When I was eleven years old I read a book called African Adventure by Willard Price. I thought this book was wonderful, particularly the part where the villain killed an enemy by putting chopped leopard’s whiskers in his soup. According to Willard Price, leopard’s whiskers are indigestible as the sharp ends slice open the victim’s insides, leading to a not-much-fun death. I was more delighted than horrified by this story. I thought it was a remarkably creative way to kill someone. (Reflecting on this decades later, I’m wondering if 11 year old boys are the reason we have wars…)
Recently I recalled this unlikely story and, curious as ever, checked to see if Willard Price’s novel homicidal technique was mere fancy, or was in fact a real thing. It turns out that not only is murder by leopard’s whiskers a practical solution when you need to remove an unwanted enemy, but there is a second option. If you happen to be all out of leopard’s whiskers, tiger’s whiskers will do just as well! How handy is that?
Some of my so-called friends point out that since a tiger is a far more dangerous animal than a leopard, plucking whiskers from a tiger might be correspondingly more risky, rendering this alternative suggestion pretty unhelpful. I do not dispute this. I am merely pointing out the wonder of nature’s endless bounty in offering a second option in case there are no leopards living near your house.
When I was eleven, I thought this might actually be the case. I was worried that there might be a leopard living in our garden. We had a large property which included an acre of forest with lots of tall trees. This seemed like the ideal habitat for a leopard.
But the leopard’s whiskers were not my primary concern. I’ve always been a super fussy eater so I was pretty sure that if someone put chopped leopard’s whiskers in my soup I would notice and spit them out. I was much more concerned about their claws and teeth and strength and stealth.
One night, my brother Christian, who was next step up the food chain from me and more or less ran my life when I was not at school, proposed that we secretly go into the forest and sleep in our tree fort.
Given the leopard situation, I was not too keen on this idea. But I didn’t want my brother to think I was a coward, so I didn’t say anything.
We crept out into the night, carrying our blankets, and trekked on down the winding path into the forest. It was really dark and spooky. An owl hooted, making it more spooky. It wasn’t that I was scared of owls. It was the silent creatures that worried me. Creatures bigger and more deadly than an owl, with beautiful spotted coats and large green eyes.
We climbed the tallest pine that housed our tree fort. This was pretty easy as it had a thick, long, sloping branch, leading to our eerie. We prepared our nest of blankets and lay down, ready to sleep. But as I lay there I couldn’t help picturing a leopard following us up the tree.
“Hey, Christian, I can’t sleep.”
“What if a leopard climbs up the tree and eats us?”
“What are you talking about? You’re crazy. There are no leopards in New Zealand. Now go to sleep!”
I’d heard a similar argument from my parents when I pointed out the threat posed by tigers hiding in the bushes who might wish to consume their youngest son. So I knew the “there are no (fill in the blank) in New Zealand” theory well. In fact I knew more about animals than anyone else in our family. I was well aware that there was a general consensus amongst unimaginative adults that, outside of zoos, there are no leopards, or tigers, residing in our island nation.
The problem was, despite my being so well informed about the wildlife inhabiting (or not) my absurdly safe homeland, there were still plenty of these creatures inside my brain, and one of them was climbing up our tree right at that moment!
The picture in my head was as clear as day. I could see that gorgeous, large eyed, hungry leopard creeping up the sloping branch towards us.
“Christian, I still can’t sleep. Let’s go back up to the house.”
“I can’t help thinking about the leopard.”
“For goodness sakes, forget about your stupid leopard! There’s no leopard! Now leave me alone. If you want to go back to the house go on your own. I’m going to sleep.”
I lay still. I faced a dilemma. If the leopard climbed up to our tree fort, Christian might fight it off and save us both, but I didn’t like his chances. He was bigger than me but not nearly as big or fierce as a leopard. Staying put seemed risky.
On the other hand, if I climbed down, the leopard might be waiting for me on the ground, and I’d merely have saved it the trouble of climbing the tree. And I would have no big brother to even try to protect me.
I agonized over this for a while, not daring to disturb my brother again. He thought I was crazy and would just get more annoyed with me.
Finally I could stand it no longer. I crept out of the tree house and climbed down the branch as silently as possible. The forest was full of nameless whispers and rustling and possible leopard noises.
I reached the ground, holding my breath and staring around into the darkness, looking for green eyes looking back at me. Then I panicked and ran for the house as fast as I could, risking my neck in the darkness, picturing silent paws and panting jaws, expecting the weight of the pouncing panther to fall on me any second. I reached our front door and shut it behind me, gasping for breath. Phew! No leopard.
I slept peacefully that night inside our leopard proof house. I was not worried about my brother. He didn’t believe in leopards.
That was long ago. Now I also no longer believe there were leopards in our garden. After all, everyone knows there are no leopards in New Zealand.
But now I have a new problem. Now I live in California in a house by the forest, and as everyone knows, in California there really are mountain lions…