Most of us regard the malevolent animals of the Amazon as a biological miracle, essential for the survival of the planet, their health a sacrosanct reflection of our attitudes towards the environment. However, being actually plunked down into the Amazon River basin, we are more likely to view them as a pestilential horror, while they are likely to regard us a simply a square meal. …. Is it chaos and creation, intelligent design or perhaps that Darwin chap and Alfred Russel Wallace were was not completely baked crazy from the heat. In any event, most humans have a profound antipathy for spiders and snakes, especially of the giant, venomous and carnivorous variety, despite rumors that they may be more placid than they appear…
Like Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” there is a sense evoked by the Amazon and its denizens of human and animal tribe, of a return to primordial instincts and a confrontation with dark tones, and potential cruelty and violence as a reflection of the environment around; though it takes place in the near arctic, the dynamic between the animals and humans is strikingly similar and familiar:
“The Law of the Club refers to the method humans use to extract obedience from a dog; the Law of the Fang refers to the method dogs use to subjugate other dogs. Buck learns about the law of the fang when Curly, one of the friendlier sled dogs, makes advances toward another dog. This other dog rips open her face, then jumps aside to avoid retaliation. Curly is then killed by thirty to forty dogs. Buck learns life in the Klondike is violent, survival belongs to the alert, and leadership belongs to the most cunning.”
…The sting ray which the Indians greatly fear, is dangerous mainly because of the difficulty of seeing it as it lies, perfectly camouflaged, on the bed of the river. The ray will not attack unless molested; but it is often trodden on accidentally by users of the river, and the punishment for disturbing it is frightful. It launches a barbed stinger into the intruder’s flesh that leaves a jagged wound when withdrawn, but the pain is quite disproportionate to the wound. The victim rolls about on the ground, convulsed with agony. The pain is accompanied by intense cold in the wounded area and in the groin. The sting is seldom fatal, but it is often a week before the victim can set his foot on the ground again.
The denizens of the Amazon forests are, mercifully, less formidable than those of its waters. There is the normal tropical quota of poisonous snakes, among which the bushmaster, the fer-de-lance, and the cascabel are the most deadly, but the only dangerous mammals are the jaguar and the peccary, a wild hog. The jaguar prefers the flesh of dogs to that of men and will attack only when cornered or desperately hungry. The ferocity of the peccary has probably been overestimated, although a herd could destroy any adversary with ease. The anaconda, king of snakes, may also be less viscious, as well as a great deal smaller, than has been maintained.
Charles Waterton was the first to describe the anaconda, and he did so with a characteristic lack of restraint:
The camoudi snake has been killed from thirty to forty feet long; though not venomous his size renders him destructive to the passing animals. The Spaniards in the Oroonoque positively affirm that he grows to the length of seventy or eighty feet and that he will destroy the strongest and largest bull. His name seems to confirm this: there he is called “matatoro” which literally means “bull-killer.” Thus he may be ranked amongst the deadly snakes for it comes nearly to the same thing in the end whether the victim dies by poison from the fangs which corrupts his blood and makes it stink horribly or whether his body be crushed to mummy and swallowed by this hideous beast.”
“Although boys spend most of their time with their mothers, they quickly learn that there are status differences between males and females. From an early age, boys are treated with considerable indulgence by their fathers. Boys are encouraged to be ‘fierce’ and are rarely punished for beating girls in the villages, as their fathers beat their wives. Many Yanomamo make statements like ‘Men are more valuable than women …boys more valuable than girls.’ Female children assume duties and responsibilities in the household long before their brothers are obliged to participate in comparable useful domestic tasks. Little girls are obliged to tend their younger brothers and sisters, and expected to help their mothers in other chores such as cooking, hauling water, and collecting firewood…”
… Books on the Amazon abound with stories of similarly monstrous snakes. The anaconda is a thick snake with, as Henry Walter Bates puts it, ” a most hideous appearance, owing to its being very broad in the middle and tapering abruptly at both ends.” It is difficult to judge the length of a snake, especially one of such a peculiar shape. The American explorer George Miller Dyott was properly realistic when he described an encounter with an anaconda by moonlight. The snake looked, he wrote, “every inch of forty feet, which meant that he must have been nearer twenty.”
Every traveler to the Amazon has heard stories of gigantic snakes from forty to eighty feet in length, but these monsters have consistently eluded the naturalists. Even when someone claims to have killed such a formidable serpent, there has always been some pressing reason for not bringing back the remains. Colonel Percy Fawcett, for example, said he had shot one of sixty-two feet, which he did not regard as being exceptional, and another traveler, Algot Lange, wrote that he had killed one fifty-six feet in length and over two feet in diameter.
“By the time girls reach puberty they have already learned that their world is decidedly less attractive than that of their brothers. Most have been promised in marriage by that time. Girls have almost no voice in the decisions reached by their elder kin in deciding whom they should marry. They are largely pawns to be disposed of by their kinsmen, and their wishes are given very little consideration. In many cases, the girl has been promised to a man long before she reaches puberty, and in some cases her husband-elect actually raises her for part of her childhood. In a real sense, girls do not participate as equals in the political affairs of the corporate kinship group and seem to inherit most of the duties without enjoying many of the privileges, largely because of age differences at first marriage and the increase in status that being slightly older entails. Marriage does not automatically enhance the status of the girl or change her life much. There is no ‘marriage ceremony,’ and the public awareness of her marriage begins with hardly more than comments like ‘her father has promised her to so-and-so.’ She usually does not begin living with her husband until she has had her first menstrual period, although she may be ‘married’ for several years before then. Her duties as wife require her to continue the difficult and laborious tasks she has already begun doing, such as collecting firewood and fetching water every day.”
A respected naturalist like Alfred Russel Wallace believed Dr. George Gardner’s account of huge anacondas, although he himself had never seen one longer than twenty feet. When gardner, a botanist, was staying in the province of Goias, near the headwaters of rhe Araguaia River, his host discovered that a favorite horse was missing from its pasture, and all efforts to find it were fruitless. At length a “vaquero” saw the body of an enormous bloated snake stuck in the fork of a tree:
“It was dragged out to the open country by two horses and was found to measure thirty-seven feet in length; on opening it, the bones of a horse in somewhat broken condition, and the flesh in a half-digested state, were found within it, the bones of the head being uninjured; from these circumstances we concluded that the boa had devoured the horse entire.” ( 1849) Gardner does not make it clear whether he was present when the anaconda was measured, but one must accept or reject his narrative, without quibbling about the length of the beast, for a thirty-seven foot snake would surely be the smallest that could swallow a horse.
You never fail to see the common vulture where there is carrion. In passing up the river there was an opportunity of seeing a pair of the king of the vultures; they were sitting on the naked branch of a tree with about a dozen of the common ones with them. A tiger had killed a goat the day before; he had been driven away in the act of sucking the blood and not finding it safe or prudent to return the goat remained in the same place where he had killed it; it had begun to putrefy and the vultures had arrived that morning to claim the savoury morsel.
At the close of day the vampires leave the hollow trees whither they had fled at the morning’s dawn and scour along the river’s banks in quest of prey. On waking from sleep the astonished traveller finds his hammock all stained with blood. It is the vampire that hath sucked him. Not man alone but every unprotected animal is exposed to his depredations; and so gently does this nocturnal surgeon draw the blood that instead of being roused the patient is lulled into a still profounder sleep. There are two species of vampire in Demerara and both suck living animals: one is rather larger than the common bat the other measures above two feet from wing to wing extended. ( Charles Waterton )