Alex and the panther

How a dangerous dog protected an infant, and how he got into a fight with a full-grown leopard.

This is a true story — there are two living people who can testify to its veracity. But be forewarned: it is a story that some readers might find disturbing. I do not want to spend time finding palatable descriptions for some of the more gruesome details.

As I have described elsewhere, much of my early childhood was spent in Lonavala, a town on the slopes of the Western Ghats of India. We, a German-Indo- Portuguese family, had a beautiful house there called “Rose Cottage”, but I spent a lot of time with my uncle Paul and aunt Trudy, who had an agricultural research facility, some distance outside Lonavala, in the middle of the jungle. My herpetologist father had set up a lab there, and we spent all our free time at the Steins’ station. My father and my uncle Paul took me on excursions and taught me all about the wild and wonderful nature that surrounded us. Recently I visited the station again.

Paul and Trudy were into dogs, and I spent my childhood with three of them. Caesar was a pure-bred greyhound, exuberant, fast as the wind; Nero was a mixed breed with a fair amount of Labrador blood. His main goal in life seemed to be to someday catch Caesar and kill him. In spite of constant serious efforts he never succeeded.

And then there was Alex. This was a mixed breed, with pit bull clearly visible, and hyena, wolf and tiger in his ancestry, as Paul would jokingly say. Alex was big, elegant, active — and deadly dangerous. His jaws were powerful enough for him to jump up and bite into a low branch, hanging there growling and twisting, just for fun. We would throw soup bones to him, and if they were not the biggest kind he crunched them in the air, not bothering to put them down to gnaw. Alex would kill rodents, which he regularly did, but also larger animals —rabbits, feral cats or even a monkey, on occasion. He also lived in constant strife with Paul and Trudy, who were not ready to accept the alpha status he demanded. On one occasion he ripped a cubic centimeter of flesh out of Trudy’s arm. She stuck it back in and it healed, but she had this fascinating scar for the rest of her life, to remind her of Alex.

So everyone was afraid of Alex, and treated him with respect and caution. Except the infant Frederic, who would push and poke this killer dog with impunity, pulling his ears and tail. There is 8 mm footage of me doing this, when I was just over a year old, and Alex, clearly embarrassed, trying to escape the teasing of the child. Never was I in any danger from this dog, who could have crushed my head with a single bite. For Alex little Freddy was a cub it was his sacred duty to protect. I must correct myself — it actually was considerable danger — for anyone approaching the infant! Even parents and nannies were met with menacing growls when they came to pick up the child.

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The Steins’ agricultural station from the 1950s, today occupied by a number of families (see my previous report about rediscovering the place)

When I was around six years old, one evening we were all sitting in the kitchen, the Steins, my parents and three young kids. Suddenly there was a commotion outside, growls, snarls, barks — clearly a wild animal struggle. Paul grabbed his shotgun and went out, while we peered through the window, unable to see anything.

Some minutes later we heard Paul at the door, and he shouted into the room: “Get the children out of the kitchen!” They were herded into the bedroom, all but one, who refused to leave. Young Freddy had to see what was going on.

Paul entered the kitchen carrying a mess of a dog. Alex was torn open, guts and lung tissue protruding from his wounds. “He was in a fight with a panther,” Paul said, as he laid him down on a towel in the corner. I could see that the dog was still alive. He lay there, struggling to breathe, bleeding profusely. Paul, Trudy and my father discussed the situation: clearly the only sensible course of action was to take him back outside and shoot him, put him out of his misery. But before my father, who volunteered to do it, could get his rifle, Paul appeared with a large shoe darning needle and cobbler’s thread, and started to stitch Alex’ wounds. The dog lifted his head and watched him do this — without a growl or any form of protest, just some soft, pitiful whimpers.

The next morning we expected to find Alex dead in the corner, but instead we saw Paul darning the lesser wounds in the legs and face of the dog. Alex was barely conscious, and the amount of blood on the floor and soaked in the towel gave us little hope for his survival.

Then Paul took me outside. “I'm going to show you what happened,” he said. First we went to the stable that was adjacent to the house. It had a room where the livestock were kept at night. The door covered maybe 80% of the entrance, with slits on the top and bottom for ventilation. “Look here,” Paul said, “the scratch marks. It was a panther trying to climb through the top gap of the door.”

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This is the entrance to the stable, fifty years later, with a new door that has no gap at the top.
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The Indian panther or leopard, Panthera pardus, is “elusive, solitary, and largely nocturnal,” this Wiki article (from which I took the above image) tells us. “They are very agile, and can run at over 58 kilometres per hour, leap over 6 m horizontally, and jump up to 3 m vertically. They are versatile, opportunistic hunters, and have a very broad diet.”

This Lonavala panther was seeking to extend its menu to cows or goats. “While it was trying to get into the stable Alex attacked it,” Paul explained. “And this is where they fought.” It was a patch a short distance away, with smashed plants and quite a bit of blood and gore. “The panther bit Alex in the face and leg, and it tore him open with its claws.” Poor Alex.

Then Paul took me around a little bush and showed me something that remains vividly in my mind to this day: an eight-inch piece of panther skin, furry pelt with the black rosettes, bloody on the other side. “It’s not going to forget this encounter,” Paul said, “Alex ripped this out of its body.” Why were we not surprised?

So Alex was my childhood hero, a dog who had always protected me and had done battle with a dangerous panther. For months he lay there in the corner, exuding a terrible stench, his wounds festering, until he — no, he did not die, he recovered! In half a year he was limping around, soon after that trotting, and eating voraciously, growling, threatening, killing rodents and other animal intruders. He still regarded me, a seven-year-old, as his charge and would not let anyone near me without assurance that they meant no harm. He lived to a ripe old age and the encounter with the panther was just one episode in his life.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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