What would you do if you felt a heavy weight and sharp claws digging into your chest in the middle of the night, opened your eyes and saw a leopard’s face a couple of inches away from yours? You would probably scream very loudly. And thats exactly what a colleague did many years ago.
Its pretty common to find leopards in tea and rubber estates, like where our field station was situated. Though they mostly leave people in peace (subject to people leaving them at peace!), one particular leopard had this reputation for being unusually aggressive. In fact, it had charged at a group of workers recently, and there had been an attack on a cow just down the road a couple of days ago.
So anyway, it was the height of the Kerala monsoon – so sheets of rain and impenetrable fog in the mountains. Power supply would inevitably be lost for many days at a time, because of fallen trees or elephants pulling down electricity poles (those elephants!). The noise from the falling rain is very loud, but the gaps in between rainy spells are very quiet and the field station has good acoustics. So my colleagues screams reverberated through the field station. Everyone jumped up in confusion, and rushed into his room grabbing whatever they could on the way to throw at the leopard (including in one case, a camera trap). They saw the horrifying sight of him sitting in a corner of his bed and shaking. But they found to their relief that he seemed to have escaped with some minor scratches.
So the next immediate question was: where was that leopard at? By this time someone had lit a couple of kerosene lamps, and the search began. No leopards under the bed; no leopards behind the table; and, the windows were all undamaged with all bars in place. But maybe it sneaked out of the room during the chaos? So a comprehensive search of the entire field station began, but nothing showed up except a couple of irritated tarantulas.
And then, someone finally looked up at the ceiling. Hanging upside down from one of the rafters with its talons, long bushy tail dangling down, was a – very big, yellowish, domestic cat hybrid?
So what happened was, this cat had come in looking for some warmth on a very cold, wet night. Crawling in through one of the many gaps in the roof, it got itself a nice comfortable spot on my colleague’s chest. Purring happily, it then began sharpening its claws – on his chest. He half-woke up, and in that groggy state he saw a big yellow felid (=cat) face staring at him and felt sharp claws raking his chest. And knowing that there was a problem leopard around, assumed (reasonably) that he was being attacked. The rest is history.
PS: The cat gave up its struggle with gravity in a couple of minutes and dropped to the ground. He was definitely an unusually large animal, not the kind that you want sitting on your chest. Being a true fighter and survivor, he zoomed straight out of the field station. He was never seen again.
PS2: Incidents like this are a legitimate possibility – leopards do come into houses. There was another time when we stayed up half the night looking for a king cobra that one person saw – but later admitted that he could have dreamed seeing it.
PS3: OK so I couldn’t resist exaggerating this story a little bit, but its totally based on a true incident and eye witness accounts!
PS4: As a bonus, heres a picture of a particularly fierce, dangerous leopard: