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The Panther

  • His vision becomes the passing bars,
  • so shattered, it holds little else.
  • To him there are a thousand bars,
  • and beyond the bars, not a world.
  • He strides in narrow circles, tighter and tighter,
  • and the steadiness of his powerful soft pace
  • is like a dance of impatience around a center
  • in which a noble will stands immobilized.
  • Only at times, the heavy curtain of his pupils
  • rises quietly -. Then an image enters in,
  • rushes downward through the tense, resilient muscles,
  • plunges into his heart and is gone.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

(Translated from the German)

For centuries, human beings have speculated about the interior lives of animals, especially, for whatever reason, about the interior lives of cats -- what goes on inside those clever hearts and furry heads? Perhaps we've favored cats because of their domestication and independence: like humans, felines seemingly possess well-developed senses of house-living and self-reliance.

Rilke's "The Panther" is an influential example of what the English poet John Keats called "negative capability." Loosely defined, negative capability suggests that a person, possessing the power to eliminate his or her own personality, can take on the qualities of something else and comprehend its unique individuality. The idea behind this is that Rilke momentarily ceases being Rilke and instead becomes the panther that he's writing about.

Part of what's so great about Rilke's poem is how he imagines the panther's comprehension, how we see the outside information assimilated into the captive animal's "noble will." It is a portrait of hopelessness, this poem, a depiction of the effects of absolute boredom, which plays against our knowledge that a panther is supposed to be a free-ranging wild animal. Perhaps "The Panther" has resonated with people for all these years (it was written almost exactly a century ago) because industrial-age humans can identify with the feeling of being separated from the power and energy of the natural world. We become imprisoned in our routines and responsibilities, until our dreams, plunging into our hearts, find no motivation to become real.

I wanted to tell you that there was a real live black panther living here in San Diego, but first I have to tell you that there is no such animal as a panther. "Panther" is just an old general term that comes from the Panthera animal grouping name. There are four big cats in the Panthera biological grouping: jaguars, lions, tigers, and leopards. (Incidentally, these are the only big cats that can roar.)

So the animal that most of us think of as a panther is actually a black jaguar. Most jaguars have tawny-colored fur with black rosettes, but some have black-on-black, or melanistic, coloration. Usually jaguars that are found in darker rain forest areas are black.

Jaguars are the largest cats in the Western Hemisphere, and the third largest overall. Only lions and tigers are bigger. Jaguars are completely at home in the water, and are seldom far from a river or lake. One of the more interesting factoids that I read about jaguars was how they may go fishing by waving their tails over the water to attract hungry fish.

Jaguars live throughout most of Mexico, Central and South America, while lone individuals are sometimes seen in the southwestern United States. They can run pretty quickly, but this is not an important skill for them. Instead, these big cats are nocturnal hunters, and do most of their stalking on the ground. They are also excellent climbers, leaping from a tree or a ledge to ambush prey. Their large jaw muscles allow jaguars to kill prey by piercing the skull with their sharp teeth. Jaguars can survive on anything from herd animals to insects.

Like other cats, jaguars have eyes that are adapted for night hunting. One key element is their eyeshine, caused by a mirrorlike structure inside the eye that nearly doubles a cat's ability to see at night.

The saddest fact that I read about wild jaguars was that they are endangered. Their only predator, man, has hunted them too well. Commercial fur hunting, especially in the 1960s, did away with over 18,000 jaguars every year. Other threats to jaguars involve deforestation due to logging, mining, and farming, which breaks up their habitat into fragments, leaving less food and fewer mates. With less and less wild prey available to them, jaguars started feeding on livestock. Ranchers often responded by trapping and poisoning them. It is estimated that there are now only around 15,000 jaguars left in the wild.

So now I can tell you that our fair city does have one black jaguar resident, downtown, in Cat Canyon, near Sun Bear Forest, across from the Hunte Amphitheater, in the San Diego Zoo. He was born October 1992 at Wildlife World Zoo, in Litchfield, Arizona. He weighs as much as I do, about 165 pounds. His name is Orson.

When I visited Orson, the first thing I noted was his enclosure. A kind of chain-link box, roughly 50 feet by 50 feet, kept Orson safely away from me. There was a small pool in with him, and a trickling creek running down, and a covered rock cave for sleeping. Logs and good-sized trees and massive rocks bedecked his slanted space. Visually, it was very interesting, and it looked to me like it must be an interesting place to pace around in, as well.

And the first time I saw Orson, boy, did he pace. For ten straight minutes, he wore a cat-groove back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, probably 50 or 60 times. Every so often, for no apparent reason, he'd vary the pacing to include more of his pen. Once, he acknowledged something -- as a zoo vehicle rumbled past, he stopped and looked at it for a long moment. Then it was pacing and pacing and pacing again.

The people, perhaps 20 or so of them watching Orson with me, speculated, "That pacing-thing just isn't good." And, "He's thinking over his plan. He wants to get out of there." Or, "He seems so restless." Then, "He acts upset." And one comedic fellow imagined Orson's thoughts and said, "I'm getting out of here real soon. You can smile now if you want. You and you and you. But I remember all your faces."

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