I felt the farm was an unsafe home after a leopard moved in and ate my dog. A biologist friend advised if I didn’t want to invite the cat’s attention again, I’d have to get rid of my pets. That was not an option. In that case, the kennel had to be far from the house she said. I wobbled my head noncommittally, but in my mind, I trashed the impractical suggestion. Rom and I had to figure this out on our own.
Leopards kill by biting the throat and crushing the windpipe until the animal suffocates. Shepherds in Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh protect their dogs with broad metal collars bristling with sharp spikes. These collars would do the trick.
It was only when they arrived that I realized they were lethal. The dogs could rip their paws until they got used to them. Nor were our shins and hands safe when we played with the dogs. What were a few injuries when lives could be saved?
For centuries, leopards in those northern states encountered dogs wearing these metal collars, and learnt to give them a wide berth. Would a south Indian leopard that had never encountered these collars leave our dogs alone? What if it disembowelled our pets in its attempt to kill them? Wasn’t the slow, painful death of evisceration worse than being killed swiftly by a bite to the neck? The collars were consigned to the storeroom to gather dust and rust.
In the U.S., hunters use dogs to chase cougars up trees. If our dogs knew how to tree the leopard, perhaps they could escape becoming prey. At three years of age, they were too old to be trained, and if they didn’t learn their lessons well, they could get killed.
Should I get puppies to train? Not all puppies make good treeing dogs, and the training process lasts two years. Besides, I hadn’t heard of any instances of dogs treeing leopards. I didn’t want to experiment with our dogs’ lives with an untested idea.
What we did, however, was clip the lower branches of all trees not only for a clear view of the garden from the house, but also to make sure there were no hiding spots for the large cats.
We kept the dogs indoors, either in the house or in the adjoining kennel, day and night. Before letting them out, we looked around carefully so the dogs didn’t blunder into the jaws of the waiting beast.
When I took the dogs for a walk or a run every morning, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was trawling for leopards. But pets needed their exercise and can’t be cooped up all the time. Rom warned me, “If the leopard grabs a dog, let it take it. If you try to protect the dog, the leopard might turn on you.” I nodded, hoping never to face that eventuality.
Rom returned from Ethiopia with a metal spear head, used by the Guchi tribe to hunt leopards. After fixing the sharp blade on to a long wooden shaft, he presented it to me to carry on my walks. It was heavy and unwieldy. My father then dried a length of bamboo and straightened it with fire. And this made a light-weight shaft for the spear.
On a trial run, I held the leashes of three dogs in one hand and the spear in the other. To an outsider, I might have looked like I was going on a hunt, but I was trying not to be hunted. The weapon snagged on branches, and I inadvertently whacked a dog or two. I feared I might clumsily spear a dog, jab my foot, or trip on it. Even if I grew used to carrying a spear, I’d probably not use it when the occasion arose.
Every day for the past six years, the dogs and I were out in leopard country, relying on nothing more than our wits to avoid a confrontation. And we survived.