A Dog and a Jungle Cat in the Chapada Diamantina

by John Dewald

While camping overnight in the jungles of Brazil’s Chapada Diamantina, Jack Woods is shocked into consciousness by an unexpected encounter with the local wildlife.

The dog’s barks tore into the night. They were frantic, afraid. Sleep left my body faster than a bullet flees a gun. It was happening exactly how I’d feared it would happen. I sat up in the hammock, knife in hand. The jungle canopy hid the moon and the stars. All I could see was the black of the Brazilian night. Flicking open my switchblade, I projected a savage intensity out into the dark. It could smell fear. I needed to seem strong. I’d gone to bed worried about big cats. We were deep in their territory, and the spot where we were sleeping was perfect for them. What else could set the dog off like this? My other hand scrabbled in the hammock, searching for my headlamp.

I could feel each heartbeat, my pulse hammering from my temple to my toes, adrenaline flooding my veins. A single word invaded my mind: jaguar. It left room for nothing else. Jaguar. Nothing else existed. There was only that thought. Jaguar. A jaguar. We’d attracted a fucking jaguar.

I’d spent the last two days wandering half-lost around the national park of Chapada Diamantina in Bahia, Brazil, trying to find the Vale do Pati, one of the most remote valleys in an already remote park. All I’d found was a stray dog who had decided to follow me despite my repeated attempts to get rid of her. Otherwise, I was alone. We were camped next to a waterfall that looked like it belonged in Neverland, and I’d gone to bed listening to the never ending drone of buzzing insects, the calls of countless birds, and the sounds of all the animals I didn’t recognize as the jungle celebrated the falling night. I’d been worried about big cats as I stretched out in my hammock, watching the jungle canopy grow dark with the sky, but I’d managed to relax and get some sleep. Now I was awake again, and all of that seemed like a lifetime ago.

Stray, the dog, was barking even harder now, her howls high-pitched and terrified. I couldn’t see her in the dark, but I could hear her gnashing her teeth. The only other time I’d heard a dog act like this was when my childhood dog had almost fought a bear. Frothing at the mouth while she’d snarled and snapped, she had put herself in between the bear and me and probably saved my life. For Stray to be going this crazy, there had to be something big out there, something threatening. A jaguar. It had to be a jaguar. I was in my boxers in a hammock and there was a jaguar lurking in the dark, maybe just a pounce away.

The cat had probably smelled the dog and come to investigate. A bigger dog might have been able to make enough noise to make a jaguar think twice about getting close, but Stray was barely higher than my knee. To a jaguar, she was a late-night snack. If the jaguar did attack, it would probably go for Stray. She was the easier prey. 

Adrenaline anchored me, helping me focus. But the more I analyzed the situation, the more fear started to muddle my thinking. Cold and heavy, it oozed out from the pit of my stomach, its icy talons sinking deeper and deeper into my heart. The world was constricting around me, panic hatching in my chest.

Every second, part of me was waiting for the thump of the jaguar crashing into Stray, her yelp, and the crack of bone as the jaguar broke the dog’s neck with a shake of its head. A more primal part of me was ready for the rush of air, the hot breath, the musk of damp fur, and the impact of the cat falling onto me, teeth and claws raking my bare neck and chest as I thrust up with my knife in a final act of defiance.

Photo credit: @Felps

My chest got tighter and tighter. Holding my knife farther out in front of me, I forced my mind blank. I concentrated on my breathing. I had to keep my heart rate down. I couldn’t see it, but it could see me. If it sensed that I was afraid, it might be all over. If I made any quick movements or turned my back on it, that could trigger its predatory instinct to chase prey. That would be it—the end. Panicking was not an option.

There was some comfort in having the knife in my hand, but it felt comically small. Three inches of steel was nothing, a joke against a jaguar. I needed more. A machete would have helped me feel braver. I would have felt better if the dog was bigger, too. And a fire, that would have been good—flames to keep the cat at bay. But what I really wanted was a gun. Two or three shots into the air would scare anything away. My knuckles were white as I squeezed the hilt of my switchblade.

My fingers found my headlamp. I slowly brought it in front of me and pressed the button three times, turning on the highest beam. My breath caught in my throat. My heart forgot to beat. There it was—a pair of eyes glinting in the undergrowth only a few body lengths away. Dark and feline, they shined in the night. They were the eyes of a predator, the eyes of a jaguar.

Its body was hidden in a sea of leaves and shadows, but I could see the eyes and the outline of its face. It stared back at me, unblinking. I didn’t dare look away. Its eyes gleamed with an intensity that made them seem like the most important thing in the world. They were more important than anything else I’d ever seen, more important than any gold, more important than any diamond. They had control over if I lived or died. They could be my fate—the last things I might ever see.

Jumping forward, Stray exploded in an attack of fear and rage, her teeth bared as she howled at the jaguar. Spittle flew from her jaws. My eyes flicked to the side, following the dog’s movement. They only strayed for a millisecond, maybe less, but that was all the jaguar needed.

I didn’t see it move, but when I looked back toward where the cat had been, there was only jungle. Heart nearly exploding in my chest, I looked down at the foot of the hammock, fearing a blur of movement. Still nothing. My eyes opened wider, peripherals expanding as I searched for even the smallest movement. I scanned the jungle, probing the darkness. I was waiting for a mass of fur to erupt out of the underbrush or the eyes to appear again, closer this time as the cat toyed with me like a mouse. My head swiveled side to side, searching, waiting. I sat straight up in the hammock, not daring to move.

It took Stray ten, maybe fifteen minutes to stop barking. Only then did I start to believe that the cat had gone. It took me far longer to fall asleep. Laying back in the hammock with my knife on my chest, I stared unseeingly up into the darkness, trying not to think about the jaguar coming back when I was asleep. When I finally was able to slip back into sleep, I was troubled by the lurking phantom of a big cat and the very real rumble of distant thunder. It was going to rain.

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