I DON’T know how Poncho came by his name, nor how he came by his present batch of bloody wounds (not by his own teeth, probably), but I can imagine the fracas he was in last night, and how very near he came to ‘passing out.’ I think that every coatimundi is in a fresh fracas every night, and the wonder is that every scrappy one of them does n’t pass out. Poncho wears his wounds in public as a prize bull his blue ribbon. Instead of going off to a cave in the jungle until he is healed and fit to appear in print, he ambles out of the woods about the laboratory in broad day, with just enough whole parts to operate his remains, as if this gruesome, shattered condition might entitle him to a fatter, softer banana. For next to a fight Poncho loves a black-skinned, mushy banana. I must say that he shows good taste in bananas; and I don’t believe he suspected that I should put him into print.
Poncho is an old male coati-mundi, alias gato solo, alias pisote solo, alias Nasua narica panamensis, a quite common animal of the Central American jungles, about the size of, and closely related to, our raccoon.
The possum’s tail am bar’,
runs an old Negro melody, tails playing an important, part in the classification according to this sort of natural history. It is Poncho’s upstanding tail and his outstanding snout which should unrelate him, at first sight, to the raccoons and put him in a class completely by himself. But he has the feet of the coon, — plantigrade feet, with naked soles, — and other family marks in his anatomy, to say nothing of the strongly marked family traits of character.
Poncho is an old male coati, how old I cannot tell, but old enough to go solo, as the natives say, which, of course, means alone — driven out of the pack, probably, on account of his grouchy temper, or else forsaking the pack because the young ones are grown big enough to fight him back now, and with twenty or more against him the odds are too uneven, dearly as he loves to fight.
I am only guessing, but I cannot be far wrong. Behind Poncho’s solo existence lies his nasty temper, and behind his nasty temper stand his nasty teeth. Teeth, temper, trouble — for men and nations and wild beasts, as well. Poncho is the best-armed denizen in the jungle, unless that may be more accurately said of the peccary. Both of them are terribly well armed, and, being armed, — according to human philosophy, not experience, — ought to keep the jungle peace. Instead, these two critters are always looking for trouble, being prepared for trouble, and so happy doing what they are best prepared to do.
Just at present Poncho seems to have found more than he wished for, at least more than is good for him. He is on a three-legged programme, but only because he cannot get around on one leg, or even on two. Doctors often disagree, but I think all the surgeons of the great Gorgas Hospital at Ancón would tell Poncho that three of his legs should be given a week in their surgical ward or he might never be able to fight on them again. His tail needs a bed by itself, too; and there should be another bed for the rest of his remains. If Poncho was the winner, as evidently he was, what, I wonder, is the condition of the other peacemaker?
I am in danger of making Poncho into a monster. Instead he is a most human and really a friendly beast, though accounted (the coati, I mean) the only dangerous animal in Barro Colorado Island jungle, and the only animal there that has ever deliberately attacked and bitten a man. The coatis have been guilty of that thing three different times lately, whereas the shy and gentle panther will flee when no man pursueth, and if there are deadly snakes, like the bushmaster and the fer-de-lance, they, too, have kept to their hidden dens when the laboratory folk have gone abroad. But, speaking of dangerous beasts, it is the wild-pig bands, the peccary bands, that make me nervous when I come across them, though the little fighters can’t climb trees, while I can, if I have to, and can find a tree that I can climb.
Nothing on four feet in the jungle can outclimb a coati, not even a monkey, who really has a fifth foot — or, more like, two feet — in his automatic, sure-hold tail. I do admire the American monkey’s admirable tail, but I admire very little of the rest of the monkey. The coati climbs in spite of his long, heavy mast of a tail, using it, as I have often observed, to counterbalance his body when wobbling gingerly out among the tips of branches overhanging a hundred-foot fall, and bringing it into play as a kind of friction brake when descending head-on down some slender, swaying liana from the roof of the jungle. But the coati cannot clasp a limb and swing with his tail like the monkey, though he ascends as high and seems to travel overhead almost as fast, doing as daring aerial stunts, with the exception of the trapeze act and the breathless, flying leap from tree to tree.
The coatis, until they become solo, hunt in bands, probably bands largely composed of females and growing children. Poncho seems to have tribal relations with the roving band that turns up nightly (mornings and afternoons as well) about the garbage pit behind the laboratory, where he takes a leading part in all the ‘roughneck’ work of the scrapping clan. But he goes solo now and puts in an appearance at all hours — on bananas bent, I take it, from the sniffling, nosey way he holds us up in the back yard.
He can smell better than he can see, and he can smell banana better than any other odor of the jungle. We raise our own bananas at the laboratory, bunches of them hanging in the main room, where you are bumping your head into them, and bumping them into your head, until you are ready to go out and call for Poncho to come and help you save them. Such bananas! Such fat, sweet, soft, and far-smelling bananas! Only the odor of such bananas ever reaches Hingham, Massachusetts, where I am smelling them now. ’T is little wonder that Poncho, with his banana nose, sniffed them from all parts of an island jungle only six square miles in extent!
When Poncho advances for banana directly upon you along the back-yard path, and you try to look him square in the eye, he shows a shifty, shady countenance, I must say. He has a very narrow, wedge-shaped face to begin with, and I think that he cannot focus his eyes straight ahead, having great need to watch both sides and behind him all the time. But on he comes, smelling, not seeing you, his long, inquiring, wriggling snout making passes over you in a most uncanny, uncomfortable manner, backed up by those close-set, unsteady, unseeing, uncontrollable eyes.
For a wild animal’s eyes are weak members when they look straight into human eyes, and embarrassing to their savage owner, whereas a man’s strength is in his eyes. He could not face danger without eyes, for what he really does is to look it down. You could not look Poncho down. You could stop him by hurling ripe bananas at him. But imagine the feeling of being advanced upon by a wild animal who had taken you in part and in whole for a ripe, fragrant bunch of bananas because he could n’t see the difference! I was not exactly afraid of Poncho, not very much afraid anyhow, but when he came straight at me all nose and no eyes he could put a flutter through the very middle of me by way of the diaphragm!
The experience of having any wild animal come out of the jungle and walk up to you for a ‘hand-out’ smacks of the sensational, whether he comes ‘watch-eyed,’ ‘cockeyed,’ or wearing horn-rimmed spectacles. For Poncho is wild, and the Laboratory Pack is wild, and these friendly relations between the jungle and the garbage pit are more, by a good deal, than mere banana oil — whatever banana oil may be. Barro Colorado Island is a wild-life sanctuary, and nothing better proves it than Poncho and the Laboratory Pack.
In our back-yard landscape the coatis take about the part of the bears behind the hotels in the Yellowstone National Park. They behave very much like bears, too, though nothing about them is bearlike except their plantigrade feet. Yet they walk like bears, like very little bears, about the bigness of two tomcats. And they talk like bears, if I know how bears talk, though they ought to talk like coons, and bushy-tailed olingos, and the funny kinkajous, being members of the family Procyonidæ to which these others belong.
When Poncho sees me coming he drops his long, narrow head close to the ground and humps up his shoulders. That’s a very formidable attitude both for outside appearance and for inside experience — not confined, either, to Poncho’s inside. Then he humps up his hind quarters higher than his fore quarters; and over these high hind quarters elevates his mast-like tail, so that from his low-slung snout to his stiff-tipped tail he comes on as one increasing purpose.
The first time he saw me he came on increasingly until a few yards off, when he suddenly stopped and said, ‘Uff!’ And he meant ‘uff,’ though what ‘uff’ meant is another story — probably ‘banana.’ But it didn’t sound like ‘banana’ to me; I had just landed on the Island and did n’t know one word of Coati Spanish or Pan-Am dialect of any kind. ‘Uff!’ he said again with a distinct internal-combustion accent, the word exploding within him and jarring him ominously.
‘Uff, yourself!’ I jarred back at him, wondering if I could make the laboratory door behind me in not more than three jumps, but standing as still as a concrete post. I had evidently uttered the right thing. ‘ Uff, yourself!' was the password, for with that the ice broke and Poncho paddled straight up to me, thinking I held ripe bananas on my person, when, in truth, all I held were in my person, much to my dismay, and to Poncho’s great disgust; for he turned his back at once upon me and ambled over to the garbage hole — no offense intended, possibly; anyhow, none taken. I was standing on two scared feet, not on offended dignity; and when Poncho turned to amble off I also turned and ‘beat it’ for the laboratory without any show of dignity; nor could I describe my gait as ambling. It was mighty decent of Poncho, I say, that he did n’t force me into the garbage hole!
So I have fed him many a sweet banana for that; discreetly, of course, following the work of his wicked tusks with all my nervous fingers. He has never bitten me, but then, I never shook a bunch of keys at him as one of the foolish scientists did, and for no reason at all except that he was told Poncho hated the jangle of a bunch of keys. You must not tell a scientist anything queer like that, for if he has n’t a bunch of keys he will not rest until he finds a bunch; then he will go up to Poncho and jangle them, and then Poncho will leap like a wildcat upon his shoulder and bite him in the neck.
Very odd of Poncho, is n’t it!
Not being much of a scientist, I leave my keys at the bottom of my trunk when I go into the jungle and carry squashy bananas instead. There is no jangle to them. I am almost certain to meet a dozen to twenty coatis on any trail, among whom is likely to be at least one with ragged nerves. I am neither hoping nor plotting to have Poncho bite me in the neck. Nor in the leg, either, if he should wish to do the finished piece of work on mine that some other nervous brother of the jungle has just done on Poncho’s left hind member. What punishment the old solo fighter can stand up under! And hobble about with! But he is indecently gruesome to-day and ought not to be allowed to inflict himself upon the suffering public.
Poncho sits nicely upon his haunches now, places one paw gently upon my knee, and snaps viciously at the banana, trusting all my intentions except those that have to do with the banana. He is a pig as well as a pisote, and hates a piece of banana as he hates the jazzy noise of keys. He opens his wicked jaws and lunges for the whole banana, and usually gets it, for there are plenty of bananas, but very few of my fingers, a certain shyness on my part still hanging over from our first encounter.
He held me up again the other day, to my everlasting embarrassment. I was just starting on an all-day hike along the trails, yoked with my heavy field glasses, brave in tall boots, an armed stick, a camp stool, and leatherbound notebook. I looked like a real explorer. Then Poncho, crossing the yard from the jungle, got his fishy eye upon me and saw all this kit as nothing but bananas. So he squatted in the walk before me square in front of the cookhouse door.
I could n’t step over him. I would n’t go around him. For several good reasons I could not kick him out of my way. I could have gone back for a banana and bribed him, but how many native eyes besides Nemesia’s were peeking from behind the cookhouse window? And I a ‘doctor’! So up I strode as if unaware of him and about to tread him down. But Poncho knew better. He had my measure, and sat there wringing his nose, which to the watching cookhouse was tantamount to thumbing his ugly nose, and was very funny — to the cookhouse. Then Nemesia (bless her gallant, womanly soul!) threw a broom, and he slouched away. But I could n’t find a spot deep enough, or dark enough, in the jungle that day to hide me from the cookhouse; and though it is unfair and ungallant of me, I shall always wonder at which of us, Poncho or me, Nemesia threw her broom.
The jungle on Barro Colorado Island is very nearly incarnate in Poncho and his band, though there is nothing else in the jungle quite so friendly as Poncho. Perhaps the unapproachable black monkeys more truly express the spirit of the jungle. Poncho and his band belong with the laboratory. But then, one of the seven bands of black howlers also belongs to the laboratory side of the Island and sticks to the tall timber near by as if held by something like a human bond. We don’t know how many coati bands there are distributed over the Island. The animals are nomadic, and rapid travelers. You meet them everywhere, part of the pack moving through the tree tops, part nosing along on the ground, snuffling into holes, overturning rotten sticks, digging into everything, destroying or eating everything — nuts, fruit, birds’ eggs, insects, reptiles, especially the large iguana, a tree lizard, which they hunt as a pack, resorting to the tricks, it is said, of a weasel on the trail of a squirrel.
I came upon a band on one of the trails the other day that allowed me to tag along in their wake with nothing but an occasional head turned in my direction and now and then a warning ‘Uff!’ A dozen of them were up the trees, as many more on the ground, keeping together and making a clean sweep, as thorough and as terrible as marching army ants. If I got too close one would hustle up the back side of a tree and poke his grayish, snooty, hatchet head around the bole about on a level with my face and try to stare me cross-eyed. He usually stopped me in my tracks, which was his real purpose, no doubt, while the clan moved on through the brush about its own business, as I should have been about mine, according to good jungle manners.
Barro Colorado Island being a wildlife sanctuary, probably no coati now roaming its jungle ever heard a gun fired, or has ever discovered the true nature of man, Nemesia’s broom being the most deadly missile ever directed against him by the human hand. And I have intimated that Nemesia may really have thrown the broom at me. No, I must correct that. I caught Miguel throwing stones at Poncho the other day. I heard suppressed swearing and scuffle of feet beneath my study walls and looked out to see Miguel chasing Poncho about the yard with swearwords and stones, Poncho, at the instant I got into the picture, sitting bolt up on his haunches and tail, scratching ticks on his tummy with both forepaws, as if he wished Miguel would drop the stones and come help him scratch. And Miguel would have done it too, for by this time he had n’t a stone in his hands, and could n’t have thrown one anyhow, on account of tears and laughter. Poncho had probably broken into Miguel’s own cache of bananas, and instead of scratching ticks on his tummy was showing Miguel where his bananas were, and how round they made his belly. Poncho knows a thing or two about these native Panamanians, and he is as fond as any of us of personal attention. I am quite convinced, now, that Nemesia threw her broom hard at me — though I am flattering myself — and not at Poncho, the old beggar, and fighter, and son of the jungle, and, more than any other thing in fur or in feathers, the SPIRIT of the jungle.