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    Ch. 21: The Dying Huanaco

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    Chapter 22
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    Lest any one should misread the title to this chapter, I hasten to say
    that the huanaco, or guanaco as it is often spelt, is not a perishing
    species; nor, as things are, is it likely to perish soon, despite the
    fact that civilized men, Britons especially, are now enthusiastically
    engaged in the extermination of all the nobler mammalians:--a very
    glorious crusade, the triumphant conclusion of which will doubtless be
    witnessed by the succeeding generation, more favoured in this respect
    than ours. The huanaco, happily for it, exists in a barren, desolate
    region, in its greatest part waterless and uninhabitable to human
    beings; and the chapter-heading refers to a singular instinct of the
    dying animals, in very many cases allowed, by the exceptional conditions
    in which they are placed, to die naturally.

    And first, a few words about its place in nature and general habits. The
    huanaco is a small camel--small, that is, compared with its existing
    relation--without a hump, and, unlike the camel of the Old World,
    non-specializad; doubtless it is a very ancient animal on the earth, and
    for all we know to the contrary, may have existed contemporaneously with
    some of the earliest known representatives of the camel type, whose
    remains occur in the lower and upper miocene deposits--Poebrotherium,
    Protolabis, Procamelus, Pliauchenia, and Macrauchenia. It ranges from
    Tierra del Fuego and the adjacent islands, northwards over the whole of
    Patagonia, and along the Andes into Peru and Bolivia. On the great
    mountain chain it is both a wild and a domestic animal, since the llama,
    the beast of burden of the ancient Peruvians, is no doubt only a
    variety: but as man's slave it has changed so greatly from the original
    form that some naturalists have regarded the llama as a distinct
    species, which, like the camel of the East, exists only in a domestic
    state. It has had time enough to vary, as it is more than probable that
    the tamed and useful animal was inherited by the children of the sun
    from races and nations that came before them: and how far back Andean
    civilization extends may be inferred from the belief expressed by the
    famous American archaeologist, Squiers, that the ruined city of
    Tiahuanaco, in the vicinity of Lake Titicaca, is as old as Thebes and
    the Pyramids.

    It is, however, with the wild animal, the huanaco, that I am concerned.
    A full-grown male measures seven to eight feet in length, and four feet
    high to the shoulder; it is well clothed in a coat of thick woolly hair,
    of a pale reddish colour, Longest and palest on the under parts. In
    appearance it is very unlike the camel, in spite of the long legs and
    neck; in its finely-shaped head and long ears, and its proud and
    graceful carriage, it resembles an antelope rather than its huge and,
    from an aesthetic point of view, deformed Asiatic relation. In habits it
    is gregarious, and is usually seen in small herds, but herds numbering
    several hundreds or even a thousand are occasionally met with on the
    stony, desolate plateaus of Southern Patagonia; but the huanaco is able
    to thrive and grow fat where almost any other herbivore would starve.
    While the herd feeds one animal acts as sentinel, stationed on the
    hillside, and on the appearance of danger utters a shrill neigh of
    alarm, and instantly all take to flight. But although excessively shy
    and wary they are also very inquisitive, and have enough intelligence to
    know that a single horseman can do them no harm, for they will not only
    approach to look closely at him, but will sometimes follow him for
    miles. They are also excitable, and at times indulge in strange freaks.
    Darwin writes:--"On the mountains of Tierra del Fuego I have more than
    once seen a huanaco, on being approached, not only neigh and squeal, but
    prance and leap about in a most ridiculous manner, apparently in
    defiance as a challenge." And Captain King relates that while sailing
    into Port Desire he witnessed a chase of a huanaco after a fox, both
    animals evidently going at their greatest speed, so that they soon
    passed out of sight. I have known some tame huanacos, and in that state
    they make amusing intelligent pets, fond of being caressed, but often so
    frolicsome and mischievous as to be a nuisance to their master. It is
    well known that at the southern extremity of Patagonia the huanacos have
    a dying place, a spot to which all individuals inhabiting the
    surrounding plains repair at the approach of death to deposit their
    bones. Darwin and Fitzroy first recorded this strange instinct in their
    personal narratives, and their observations have since been fully
    confirmed by others. The best known of these dying or burial-places are
    on the banks of the Santa Cruz and Gallegos rivers, where the river
    valleys are covered with dense primeval thickets of bushes and trees of
    stunted growth; there the ground is covered with the bones of countless
    dead generations. "The animals," says Darwin, "in most cases must have
    crawled, before dying, beneath and among the bushes." A strange instinct
    in a creature so preeminently social in its habits; a dweller all its
    life long on the open, barren plateaus and mountain sides! What a
    subject for a painter! The grey wilderness of dwarf thorn trees, aged
    and grotesque and scanty-leaved, nourished for a thousand years on the
    bones that whiten the stony ground at their roots; the interior lit
    faintly with the rays of the departing sun, chill and grey, and silent
    and motionless--the huanacos' Golgotha. In the long centuries,
    stretching back into a dim immeasurable past, so many of this race have
    journeyed hither from the mountain and the plain to suffer the sharp
    pang of death, that, to the imagination, something of it all seems to
    have passed into that hushed and mournful nature. And now one more, the
    latest pilgrim, has come, all his little strength spent in his struggle
    to penetrate the close thicket; looking old and gaunt and ghostly in the
    twilight; with long ragged hair; staring into the gloom out of
    death-dimmed sunken eyes. England has one artist who might show it to us
    on canvas, who would be able to catch the feeling of such a scene--of
    that mysterious, passionless tragedy of nature--I refer to J. M. Swan,
    the painter of the "Prodigal Son" and the "Lioness Defending her Cubs."

    To his account of the animal's dying place and instinct, Darwin adds: "I
    do not at all understand the reason of this, but I may observe that the
    wounded huanacos at the Santa Cruz invariably walked towards the river."

    It would, no doubt, be rash to affirm of any instinct that it is
    absolutely unique; but, putting aside some doubtful reports about a
    custom of the Asiatic elephant, which may have originated in the account
    of Sindbad the Sailor's discovery of an elephant's burial place, we have
    no knowledge of an instinct similar to that of the huanaco in any other
    animal. So far as we know, it stands alone and apart, with nothing in
    the actions of other species leading up, or suggesting any family
    likeness to it. But what chiefly attracts the mind to it is its
    strangeness. It looks, in fact, less like an instinct of one of the
    inferior creatures than the superstitious observance of human beings,
    who have knowledge of death, and believe in a continued existence after
    dissolution; of a triba that in past times had conceived the idea that
    the liberated spirit is only able to find its way to its future abode by
    starting at death from the ancient dying-place of the tribe or family,
    and thence moving westward, or skyward, or underground, over the
    well-worn immemorial track, invisible to material eyes.

    But, although alone among animal instincts-in its strange and useless
    purpose--for it is as absolutely useless to the species or race as to
    the dying individual--it is not the only useless instinct we know of:
    there are many others, both simple and complex; and of such instincts we
    believe, with good reason, that they once played an important part in
    the life of the species, and were only rendered useless by changes in
    the condition of life, or in the organism, or in both. In other words,
    when the special conditions that gave them value no longer existed, the
    correlated and perfect instinct was not, in these cases, eradicated, but
    remained, in abeyance and still capable of being called into activity by
    a new and false stimulus simulating the old and true. Viewed in this
    way, the huanaco's instinct might be regarded as something remaining to
    the animal from a remote past, not altogether unaffected by time
    perhaps; and like some ceremonial usage among men that has long ceased
    to have any significance, or like a fragment of ancient history, or a
    tradition, which in the course of time has received some new and false
    interpretation. The false interpretation, to continue the metaphor, is,
    in this case, that the _purpose_ of the animal in going to a certain
    spot, to which it has probably never previously resorted, is to die
    there. A false interpretation, because, in the first place, it is
    incredible that an instinct of no advantage to the species, in its
    struggle for existence and predominance should arise and become
    permanent; and, in the second place, it is equally incredible that it
    could ever have been to the advantage of the species or race to, have a
    dying place. We must, then, suppose that there is in the sensations
    preceding death, when death comes slowly, some resemblance to the
    sensations experienced by the animal at a period when its curious
    instinct first took form and crystallized; these would be painful
    sensations that threatened life; and freedom from them, and safety to
    the animal, would only exist in a certain well-remembered spot. Further,
    we might assume that it was at first only the memory of a few
    individuals that caused the animals to seek the place of safety; that a
    habit was thus formed; that in time this traditional habit became
    instinctive, so that the animals, old and young, made their way
    unerringly to the place of refuge whenever the old danger returned. And
    such an instinct, slowly matured and made perfect to enable this animal
    to escape extinction during periods of great danger to mammalian life,
    lasting hundreds or even thousands of years, and destructive of
    numberless other species less hardy and adaptive than the generalized
    huanaco, might well continue to exist, to be occasionally called into
    life by a false stimulus, for many centuries after it had ceased to be
    of any advantage.

    Once we accept this explanation as probable--namely, that the huanaco,
    in withdrawing from the herd to drop down and die in the ancient dying
    ground, is in reality only seeking an historically remembered place of
    refuge, and not of death--the action of the animal loses much of its
    mysterious character; we come on to firm ground, and find that we are no
    longer considering an instinct absolutely unique, with no action or
    instinct in any other animal leading up or suggesting any family
    likeness to it, as I said before. We find, in fact, that there is at
    least one very important and very well-known instinct in another class
    of creatures, which has a strong resemblance to that of the huanaco, as
    I have interpreted it, and which may even serve to throw a side light on
    the origin of the huanaco's instinct. I refer to a habit of some
    ophidians, in temperate and cold countries, of returning annually to
    hybernate in the saine den.

    A typical instance is that of the rattlesnake in the colder parts of
    North America. On the approach of winter these reptiles go into hiding,
    and it has been observed that in some districts a very large number of
    individuals, hundreds, and even thousands, will repair from the
    surrounding country to the ancestral den. Here the serpents gather in a
    mass to remain in a wholly or semi-torpid condition until the return of
    spring brings them out again, to scatter abroad to their usual summer
    haunts. Clearly in this case the knowledge of the hyberna-ting den is
    not merely traditional--that is, handed down from generation to
    generation, through the young each year following the adults, and so
    forming the habit of repairing at certain seasons to a certain place;
    for the young serpent soon abandons its parent to lead an independent
    life; and on the approach of cold weather the hybernating den may be a
    long distance away, ten or twenty, or even thirty miles from the spot in
    which it was born. The annual return to the hybernating den is then a
    fixed unalterable instinct, like the autumnal migration of some birds to
    a warmer latitude. It is doubtless favourable to the serpents to
    hybernate in large numbers massed together; and the habit of resorting
    annually to the same spot once formed, we can imagine that the
    individuals--perhaps a single couple in the first place--frequenting
    some very deep, dry, and well-sheltered cavern, safe from enemies, would
    have a great advantage over others of their race; that they would be
    stronger and increase more, and spread during the summer months further
    and further from the cavern on all sides; and that the further afield
    they went the more would the instinct be perfected; since all the young
    serpents that did not have the instinct of returning unerringly to the
    ancestral refuge, and that, like the outsiders of their race, to put it
    in that way, merely crept into the first hole they found on the approach
    of the cold season, would be more liable to destruction. Probably most
    snakes get killed long before a natural decline sets in; to say that not
    one in a thousand dies of old age would probably be no exaggeration; but
    if they were as safe from enemies and accidents as some less prolific
    and more highly-organized animals, so that many would reach the natural
    term of life, and death came slowly, we can imagine that in such a
    heat-loving creature the failure of the vital powers would simulate the
    sensations caused by a falling temperature, and cause the old or sick
    serpent, even in midsummer, to creep instinctively away to the ancient
    refuge, where many a long life-killing frost had been safely tided over
    in the past.

    The huanaco has never been a hybernating animal; but we must assume
    that, like the crotalus of the north, he had formed a habit of
    congregating with his fellows at certain seasons at the same spot;
    further, that these were seasons of suffering to the animal--the
    suffering, or discomfort and danger, having in the first place given
    rise to the habit. Assuming again that the habit had existed so long as
    to become, like that of the reptile, a fixed, immutable instinct, a
    hereditary knowledge, so that the young huanacos, untaught by the
    adults, would go alone and unerringly to the meeting-place from any
    distance, it is but an easy step to the belief, that after the
    conditions had changed, and the refuges were no longer needed, this
    instinctive knowledge would still exist in them, and that they would
    take the old road when stimulated by the pain of a wound; or the
    miserable sensations experienced in disease or during the decay of the
    life-energy, when the senses grow dim, and the breath fails, and the
    blood is thin and cold.

    I presume that most persons who have observed animals a great deal have
    met with cases in which the animal has acted automatically, or
    instinctively, when the stimulus has been a false one. I will relate one
    such case, observed by myself, and which strikes me as being apposite to
    the question I am considering. It must be premised that this is an
    instance of an acquired habit; but this does not affect my argument,
    since I have all along assumed that the huanaco--a highly sagacious
    species in the highest class of vertebrates--first acquired a habit from
    experience of seeking a remembered refuge, and that such habit was the
    parent, as it were, or the first clay model, of the perfect and
    indestructible instinct that was to be.

    It is not an uncommon thing in the Argentino pampas--I have on two
    occasions witnessed it myself--for a riding-horse to come home, or to
    the gate of his owner's house, to die. I am speaking of riding-horses
    that are never doctored, nor treated mercifully; that look on their
    master as an enemy rather than a friend; horses that live out in the
    open, and have to be hunted to the corral or enclosure, or roughly
    captured with a lasso as they run, when their services are required. I
    retain a very vivid recollection of the first occasion of witnessing an
    action of this kind in a horse, although I was only a boy at the time.
    On going out one summer evening I saw one of the horses of the
    establishment standing unsaddled and unbridled leaning his head over the
    gate. Going to the spot, I stroked his nose, and then, turning to an old
    native who happened to be near, asked him what could be the meaning of
    such a thing. "I think he is going to die," he answered; "horses often
    come to the house to die." And next morning the poor beast was found
    lying dead not twenty yards from the gate; although he had not appeared
    ill when I stroked his nose on the previous evening; but when I saw him
    lying there dead, and remembered the old native's words, it seemed to me
    as marvellous and inexplicable that a horse should act in that way, as
    if some wild creature--a rhea, a fawn, or dolichotes--had come to exhale
    his last breath at the gates of his enemy and constant persecutor, man.

    I now believe that the sensations of sickness and approaching death in
    the riding-horse of the pampas resemble or similate the pains, so often
    experienced, of hunger, thirst and fatigue combined, together with the
    oppressive sensations caused by the ponderous native saddle, or recado,
    with its huge surcingle of raw hide drawn up so tightly as to hinder
    free respiration. The suffering animal remembers how at the last relief
    invariably came, when the twelve or fifteen hours' torture were over,
    the toil and the want, and when the great iron bridle and ponderous gear
    were removed, and he had freedom and food and drink and rest. At the
    gate or at the door of his master's house, the sudden relief had always
    come to him; and there does he sometimes go in his sickness, his fear
    overmastered by his suffering, to find it again.

    Discussing this question with a friend, who has a subtle mind and great
    experience of the horse in semi-barbarous countries, and of many other
    animals, wild and tame, in many regions of the globe, he put forward a
    different explanation of the action of the horse in coming home to die,
    which he thinks simpler and more probable than mine. It is, that a dying
    or ailing animal instinctively withdraws itself from its fellows--an
    action of self-preservation in the individual in opposition to the
    well-known instincts of the healthy animals, which impels the whole herd
    to turn upon and persecute the sickly member, thus destroying its
    chances of recovery. The desire of the suffering animal is not only to
    leave its fellows, but to get to some solitary place where they cannot
    follow, or would never find him, to escape at once from a great and
    pressing danger. But on the pastoral pampas, where horses are so
    numerous that on that level, treeless area they are always and
    everywhere visible, no hiding-place is discoverable. In such a case, the
    animal, goaded by its instinctive fear, turns to the one spot that
    horses avoid; and although that spot has hitherto been fearful to him,
    the old fear is forgotten in the present and far more vivid one; the
    vicinity of his master's house represents a solitary place to him, and
    he seeks it, just as the stricken deer seeks the interior of some close
    forest, oblivious for the time, in its anxiety to escape from the herd,
    of the dangers lurking in it, and which he formerly avoided.

    I have not set this explanation down merely because it does credit to my
    friend's ingenuity, but because it strikes me that it is the only
    alternative explanation that can be given of the animal's action in
    coming home to die. Another fact concerning the ill-tamed and
    barbarously treated horses of the pampas, which, to my mind, strengthens
    the view I have taken, remains to be mentioned. It is not an uncommon
    thing for one of these horses, after escaping, saddled and bridled, and
    wandering about for anight or night and day on the plains, to return of
    its own accord to the house. It is clear that in a case of this kind the
    animal comes home to seek relief. I have known one horse that always had
    to be hunted like a wild animal to be caught, and that invariably after
    being saddled tried to break loose, to return in this way to the gate
    after wandering about, saddled and bridled, for over twenty hours in
    uncomfortable freedom.

    The action of the riding-horse returning to a master he is accustomed to
    fly from, as from an enemy, to be released of saddle and bridle, is, no
    doubt more intelligent than that of the dying horse coming home to be
    relieved from his sufferings, but the motive is the same in both cases;
    at the gate the only pain the animal has ever experienced has invariably
    begun, and there it has ended, and when the spur of some new pain
    afflicts him--new and yet like the old--it is to the well-remembered
    hated gate that it urges him.

    To return to the huanaco. After tracing the dying instinct back to its
    hypothetical origin--namely, a habit acquired by the animal in some past
    period of seeking refuge from some kind of pain and danger at a certain
    spot, it is only natural to speculate a little further as to the nature
    of that danger and of the conditions the animal existed in.

    If the huanaco is as old on the earth as its antique generalized form
    have led naturalists to suppose, we can well believe that it has
    survived not only a great many lost mammalian types, but many changes in
    the conditions of its life. Let us then imagine that at some remote
    period a change took place in the climate of Patagonia, and that it
    became colder and colder, owing to some cause affecting only that
    portion of the antarctic region; such a cause, for instance, as a great
    accumulation of icebergs on the northern shores of the antarctic
    continent, extending century by century until a large portion of the now
    open sea became blocked up with solid ice. If the change was gradual and
    the snow became deeper each winter and lasted longer, an intelligent,
    gregarious, and exceedingly hardy and active animal like the huanaco,
    able to exist on the driest woody fibres, would stand the beat chance of
    maintaining its existence in such altered conditions, and would form new
    habits to meet the new danger. One would be that at the approach of a
    period of deep snow and deadly cold, all the herds frequenting one
    place would gather together at the most favourable spots in the river
    valleys, where the vegetation is dense and some food could be had while
    the surrounding country continued covered with deep snow. They would, in
    fact, make choice of exactly such localities as are now used for dying
    places. There they would be sheltered from the cutting-winds, the twigs
    and bark would supply them with food, the warmth from a great many
    individuals massed together would serve to keep the snow partially
    melted under foot, and would prevent their being smothered, while the
    stiff and closely interlaced branches would keep a roof of snow above
    them, and thus protected they would keep alive until the return of mild
    weather released them. In the course of many generations all weakly
    animals, and all in which the habit of seeking the refuge at the proper
    time was weak or uncertain in its action would perish, but their loss
    would be an advantage to the survivors.

    It is worthy of remark that it is only at the southern extremity of
    Patagonia that the huanacos have dying places. In Northern Patagonia,
    and on the Chilian and Peruvian Andes no such instinct has been
    observed.
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