My headlamp was a spotlight in the nighttime Peruvian jungle, a beam from the middle of my forehead that lit up a tunnel of light that I stepped through. It lit up the moist leaf-thick trail, it lit up lianas, it lit up buttresses of huge ceba trees (but not their tops towering way over my head), it lit up broad leaves still wet from the afternoon rain. In the night, everything was colorless. Black and light.
But the other thing my headlamp lit was eyeshine. Eyes reflected back to me, glowing like bright 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, right at face level, that—ugh—I tried to avoid walking through.
Unblinking eyeshine resting on the lake surface, bright red. That was caiman. The calm water reflected those eyes to make four red eyes. If the water rippled, like when the caiman moved, the reflection could mirror dozens of red undulating eyes.
Unblinking eyes close to the ground, almost lost in the huge-leafed ground plants: possibly 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, higher probably a deer.
I saw all these as I made my way along the trail, following large cats all night—jaguar, puma and ocelot— cats we had radio-collared earlier in the season. 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 characteristic 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 packed up to return the two kilometers home to the field station.
As I was packing, I turned and there was the eyeshine, right in the middle of the trail about 20 meters away. 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.
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, what you do next 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" because 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.
The following morning, I was told by veteran researchers that it’s very likely the puma followed 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.