Wednesday, November 29, 2006

An encounter with a caracal in the Free State

I want to invite anyone with enough interest in nighttime varmint hunting to come and help me find and shoot a particular cat. I want to say that this cat has a really bad attitude and disposition, but that would not be quite true. The truth is closer to admitting that this cat is one with strong enough will to survive and fighting spirit to beat me in round one of our encounters so far. The story behind this invitation is told below this.

An Unarmed Hunter with his Dogs Encounters a Bad-Attitude Cat.

Early in October 2004 I took my two dogs for a short walk to start a borehole bump about 100 yards from my house on a farm. Now to understand what happened next you must first know a bit about my dogs. Joke is a trained six year old German Shorthaired Pointer bitch. She was named after one of my early life girlfriends – which a typical Dutch girl name and is pronounced as the Dutch do ‘jo-ke’, and not like the English would pronounce it as something you tell if you want people to laugh. She is, for a GSP just a small dog, but she has the most amazing keen hunting instincts and searching desire, but not much of a nose. Echo, also a well-bred quite big young male (neutered) GSP, is only half trained, and although not nearly as keen to hunt as his companion he at least has a very good nose. Both are very good retrievers.

Here the name of the happy client does not matter [Rodger Blake], Joke is the dark one, Echo the bigger one with white body.

Well, just about 50 yards from the house Echo picks up a scent trail of something and starts to eagerly follow it. Joke is running around in wide circles searching for guinea fowl or pheasants. I keep on walking to start the pump. When that task was done, I see that both Joke and Echo are definitely following some scent trail. I allow them to continue and get to where they were to see if I can pick up any tracks to see what they are following. This leads me further and further away from the house. As I was only dressed to go and start the pump, I did not even have any dog training aids with me, no whistle, no leash, no stick or weapon of any kind. It being summer I was only dressed in shoes without socks, shorts and a short sleeved shirt. The dogs are enjoying the walk, I’m enjoying the walk, I still do not see any tracks along the scent trail they are following, so why stop? Echo has now been on the scent trail for some time and I could still not be quite sure what he was following. The farm abounds with guinea fowl, Swainsons’ pheasants, rabbits and a multitude of other small game animals. I saw some tracks made by these small animals, but nothing fresh or often enough to be sure of what laid the scent trail that Echo was still following. Joke had long lost interest in the scent trail and was searching for game birds in her own characteristic manner. I change the walk into an impromptu dog training session. They get the normal SIT , COME , SEARCH, LEFT, RIGHT commands and are required to be very steady when they find and point a bird, which has not yet happened.

When we were about two miles from the house Echo goes on a solid point. A good-looking GSP on a solid point is a wonderful sight to behold! A rough shooter’s dream. But this is a training session, and I run towards him and, with him being in training give the “Steady” command to reinforce his steadiness on the point. Joke initially does not see any of this activity, as she is far away on her own. When I get closer to Echo I see the rump of a small brownish animal about ten yards from him half hidden by a small bush. Duiker or steenbok? I can not believe that I, as a Professional Hunter would have missed seeing any spoor of these small antelope for the mile or so that I had been following more or less behind the scent trailing Echo. Now, if a hunter and his dogs are to remain welcome visitors an any hunting venue, his GSP’s are supposed to totally ignore duiker, steenbok and similar. So, my dog is pointing something that he is supposed to ignore, what now? Least he compounds his misbehavior by breaking the point and rushing in, I quite loudly and firmly give Echo the “SIT!” command. At the sound of my voice Echo obediently changes his solid point to a half-hearted sit, half still pointing, and the “duiker or steenbok” runs away. Only as it runs away I see that what I thought to be a small antelope behind a bush had turned into a full-grown caracal, or lynx, as they are also known.

Now the Soutpan area of the Free State province in South Africa where I live is, amongst other, sheep farming country. In this area caracal, which eat sheep, are really not wanted, or wanted only dead. Unfortunately for the caracal it was running in the general direction of where Joke was searching for birds. Joke must have heard my SIT command and looked to see what was cooking. She saw Echo half on point and half sitting, me standing bewildered and astonished that we could get so close to a caracal in broad daylight. The latter was now running obliquely towards Joke, who he had obviously not yet seen in the long grass, while Joke saw his tail-tuft approaching towards her. At this point I decided to break all training rules and get the dogs to chase the caracal. A few “Shake’m! Shake,m!” shouts and me starting to run after the cat was all that was required to get them in both in full chase. Soon the caracal was more or less in the middle of the three of us, and being fully-grown and apparently very dog-wise, he choose to stand his ground. Echo reached him first, and young and fired up by my excitement rushed straight in to tackle the waiting cat. I still remember very vividly the look of absolute surprise and astonishment on his face when the cat went for him, from his belly upwards! Echo did get a half bite in, but the caracal was under his belly, scratching long rip marks on his lower belly with kicking hind legs, his front paws firmly anchored in Echo’s shoulders and his mouth very actively biting again and again on Echo’s lower neck and upper front legs. By the time Joke had got close to the scene, Echo had changed his attach into a desperate attempt of withdrawal from this hurt-inducing cat. He managed to escape from the caracal and was sitting with a most pained and surprised look on his face howling loudly, almost unhappily, and obviously in some great pain. He was no longer the brave rushing young GSP, but a very hurt and surprised, tame as a rabbit spectator.

A bit to one side, the caracal was now waiting for Joke to arrive. She also rushed straight in, and she did get a half bite on the caracal’s neck, and even tried to shake it, but the old boy was very soon locked beneath her and giving her the same belly scratch and leg biting the treatment that so well tamed Echo. She was very brave and initially fought back fiercely, but the old caracal was just too quick to counter her efforts to get a decent bite in. Eventually she too tried to just get away from this thing that causes so much pain. In the fight she got her lolling tongue ripped by a front paw nail to get an about one-inch cut that not very neatly split it in two! To this day she has a bit of a forked snake-like tongue!

By the time I arrived on the fighting stage, I saw a very bloodied caracal waiting for me. Joke, standing a bit to one side, had blood all over her face, and I thought “Good, she had gotten him well and proper!” Only later did I realize that most of the blood came from Joke’s split tongue, and not from the caracal! Echo was still sitting a bit away from the action, and no amount of my encouragement could get him to have another go at the now properly cornered caracal. With some encouragement from me Joke tackled the cat again, but was soon having some more belly-ripping treatment, from which she escaped without much harm. No amount of enticement could get the dogs to really tackle the animal in earnest again! Echo’s actions showed quite clearly “I’m not going near that thing again!”, Joke’s actions said “I’ll go only if you have had your turn!”.

Now you must know that a typical big male caracal weighs in at about 35 pounds, and this one was a particularly big specimen, maybe 40 pounds? I am six foot something and weigh in at about 220 pounds. But at 59 I’m not as strong as I used to be. I knew with a deep certainty that if this thing really goes for me, I’ll have to suffer some serious pain, but I was sure that I would kill it by strangulation! At no stage did I feel that my life was in any real danger. But I knew very well that I might get hurt quite badly.

Do you know what it is like facing serious and very painful, but certainly not life-threatening, injury just for the sake of ridding the area from one more sheep killer? Looking at Joke’s profusely bleeding mouth I decided that it is not really worth it. But I had a caracal cornered, and my landlord and all the neighboring farmers would expect me to kill it on the spot. Now I have mentioned that the most dangerous weapon that I had to use to attack, or defend myself, was my wristwatch, and not a heavy one at that!

The area had absolutely no rocks or stones at all, and being grassland also no stout sticks on branches. Joke was still full of fighting spirit, and was circling the tom, looking for an opening or chance to attack. But there was no chance, the caracal kept on watching her every move and remained quite prepared. He hardly glanced at Echo or me but concentrated only on the circling Joke. I realized that I could get quite close to him while Joke was directly oppisite me on the other side of him. Maybe I could break his skull or neck with a well-aimed kick? So I tried getting in a few good kicks. Do you know how quick a caracal is to strike out at a kicking foot with a viciously nailed forepaw? I now know. He is very, VERY quick indeed! For every solid kick I got to his head/neck, he got at least a superficial scratch on my leg. And my best kicks did not even seem to stun or bother him in the least! I feared the moment when his nails would actually grip into my skin, and he would be able to put in a bite. I could see those teeth from close up, and was not looking forward to feeling them in my flesh.

As I was only wearing lightweight soft-soled shoes, locally called “veldskoene”, a seriously dislocated big toe on my kicking right foot put an end to my attempts to kick the bugger to death. Each time that I moved in to deliver a kick, Joke would get some courage and at least half-heartedly get closer too. Echo had by now stopped his pain-howling, but continued to sit well to one side and give only an occasional very silly sounding “Woof”. The sound of his barking reminded me very well that he was castrated, and he made me think of a queer involved in a bar fight. What amazed me that was that all the while, it could have been only a few short minutes, but it felt much longer, the caracal kept a good watch on Joke. It was almost as if he regarded her as much more dangerous than me, the deliverer of some serious kicks.

All the while the caracal was waiting for our attack by lying half on his back and side, spitting furiously and with front paws extended and nails out, ready for action! I did my best encouraging both Joke and Echo to take him on at the same time, but to no avail! At one moment, when with enthusiastic encouragement I got Echo to at least come a bit closer and Joke almost grabbed him again, I saw and stupidly took, the opportunity to grab the caracal by one of his back legs. I jerked him off the ground and grabbed the scruff of his neck with my left (weak) hand.

The strength of his neck muscles was astonishing. His whole neck felt as hard as a gum pole! I briefly thought of the day when I caught a small python, and experienced the feeling of dealing with something possessing a vastly superior strength. The half-grown python was caught (and released) without any real problems, but this caracal felt much stronger, and had, unlike a python, more than one sharp side! Do you think that at 6ft plus and 220 pounds I would be strong enough to keep a caracal ‘stretched out’ by holding on to his hind leg and the scruff of the neck? Yes, I am quite strong enough to do that! But do you think that a caracal held in such a position can scratch your neck-holding hand with a front paw? Yes, he can! A few scars on my left wrist will attest to this fact.

Quick action was required if I did not want to get his nails firmly embedded in my wrist. I let go of the neck. Quickly, before he got another swipe with a front paw, and held him by the back leg, dangling in the air at arms length away from my body. Now the fun really started. I am also quite strong enough to hold the cat up in the air at arms length with one hand. No problem! Did I say “No problem”? While the statement is true, it is also true that a caracal held at arms length has got quite enough reach to get his forepaw hooked into your knee! If he hooks my knee, I realized, he could pull himself to me and get a bite in with those big, yellowed with age teeth! And he could quite easily reach my, well, you know what. No, I could simply not allow him to bite me there! So I had to swing him in an arc to keep him from reaching me. I tried swinging him in the air with a cricked bowlers action and then bashing him senseless against the ground.

It was then that I discovered a fact of physics the previously known to me, but of which I never quite realized all the consequences. While I was turning in small circles all the time to keep the caracal away from my legs, I could not at the same time swing him in an arc over my shoulder. The law of maintenance of momentum makes it very difficult to change the swinging direction of an object from a horizontal swing, to a vertical over the shoulder swing! A sort of gyroscopic effect! A good swing would be required to give him a good bash against the ground. To get in a good swing would mean that he would have to pass right by my legs before being swung over my shoulder! By now I realized that if I try that, and swing him past my feet, he would most likely grab a leg with his front paw, and then pull himself closer for some quick biting, possibly in an area where I do not want to be bitten. That was just not on in my short term planning of the unfolding events.

So, to give me time to think on a next move, I kept on swinging him around and around in circles. Meanwhile my dislocated big toe was giving me hell. I looked for help of some sort, but my dogs seemed to be satisfied that I had the situation well in hand. So much for man’s best friend. When I really needed help, they reminded me that they were bird dogs, bred and trained to find, point and retrieve birds. No, they were not going to take on a bad attitude kitty that I was swinging around so nicely!

Then I saw the fence and got an idea. If I could get him to the fence, it would be possible to, with a horizontal swing, bash his head against one of the fence posts! That should work! So turning around and around I started for the fence, which was only about 250 yards away.

But soon the caracal was not prepared to just be swung in circles by one hind leg, he started to try to double back and grab my extended arm with one of his front paws. This could be readily countered by swinging him faster! So my dancing turns became faster and more tiring, as I made my dance for the fence.

Have I mentioned that I am quite fit? Walking all day does not bother me much. I am, after all, a professional hunter and love hunting birds on foot with my GSP’s. But to “walk” 250 yards while dance-like swinging a 40-pound caracal in quite fast circles is quite another thing! Soon I was sweating profusely and breathing very heavily. My dislocated toe did not benefit from all the exercise and hurt like hell!

My next problem came when I realized that I’m beginning to loose my balance from turning around in little circles all the time. No problem! I would stop and turn in the opposite direction. The caracal did not expect this and I outsmarted him. I was still in control. But by the third time that I tried to stop the swing and then change direction, he was ready for it, sensed his opportunity and made a determined grab for my knee. I was lucky to keep my knee from him that time. I wondered just how many changes of direction would I still have to make before I would reach the fence? Would the caracal learn how to overcome my evasive action while I changed turning direction? Could I keep up the very tiring activity until I reached the fence? What should my next move be?

My dogs were thoroughly enjoying this game. Joke was dancing around while barking her excited gay ball-play bark. Echo also dancing around, at a safe distance, giving his silly “Woofs”. I know my dogs. Dammit! They were playing now! Not joining the fighting of a worthy opponent with me. How would I release the caracal without getting myself seriously bitten? Because by now it had dawned upon me that I would never make the fence, my body was just to tired and the fence still too far!

A final straw was when I stumbled into an aardvark hole, and very almost allowed the caracal to get hold of me with one of those grabbing fore paws. I was looking for a way out now. I tried enticing the dogs with labored breath to tackle the caracal. They responded to my gasping commands with more playful barking!

Eventually I made a final few quick turns to swing and release the cat, throwing him as far as possible away from me. Fortunately the caracal was also quite dizzy from the swinging, and he could clearly not get his balance right immediately on landing on the ground. The few seconds gave me a chance to hobble away a bit. With the game over Echo went right back to sitting some distance way and give his stupid “Woofs”. Joke took up a “ready to attack or run away” position on the other side. He was still cornered by the three of us.

Stalemate! We were exactly in the same situation what now seemed like hours of hard work ago! Although Joke’s tongue had stopped bleeding quite as fast as just after it had been ripped, both she and Echo had multiple bleeding scratches on their bellies. In addition Echo was quite obviously badly limping from being bitten on his upper forelegs.Maybe I could just take a rest and then do the same again until I reached the fence?

The only trouble was that now the caracal clearly regarded me as the most dangerous, and he was specifically facing me all the time, just glancing at the dogs every now and then. Every move I made was watched, and his body was kept in a position to face my attack. Despite the now obvious danger I tried to entice the dogs to tackle him again, and again tried to grab one of his back legs. But he was ready for me this time. His on front paw caught and properly hooked into my leg, ripping the skin from my calf to my ankle, and he then bit at me. By the grace of God he only got hold of the heel of my shoe, which he tore right off the shoe, despite the heel being bound by vulcanizing and nails. I very painfully tore loose from his hold on my ankle and jumped back.

Now it was really stalemate. I suddenly realized why Echo was in no mood to take on the kitty again. I was bleeding freely from some deep and very painful right-through-the-skin rips on my leg myself. I saw what those teeth did to my shoe, and was very grateful that it was not some part of my anatomy that got bitten. At this stage I was also very tired and in no mood to take on this dangerous thing without a weapon of some sorts, preferably a decent one like a side-by-side 12 gauge! I decided that I was going to get some sort of weapon.

Now alongside fences there are often broken or loose fence poles, and hobbled off to the fence to look for a loose iron fence pole or something. It was only when I picked up a discarded handlebar of bicycle that I realized that both my dogs had followed me to the fence.

Stupid! Although I have the excuse of being really tired, I had given them no instruction to stay with the caracal, so they did what they do naturally, followed their master.

By the time we got back to the last fighting arena, the caracal was long gone! I was somehow just not even surprised that they would not even try to “Find him” and no amount of “Search” commands would get them onto a scent trail. My tracking ability is simply not good enough to follow a caracal track on hard sandy ground with very good grass cover, and in any case that particular caracal was not likely to let us get close enough for a bicycle handlebar fight the same day! I admitted defeat and went home to treat my wounds. Round 1 was fairly won by the caracal. Mr. Caracal, you had better watch out for I intend to be better armed for our next round! Afterthought: Maybe my next bird dog should be a crossbreed GSP with something with more fighting spirit like a Staffy!

Anyone interesrted in Varmint hunting in South Africa can drop me a note at or check out he relevat section on my web page at

Can you think how this story would have read if I ran into this 30.6 kg monster? This one is the biggest caracal, by far, that I've ever seen. The one in my story was most definately in the region of about 18 kg.

Written by Andrew McLaren: November 2004

A good hunt is worth what you pay for it. A bad hunt is not worth the time spent on it.