A spotlight in the midnight Peruvian jungle, my headlamp blazed a tunnel of light from my forehead. I stepped into it. The trail glowed, moist and thick with leaves. Lianas dangled. Buttresses of huge ceba trees ended abruptly, decapitated by light. Broad leaves still wet from the afternoon rain parted for me. In the night, everything was colorless. Black and light.
My headlamp also lit up eyeshine. Eyes reflected back to me, glowing like eerie headlights. They shone in very different ways, depending on the animal they belonged to.
A string of eyes like a teeny necklace in the middle of the trail belonged to a spider. There were millions of spiders here and dozens of webs across the trail, at face level. If I was lucky, I saw them and ducked under. If not...blech.
Unblinking eyeshine resting on the lake surface, bright red. That was caiman. The calm water reflected those eyes to double the count. If the water rippled, like when the caiman moved, the reflection danced with dozens of red undulating eyes.
Unblinking eyes close to the ground, almost lost in the huge-leafed ground plants, might be a horned frog, with a mouth so big it can swallow small mammals.
Blinking eyes always belonged to a mammal. A foot off the ground, it could be capybara. But lower could be an agouti or rat. If higher, it was probably a deer.
This was my nightly landscape as I made my way along the trail, following large cats—jaguar, puma and ocelot— cats we had radio-collared months earlier. I tuned my radio receiver, held the broad, branched antenna up in the air, and listened for beeps that signaled the identity of one of our radio-collared cats. Since I was the youngest field assistant at the Cocha Cashu research station (short straw and all), my shift went from 6p, when the sun set like a dropped rock, til midnight. No one else wanted a shift that was dark the entire time.
So, that’s the setting. This is the story.
At 2200 hrs, I settled in to listen to a group of ocelots sleeping. The tic-toc sound of the ping told me they were lying on their sides. I read, then checked the radio signal, wrote notes, frequencies, and directions in my field notebook, then read again. At midnight, I began packing to return to the field station, 2km away.
As I was zipping my pack closed, I looked up. There was eyeshine, right in the middle of the trail about 20 meters away. I sucked in my breath. What was it? Two feet off the ground, it blinked. The eyes moved up, then dropped down. Probably afraid of me. It must be a deer, I thought. But my heart was thumping hard.
Then the two glowing eyes moved sideways into the caña along the trail and rushed towards me. My heart leaped. Do deer charge? Now 15 meters away. The eyes winked in and out behind the caña. I was riveted on those eyes, I couldn’t lose the eyeshine or I wouldn’t know where the animal was. What was it!? Now 10 meters away. It rushed closer and closer. My throat tightened. Now it was 5 meters away. Now it came out of the caña straight at me. Deer definitely do not do this, was all I had time to think before…
It swept past me. In my headlamp's beam, I saw chiseled ropy muscles under the shortest of tawny fur. A narrow body, And then a long cat tail.
Puma. You might call it a mountain lion or a cougar. In Peru, they called them puma.
When charged by a large cat in the middle of the night in an Amazon rainforest, the next thing you do probably says a lot about who you really are, deep down inside. Do you defend yourself with your machete? Do you turn and flee?
I don’t know what it says about me, but my mind went blank. Absolutely 100% empty. Nada. I’m sure if someone were there with me, they’d have said my eyes went wide and I was momentarily paralyzed. Oddly, when I did move again, I unfolded my radio antenna and turned on the receiver to check all the radio-collar channels. Maybe I was in "automatic", maybe signals had stopped coming from my brain. When I think back on what the puma looked like, I don’t remember a radio-collar, so it didn't exactly make sense.
Of course, once the puma swept past me, its eyes were facing away from me. I lost the eye shine and the animal disappeared into the black night. It could be anywhere. Antenna held high with adrenaline, I spun in all directions searching for a signal and looking for eyeshine. I couldn’t find either.
Don’t run, my instinct told me. So, I walked as quickly as I could, trying really hard not to sprint. I raked both sides of the trail with my light, looking for eyes. I swept the trail behind me with my light. Half an hour later, I got back to the research station, but I never saw the eyes or the puma again. I left a note for the rest of the team in the screen-walled kitchen hut. Then I zipped my tent door closed against mosquitoes and puma, and somehow got to sleep.
When I joined the team for breakfast the next morning, the veteran researchers explained that the puma probably DID follow me all the way back to camp, behind me, checking me out. That’s just apparently what puma do.
But why did I never see the puma’s eyeshine after it charged me? I was looking everywhere for it - beside me, behind me, in front of me. Did it cover its eyes with its cool cat shades? Or did it simply keep going on into the depths of the rainforest because who knows what it thought I was… a humanoid with a single glowing eye in the center of its forehead and antlers that it held on a long arm over its head. Weird. Definitely something to avoid.