Up Close and Personal with a Black Panther

by Tina Blue
January 7, 2001

          In the summer of 1972 my then-husband and I were in Barcelona, Spain. Bob is a Spanish professor, and this was the second time we had taken the study-abroad group to Spain.
          One day, several students went with us to the Barcelona Zoo, which was located about an hour's ride by bus from the residencia where we stayed with the group. Once we got there, we all pretty much went our own way, mostly in groups of two or three--but I went off by myself.

          I headed straight for the big cats. I love big cats, and I could watch them all day without ever getting bored. I am especially enchanted by the sleek beauty of the black panther, and the Barcelona Zoo had a particularly handsome specimen.

          Now, in the United States, zoo patrons are kept pretty far away from the animals they are observing, and most of the animals are kept in enclosures designed to mimic their natural habitat. I hope that is also the case now for the Barcelona Zoo. But this was 1972, and zoos were not as enlightened back then about how they housed their animals. It disturbed me to see large, beautiful animals caged the way they were, but I still could not resist looking at them.

          The way it was set up there in Barcelona in 1972, you could get a lot closer to the animal's cage than was possible in an American zoo. Not close enough to be in any danger, mind you, but close enough to get a better look at the animal you were admiring.

          And I was admiring this panther. He was gorgeous. He was also deliberately luring me closer, giving me these direct stares, clearly making eye contact with me. I could really feel the connection.

          I moved as close as was possible, so that I was right up against the waist-high fence that prevented onlookers from going any further. As soon as I got to that point, where I stood all by myself, the panther suddenly flipped around, lifted his tail, and sprayed backwards, the way male cats all do to mark their territory.           

          There I was, covered from top to toe with panther p**s, and with no place to wash up. The ladies' room was relatively minimal, with a single cold-water tap that produced barely a trickle of water, and very few towels in the paper towel dispenser. I couldn't get much of the panther's "gift" off me with such primitive facilities, and the smell was overpowering. It took some time for me to find my husband and for us to round up all the students to tell them that we had to return to the residencia. And then there was the ride back home.

          Remember, we're talking an hour's bus ride here. I sat by myself in the very back of the bus, while everyone else huddled in the front seats with their noses as close to the windows as possible. And believe me, summer in Spain is hot, very hot. Conditions were perfect for ensuring that the stickiness would get worse and the smell would grow stronger as the time passed. The fact that everyone was laughing at me didn't help, either, since I was not yet twenty-two, and I was still rather tender of my dignity.

          After we had gotten back to Kansas at the end of the summer, I told the story to Roberta, the wife of one of Bob's colleagues. But the way I told her was to simply announce that I had been p**sed upon by a black panther. Roberta recoiled in horror and exclaimed, "How did you know he was a black panther?"

          "Well," I replied, somewhat puzzled by her question, "even if I couldn't tell just by looking at him, there was a sign."

          "He was wearing a sign?" she asked in disbelief.

          That was when I understood what she thought I had told her. She assumed I was talking about the radical Black Panther political movement that was so much in the news back in the early 1970s. She thought a Black Panther had urinated on me as an act of political protest!

       I immediately got the picture of Huey Newton, wearing a sign on his lapel: "If you're close enough to read this, it's too late!"

          Now, you would not think many people would have a story like this to share, but the fact is, a friend of mine from the English department told me many years later that as a child he had been sprayed by a tiger while visiting a zoo in California with his parents. Doesn't that make you wonder how many other zoo visitors have been similarly baptized? Could there be a conspiracy among the big cats in zoos all over the world to protest their captivity by tagging anyone who gets too close?

          Maybe Roberta wasn't that far off. That black panther that sprayed me might have been engaging in an act of political expression after all.

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