Jack EwingNature and Local History Stories

Hocus and Pocus – Strange Creeper Cats

By Jack Ewing

JaguarundiWhen I first laid eyes on the two black kittens a quote from a Robert Heinlein novel popped into my mind. It has been so many years ago since I read it that I can’t even remember which one is was, but I remember the quote. In referring to a complex subject Heinlein said that making sense of it was “… like searching in a dark cellar at midnight on a moonless night for a black cat that isn’t there.” These two kittens were that black without a hint of any other color. Even their eyes were black. In addition to their extreme blackness there was always an air of mysteriousness about them. They didn’t walk like ordinary cats, rather they walked all crouched down, more of a creep than a walk, like they were constantly stalking something. They never made any noises other than purring; they never clawed the furniture; they were never underfoot and never got into trouble of any kind. There was always something strange about them. We named them Hocus and Pocus.
Hacienda Baru

We found them on our doorstep one Sunday morning. Their eyes and ears were open and they could get around just fine, but they were really too young to be weaned. My wife Diane took them in and bottle fed them until they were old enough to eat solid food. Hocus and Pocus grew quickly and never got sick. They were friendly enough, but were never cuddly like most kittens. They always had an air of independence about them that let you know that they didn’t belong to anyone. All cats are that way to a certain extent, but Hocus and Pocus were even more so. They wouldn’t reject affection, but they never looked for it. Our grandson Shawn used to drape one of them around his neck and walk around the house that way. The cat was totally non committal about these antics, neither rejecting Shawn’s affectionate game nor craving the attention. Diane said she could tell them apart, but I didn’t even try. Like all cats they never gave any indication that they knew their names. I can definitely say that they were the coolest cats I have ever known.

Both Hocus and Pocus were males, and when they were old enough Diane got them their shots and had them neutered. Though only a couple of months old, they were already about the same size of an ordinary adult house cat. A couple of weeks after they were neutered a biologist friend of ours came to visit. He walked into the house, took one look at Hocus and Pocus, and said, “Wow, where did you get the jaguarundis?”

Costa Rica’s Only Wild Black Cat

Jaguarundi is the common name of Costa Rica’s only wild, black cat. Some jaguarundis are tan to reddish-tan or sometimes gray, but we don’t have those color phases in the southern part of the country. The scientific name at the moment is Puma yagouaroundi.  I say “at the moment,” because I have three field guides for mammals and each one gives a different scientific name for these sleek, black cats. The oldest field guide gives the name as Felis yagouaroundi, and the middle version gives it as Herpailurus yagouaroundi. Of the three genus names the middle one, Herpailurus, has the most interesting derivation. The first part of the word is either from the Greek word herpa, which means “strange,” or the Greek word herpes which means “creeper.”  The ending of the name is derived from the Greek word ailouros meaning “cat.” All three words fit the jaguarundi perfectly, “strange, creeper cats.” The species name, yagouaroundi is the common name given to these cats by the Guarani Indians from South America. It is interesting to note that the current genus name Puma, is shared only with the puma or mountain lion whose scientific name is Puma concolor.

Compared with other cats the jaguarundi’s head is small in relation to its body. You could say that of the wild Costa Rican cats, it is the least cat-like. Some people even notice a similarity with certain mustelids like otters or weasels. In fact, I have heard jaguarundis called both “weasel cats” and “otter cats,” and they are often mistaken for another mustelid, the tayra. The tayra is a lot like a weasel, but weighs a little over five kilos (11 pounds.) A jaguarundi is a little bigger, but not noticeably so, and both are black. As most sightings of these two animals are fleeting glimpses of a black, cat-like mammal running across the road or the path, the two are often mistaken for one another. When I spot one, I always look at the tail. The jaguarundi has a typical cat’s tail, long and thin, whereas the tayra’s tail is not so long and a lot thicker.

I remember an incident when I was galloping along on a horse, and either a tayra or jaguarundi ran across the path about ten meters in front of me. A couple of seconds later two smaller, black mammals also attempted to cross the trail. Unfortunately they ran right under the front feet of my horse. The horse tripped and almost fell, but was able to regain its feet. The two young, black mammals went rolling head over heals, landed upright and took off into the brush. To this day I don’t know which they were, jaguarundis or tayras. The incident happened so fast that I didn’t have a chance to look at their tails.

The jaguarundi is not necessarily the most common wild cat in Costa Rica, but it is the most often seen by humans. At Hacienda Barú somebody, either a park ranger, a guide, or a guest spots one a couple of times each month. My best sighting was in the mid-afternoon one day during the dry season, on one of the trails at Hacienda Barú. I had stopped in the shade of a palm tree to scan the stream for signs of life. The breeze was in my face. A lone jaguarundi stepped into the field of view of my binoculars. I watched it wander around for several minutes, mostly in the partially dry stream bed. It turned over rocks and peeked into hollows in the stream bank. At one point it briefly stalked a small lizard, but the lizard managed to escape. The jaguarundi captured a crayfish in a small pool, and ate the whole thing, scales and all. Finally the black cat walked out of the stream and into the forest. Though there was nothing particularly scary or exciting about the incident, it still made my heart beat a little faster. I had never before had the good fortune to observe a jaguarundi doing what jaguarundis do in the wild.

In addition to crayfish and little lizards, jaguarundis eat some fruit and vegetable matter, large insects, fish, rats and other small rodents. They have been known to eat opossums, but don’t normally tackle prey that large. Ground nesting birds like tinamous and wood rails form a large part of their diet. Though they are agile climbers, they hunt mostly on the ground.

One thing that gets them into trouble with humans is their taste for barnyard fowl. We once bought several guinea hens. They reproduced rapidly and the flock soon grew to about 20. Guinea hens have a tendency to go off into the bush to nest, and that was their downfall. The jaguarundis were picking them off one by one. Between the jaguarundis and the tayras, all of the guinea hens disappeared within two months. We had some chickens too, but they tended to stay closer to the house, and weren’t such easy targets. Once all of the guinea hens were gone the jaguarundis started on the chickens. Diane built a chicken coop and locked them up so the black cats couldn’t get to them. After a couple of weeks, she let them out of the coop and allowed them to roam freely during the day. Every time one disappeared, we locked the rest in the coop for a few days.

A neighbor who once lived near Hacienda Barú Lodge acquired a small flock of chickens. Several hens were soon running around with a bunch of chicks in tow. The chicks grew rapidly and soon reached the point that you could differentiate between hens and roosters. When you have only one rooster in your flock it will start crowing around daybreak. If there are more than one rooster, they will crow at all hours of the night. It’s like a competition. There is nothing more irritating and sleep disturbing than a young rooster, with an adolescent voice, trying to crow, especially at midnight when you’re trying to sleep. You can imagine the complaints from our guests, and the premature check outs. I talked with the neighbor and explained the problem, but to no avail. The chickens were his, they were on his property, and that was that. I offered to buy the chickens, but they weren’t for sale. I day dreamed about sneaking up in the middle of the night with a shotgun and blasting them off their perches one by one, but of course I never put my fantasies into action.

One day I was standing in the driveway that goes to the Hacienda Barú Restaurant, talking with an employee. I looked up, and, to my surprise, a jaguarundi came walking out of a patch of brush the other side of the road, walked across the driveway about 30 meters in front of us and entered the forest that bordered the house where the adolescent roosters lived. “Look at that,” I exclaimed. “There goes a living, breathing rooster control agent.”

“He won’t get very many of them,” replied the employee. “Ricardo will kill him after one or two. He’ll probably use poison meat.”

I sent word to the Hacienda Barú park rangers who had the full authority of Wildlife Officials. I explained the situation to the rangers and asked them to go talk to Ricardo, explain the law to him, and warn him about what would happen to him if anything happened to the jaguarundi. It worked like a charm. In three days all of the roosters were gone. The jaguarundi got two of them, and Ricardo’s family ate the rest. The remaining hens stayed locked up in the chicken coop until the black cat moved on.

A Final Word on Hocus and Pocus

Once we found out that Hocus and Pocus were jaguarundis we looked at them differently and were able to see their strange behavior in a new light. Also, we regretted having neutered them. “If only I had known… If only Jim (our biologist friend) had come by two weeks earlier…,” lamented Diane.

But the damage was already done, and there was no way of undoing it, so Hocus and Pocus would just have to live with their infertile condition. We assumed that they would continue to live with us like house cats. “They’re addicted to the easy life,” I remarked. “I doubt if they will give up being fed and pampered and prefer to go out and fend for themselves.” Once an animal becomes accustomed to living at our house, rarely does it crave working for a living. Being an animal under Diane’s care has even been compared to nirvana or the highest level of reincarnation.

Though Hocus and Pocus had been quite small when they joined our household, the wildness was still deeply imbedded in their psyches, and all the luxury living in the world wouldn’t change that. About six months after we found out that they were really jaguarundis, one of them left. He just walked out the door one day and never came back. Diane says it was Pocus. A month later, almost to the day, Hocus left. We didn’t notice he was missing until he didn’t show up for the afternoon feeding. Diane kept hoping that they would return, but I knew they were gone for good. The wild instinct was in their blood and they were where they were born to be. I was happy for them.

Less than a month after their departure, one of our former black pets returned to the house for a final look. Diane spotted him near the gate early one morning. He looked toward the house, looked at Diane, turned and wandered off. About six months later I was walking down a rainforest trail near our house when a black cat stepped into the trail less than two meters in front of me. I stopped dead in my tracks and watched. The cat looked at me straight in the eye. “Hocus? Pocus?” I called. Whoever it was gave no sign of alarm, but neither did it give any sign of recognition. The strange, black cat, creeped across the trail and into the forest on the other side. He never looked back.