The Leopard

Wood's Bible Animals, 1875

Of the Leopard but little is said in the Holy Scriptures.

In the New Testament this animal is only mentioned once, and then in a metaphorical rather than a literal sense. In the Old Testament it is casually mentioned seven times, and only in two places is the word Leopard used in the strictly literal sense. Yet, in those brief passages of Holy Writ, the various attributes of the animal are delineated with such fidelity, that no one could doubt that the Leopard was familiarly known in Palestine. Its colour, its swiftness, its craft, its ferocity, and the nature of its dwelling-place, are all touched upon in a few short sentences scattered throughout the Old Testament, and even its peculiar habits are alluded to in a manner that proves it to have been well known at the time when the words were written.

It is my purpose in the following pages to give a brief account of the Leopard of the Scriptures, laying most stress on the qualities to which allusion is made, and then to explain the passages in which the name of the animal occurs.

In the first place, it is probable that under the word Leopard are comprehended three animals, two of which, at least, were thought to be one species until the time of Cuvier. These three animals are the Leopard proper (Leopardus varius), the Ounce (Leopardus uncia), and the Chetah, or Hunting Leopard (Gueparda jubata). All these three species belong to the same family of animals; all are spotted and similar in colour, all are nearly alike in shape, and all are inhabitants of Asia, while two of them, the Leopard and the Chetah, are also found in Africa.

It is scarcely necessary to mention that the Leopard is a beast of prey belonging to the cat tribe, that its colour is tawny, variegated with rich black spots, and that it is a fierce and voracious animal, almost equally dreaded by man and beast. It inhabits many parts of Africa and Asia, and in those portions of the country which are untenanted by mankind, it derives all its sustenance from the herb-eating animals of the same tracts.

To deer and antelopes it is a terrible enemy, and in spite of their active limbs, seldom fails in obtaining its prey. Swift as is the Leopard, for a short distance, and wonderful as its spring, it has not the enduring speed of the deer or antelope, animals which are specially formed for running, and which, if a limb is shattered, can run nearly as fast and quite as far on three legs as they can when all four limbs are uninjured. Instinctively knowing its inferiority in the race, the Leopard supplies by cunning the want of enduring speed.

It conceals itself in some spot whence it can see far around without being seen, and thence surveys the country. A tree is the usual spot selected for this purpose, and the Leopard, after climbing the trunk by means of its curved talons, settles itself in the fork of the branches, so that its body is hidden by the boughs, and only its head is shown between them. With such scrupulous care does it conceal itself, that none but a practised hunter can discover it, while any one who is unaccustomed to the woods cannot see the animal even when the tree is pointed out to him.

As soon as the Leopard sees the deer feeding at a distance, he slips down the tree and stealthily glides off in their direction. He has many difficulties to overcome, because the deer are among the most watchful of animals, and if the Leopard were to approach to the windward, they would scent him while he was yet a mile away from them. If he were to show himself but for one moment in the open ground he would be seen, and if he were but to shake a branch or snap a dry twig he would be heard. So, he is obliged to approach them against the wind, to keep himself under cover, and yet to glide so carefully along that the heavy foliage of the underwood shall not be shaken, and the dry sticks and leaves which strew the ground shall not be broken. He has also to escape the observation of certain birds and beasts which inhabit the woods, and which would certainly set up their alarm-cry as soon as they saw him, and so give warning to the wary deer, which can perfectly understand a cry of alarm, from whatever animal it may happen to proceed.

Still, he proceeds steadily on his course, gliding from one covert to another, and often expending several hours before he can proceed for a mile. By degrees he contrives to come tolerably close to them, and generally manages to conceal himself in some spot towards which the deer are gradually feeding their way. As soon as they are near enough, he collects himself for a spring, just as a cat does when she leaps on a bird, and dashes towards the deer in a series of mighty bounds. For a moment or two they are startled and paralysed with fear at the sudden appearance of their enemy, and thus give him time to get among them. Singling out some particular animal, he leaps upon it, strikes it down with one blow of his paw, and then, couching on the fallen animal, he tears open its throat, and laps the flowing blood.

In this manner does it obtain its prey when it lives in the desert, but when it happens to be in the neighbourhood of human habitations, it acts in a different manner. Whenever man settles himself in any place, his presence is a signal for the beasts of the desert and forest to fly. The more timid, such as the deer and antelope, are afraid of him, and betake themselves as far away as possible. The more savage inhabitants of the land, such as the lion, leopard, and other animals, wage an unequal war against him for a time, but are continually driven farther and farther away, until at last they are completely expelled from the country. The predaceous beasts are, however, loth to retire, and do so by very slow degrees. They can no longer support themselves on the deer and antelopes, but find a simple substitute for them in the flocks and herds which man introduces, and in the seizing of which there is as much craft required as in the catching of the fleeter and wilder animals. Sheep and goats cannot run away like the antelopes, but they are penned so carefully within inclosures, and guarded so watchfully by herdsmen and dogs, that the Leopard is obliged to exert no small amount of cunning before it can obtain a meal.

Sometimes it creeps quietly to the fold, and escapes the notice of the dogs, seizes upon it sheep, and makes off with it before the alarm is given. Sometimes it hides by the wayside, and as the flock pass by it dashes into the midst of them, snatches up a sheep, and disappears among the underwood on the opposite side of the road. Sometimes it is crafty enough to deprive the fold of its watchful guardian. Dogs which are used to Leopard-hunting never attack the animal, though they are rendered furious by the sound of its voice. They dash at it as if they meant to devour it, but take very good care to keep out of reach of its terrible paws. By continually keeping the animal at bay, they give time for their master to come up, and generally contrive to drive it into a tree, where it can be shot.

But instances have been known where the Leopard has taken advantage of the dogs, and carried them off in a very cunning manner. It hides itself tolerably near the fold, and then begins to growl in a low voice. The dogs think that they hear a Leopard at a distance, and dash towards the sound with furious barks and yells. In so doing, they are sure to pass by the hiding-place of the Leopard, which springs upon them unawares, knocks one of them over, and bounds away to its dens in the woods. It does not content itself with taking sheep or goats from the fold, but is also a terrible despoiler of the hen-roosts, destroying great numbers in a single night when once it contrives to find its way into the house.

As an instance of the cunning which seems innate in the Leopard, I may mention that whenever it takes up its abode near a village, it does not meddle with the flocks and herds of its neighbours, but prefers to go to some other village at a dis­tance for food, thus remaining unsuspected almost at the very doors of the houses.

In general, it does not willingly attack mankind, and at all events seems rather to fear the presence of a full-grown man. But, when wounded or irritated, all sense of fear is lost in an overpowering rush of fury, and it then becomes as terrible a foe as the lion himself. It is not so large nor so strong, but it is more agile and quicker in its movements; and when it is seized with one of these paroxysms of anger, the eye can scarcely follow it as it darts here and there, striking with lightning rapidity, and clashing at any foe within reach. Its whole shape seems to be transformed, and absolutely to swell with anger; its eyes flash with fiery lustre, its ears are thrown back on the head, and it continually utters alternate snarls and yells of rage. It is hardly possible to recognise the graceful, lithe glossy creature, whose walk is so noiseless, and whose every movement is so easy, in the furious passion-swollen animal that flies at every foe with blind fury, and pours out sounds so fierce and menacing that few men, however well armed, will care to face it.

As is the case with most of the cat tribe, the Leopard is an excellent climber, and can ascend trees and traverse their boughs without the least difficulty. It is so fond of trees, that it is seldom to be seen except in a well-wooded district. Its favourite residence is a forest where there is plenty of underwood, at least six or seven feet in height, among which trees are sparingly interspersed. When crouched in this cover it is practically invisible, even though its body may be within arm's length of a passenger. The spotted body harmonizes so perfectly with the broken lights and deep shadows of the foliage that even a practised hunter will not enter a covert in search of a Leopard unless he is accompanied by dogs. The instinct which teaches the Leopard to choose such localities is truly wonderful, and may be compared with that of the tiger, which cares little for underwood, but haunts the grass jungles, where the long, narrow blades harmonize with the stripes which decorate its body.

The skin of the Leopard has always been highly valued on account of its beauty, and in Africa, at the present day, a robe made of its spotted skin is as much an adjunct of royalty as is the ermine the emblem of judicial dignity in England. In more ancient times, a leopard skin was the official costume of a priest, the skin being sometimes shaped into a garment, and sometimes thrown over the shoulders and the paws crossed over the breast.

Such is a general history of the Leopard. We will now proceed to the various passages in which it is mentioned, beginning with its outward aspect.

In the first place, the Hebrew word Namer signifies "spotted" and is given to the animal in allusion to its colours. The reader will now see how forcible is the lament of Jeremiah, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the Leopard his spots?" Literally, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the spotted one his spots?"

The agility and swiftness of the Leopard are alluded to in the prediction by the prophet Habakkuk of the vengeance that would come upon Israel through the Chaldeans. In chap. i. 5, we read: "I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe though it be told you. For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling-places that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful; their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves. Their horses also are swifter than the Leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves."

The craftiness of the Leopard, and the manner in which it lies in wait for its prey, are alluded to in more than one passage of Holy Writ. Hosea the prophet alludes to the Leopard, in a few simple words which display an intimate acquaintance with the habits of this formidable animal, and in this part of his prophecies he displays that peculiar local tone which distinguishes his writings. Speaking of the Israelites under the metaphor of a flock, or a herd, he proceeds to say: "According to their pasture so were they filled; they were filled, and their heart was exalted; therefore have they forgotten me. Therefore I will be unto them as a lion, as a Leopard by the way will I observe them." The reader will note the peculiar force of this sentence, whereby God signifies that He will destroy them openly, as a lion rushes on its prey, and that he will chastise them unexpectedly, as if it were a Leopard crouching by the wayside, and watching for the flock to pass, that it may spring on its prey unexpectedly. The same habit of the Leopard is also alluded to by Jeremiah, who employs precisely the same imagery as is used by Habakkuk. See Jer. v. 5, 6, "These have altogether broken the yoke, and burst the bonds Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of time evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities." It is evident from the employment of this image by two prophets, the one being nearly a hundred years before the other, that the crafty, insidious habits of the Leopard were well known in Palestine, and that the metaphor would tell with full force among those to whom it was addressed.

The havoc which the Leopard makes among the sheep and goats is alluded to by the prophet Isaiah, chap. xi. 6: "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion together, and a little child shall lead them." Here again we find the same imagery employed, the people being signified under the metaphor of flocks and herds, and their enemies symbolised by lions, wolves, and Leopards. And herein the Prophet speaks as from accurate knowledge of the habits of the three predaceous animals. The wolf, as a rule, devastates the sheepfolds; the Leopard will steal upon and carry off the straggling goat or kid, because it can follow them upon the precipices where no wolf would dare to tread; while the lion, being the strongest and more daring of the three, attacks the herds, and carries away to its lair the oxen which neither Leopard nor wolf could move.

There is of course a deeper meaning than has been mentioned: but any commentary on that subject would be out of place in a work like the present, and, however tempting the subject may be to the writer, it is better that the reader should be left to investigate it for himself.

Lastly, the peculiar localities which the Leopard loves are mentioned in the Song of Solomon, chap. iv. 8: "Come with me from Lebanon, my spouse, with me from Lebanon: look from the top of Amana, from the top of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions' dens, from the mountains of the leopards." Formerly, large forests of pine, oak, and cedar covered Lebanon, and in those days the wild beasts of the forest would be extremely plentiful. Even at the present day they are not extinct, and a recent traveller, the Rev. J. L. Porter, states that considerable numbers of wild beasts still inhabit the retired glens of the range of Lebanon, and that he himself has seen jackals, hyenas, wolves, bears, and Leopards.

The remaining passages, in which a beast formed like a Leopard was seen in a vision by the prophet Daniel and St. John the Evangelist, are purely allegorical, and have nothing to do with the actual animal.