing fire for the first time in his memory if not for the first time in
his life. He walked around it and around it, keeping a sharp and suspicious and cautious
stare on it at every step. After quite a while, he settled down beside me in obvious trust,
apparently no longer leery of the fire or afraid of it, and soon went to sleep on my
Our second or third night in the tepee, he was comfortable enough with the open
fire in the fire pit in the center of the tepee that he went back to his old game of playing
with a volley ball. He pawed it around inside the tepee and seemed oblivious to my
presence. What I did not realize until much later was that my reassuring presence was still
crucial to his comfort and confidence in that otherwise strange place.
One of my counselors came to the tepee with a problem that demanded my
attention. I laid my paperwork down and went up the hill with him. When I looked back
inside the tepee as I left, Speedy was happily pawing his volley ball around and seemed
content to be left alone inside the tepee. I was soon to learn that he was just unaware that
I’d left him alone — with the fire.
When he discovered that he was alone inside the tepee, he panicked. His earlier
suspicion of the open fire became utter terror, and he fled — or started to flee. He was
poised to leap through the round doorway of the tepee just as I stooped forward to come
back inside. He sprang, but I was blocking his way out, blocking his escape from that
fearsome, mysterious fire. He sank the claws of his front feet into my upper arms while he
clawed at my belly with his hind claws and bit into my upper shoulder, near my neck, and
began gnawing at that shoulder muscle.
I don’t know why he wasn’t gnawing at my throat — which I would’ve expected
of a genuine life-or-death attack. My neck was bare and was thus totally vulnerable. My
heavy, tough shirt gave my shoulder a little protection — not much, but enough to be
thankful for. Under the power of his husky jaw muscles, Speedy’s churning teeth hurt
like the dickens, but they did no serious or lasting damage to my shoulder.
My first thought was that he was just playing rough again. In our old day-time
frolics, he often got a bit too enthusiastically playful, and his claws came out. I could
calm him down with a slap. But this time, not only were his claws out — he was using
them a good bit more vigorously than he ever had used them before, and for the first time
in our friendship, he was gnawing at my shoulder — and with a bit more than a playfully
I slapped him, but he didn’t calm down or even take it easy with the gnawing or
I took hold of his collar, wrenched him off my shoulder, and using the collar like
the handle on a heavy briefcase, punched him in the nose with all the strength of my best
jab, and flung him to the ground. Again, he showed beyond any doubt or
misinterpretation that he’d gone back to the fierce instincts of his wild nature — he
sprang back onto me and resumed gnawing at my shoulder and clawing at my belly with
his hind claws while he held on to me with his front claws.
I took my turn going into a wild panic. Patrick McManus’s “full-bore linear panic”
was out of the question — there was no way that I could get away from Speedy, nowhere
for me to flee to. I had to deal with this wild attack, not to get away from it. I grabbed
Speedy’s collar again and flung him to the ground again — a good bit harder, with no
thought of playfulness or mere discipline this time. I was scared.
I was carrying a big surplus U S Navy battle lantern, and my wild exertion made
its powerful beam go everywhere into the night except where I desperately needed to be
able to see. That situation added to my panic. I steadied the lantern again and shone its
beam into Speedy’s eyes as he crouched obviously ready and intending to spring onto me
again. I kicked him in the face, and again the beam of the battle lantern went all over the
place and left Speedy unseeable before me in the dark.
And I’m here to tell you that night — especially that night — out there in the
country, the dark so far from the city lights was frighteningly total! Speedy was a bit less
visible than a lump of coal in a black bag inside a black cow.
Up to this point, Speedy’s attack had been soundless — no friendly purr, of
course — but no snarling or growling, either. Now, in the darkness before me, a scary
sound came, I thought, from his throat. As time went on, I could tell that what I’d first
thought was a low, threatening growl was actually a bubbly gurgle from breathing
through a bloody nose. Some of his fight had gone out of him, but not all of it by any
stretch of interpretation. He was now angry, if not still panicky. I had replaced the fire as
his enemy. He was clearly still ready for personal battle, still capable of a bit more than a
handful of fight. I wondered how much longer this fight would go on, and I wasn’t sure
that I’d be able to last long enough to win it. Our struggle seemed to have taken a lot
more time than I’m now sure was no more than a few seconds. I knew that I couldn’t
make a night of it if Speedy regained the vigor that my kick in his face had taken out of
him for a moment. He wasn’t as big as a collie, but he seemed to me to be as strong as a
I took hold of his collar again, with a tighter grip this time. He began to twist and
to squirm, trying to get at me and resume or to continue his attack. I could not hope to
control him or to hold him off for very long with only this grip on his collar, so I looked
around, found his leash, and after a bit of fumbling and further struggle, I snapped it onto
the D-ring on his collar. Then I flung him to the ground again. The leash went taut as he
hit the end of it and the tightening of his collar choked-off his breath for a moment.
He quickly gathered himself into a crouch again and resumed the attack. But I
was ready for him this time — I stepped aside at the last instant and let his leap carry him
past me. I braced myself for the yank that I knew would come when he hit the end of the
leash again. Then I yanked on the leash to upset his footing and swung him around on the
end of the leash a couple of turns before I let him hit the ground again.
That little maneuver didn’t calm him down, either. He landed hard and rolled over
and over, but he soon got back to his feet and again crouched and sprang. So we
continued this frantic dance while we moved closer and closer to the camp headquarters.
At last, I was able to unlock the storeroom. I flung him inside — leash and all — and
locked him inside the storeroom for the rest of the night.
With a little anxiety and cautious uncertainty, I unlocked the storeroom the next
morning. My old playmate Speedy greeted me with his familiar welcoming purr, and we
were old buddies once again.
But for pretty much the same reason that a scalded cat shuns even cold water, the
timid city fellow who ran the camp worried about the possible risk of having Speedy
around the camp youngsters any longer, so he had his driver take me and Speedy back to
Set’s Sport Shop, where I left my feline buddy behind. I never saw him after I left him
there with Set, so we were never able to frolic again. Fifty-few years later, I’m still glad,
of course, that he wasn’t a lion or a tiger!
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