Wildlife Classic: John Mortonson's Funeral

by Ambrose Bierce

John Mortonson was dead: his lines in “the tragedy ‘Man’” had all been spoken and he had left the stage.

The body rested in a fine mahogany coffin fitted with a plate of glass. All arrangements for the funeral had been so well attended to that had the deceased known he would doubtless have approved. The face, as it showed under the glass, was not disagreeable to look upon: it bore a faint smile, and as the death had been painless, had not been distorted beyond the repairing power of the undertaker. At two o’clock of the afternoon the friends were to assemble to pay their last tribute of respect to one who had no further need of friends and respect. The surviving members of the family came severally every few minutes to the casket and wept above the placid features beneath the glass. This did them no good; it did no good to John Mortonson; but in the presence of death reason and philosophy are silent.

As the hour of two approached the friends began to arrive and after offering such consolation to the stricken relatives as the proprieties of the occasion required, solemnly seated themselves about the room with an augmented consciousness of their importance in the scheme funereal. Then the minister came, and in that overshadowing presence the lesser lights went into eclipse. His entrance was followed by that of the widow, whose lamentations filled the room. She approached the casket and after leaning her face against the cold glass for a moment was gently led to a seat near her daughter. Mournfully and low the man of God began his eulogy of the dead, and his doleful voice, mingled with the sobbing which it was its purpose to stimulate and sustain, rose and fell, seemed to come and go, like the sound of a sullen sea. The gloomy day grew darker as he spoke; a curtain of cloud underspread the sky and a few drops of rain fell audibly. It seemed as if all nature were weeping for John Mortonson.

When the minister had finished his eulogy with prayer a hymn was sung and the pall-bearers took their places beside the bier. As the last notes of the hymn died away the widow ran to the coffin, cast herself upon it and sobbed hysterically. Gradually, however, she yielded to dissuasion, becoming more composed; and as the minister was in the act of leading her away her eyes sought the face of the dead beneath the glass. She threw up her arms and with a shriek fell backward insensible.

The mourners sprang forward to the coffin, the friends followed, and as the clock on the mantel solemnly struck three all were staring down upon the face of John Mortonson, deceased.

They turned away, sick and faint. One man, trying in his terror to escape the awful sight, stumbled against the coffin so heavily as to knock away one of its frail supports. The coffin fell to the floor, the glass was shattered to bits by the concussion.

From the opening crawled John Mortonson’s cat, which lazily leapt to the floor, sat up, tranquilly wiped its crimson muzzle with a forepaw, then walked with dignity from the room.

Gordon's Postscript:
Pets consuming the bodies of their owners is a frequent, though rarely mentioned, occurrence. A recent case comes to us from an Argentine newspaper (translation by Hodari Nundu): "A man was found lifeless in a wooden shack in Ushuaia, surrounded by more than a dozen cats that had fed on his body. The local police identified him as Lautaro Torres, 75, who apparently lived alone and died of natural causes, for there were no signs of violence. The police entered the place and found, along with Torres's body, over a dozen cats that had apparently eaten part of their owner." 


"My father was deathly allergic to this one bee. He had been stung hundreds of time as a farmer, but he was sharpening the chain on a chainsaw on our front porch one afternoon and a bumble bee stung him. Within ten minutes of being stung, his arm and face were swollen and he was having trouble breathing. . . . Dad had to carry an epi pen with him from then on. He was stung by several other bees after that; he never had a reaction to their stings like he did that Bumble Bee." 
--Dee Puett, photographer

Rock Squirrel

By guest writer Hodari Nundu

It all began when my sister (back then we were both in junior high) found three baby rock squirrels (Spermophilus variegatus), with their eyes still closed, and lying seemingly "abandoned" in the school's grounds (which were near an uninhabited ravine and so were crawling with animals of all sorts, including armadillos, skunks, frogs, caecilians, small snakes, a huge diversity of moths and very large beetles).

If I had been there when she found them, I would have told her that mother rock squirrels often move their babies from one burrow to another and that it was probably going to return for them, but I wasn’t, so the squirrels ended up in our house, where my sister and my father tried to bottle feed them (they had successfully bottle fed a newborn kitten at about the same time so I guess they were feeling confident) but unfortunately two of the squirrels died, and only one survived, a female.

And so the horror began.

Rock squirrels are very aggressive. Colomos Park in Guadalajara is home to both Mexican gray squirrels, which live in trees, and rock squirrels, and when people feed peanuts to the squirrels, the rock squirrels are always dominant and chase the gray squirrels away, hogging all the attention (and the peanuts) and biting fingers in the process. In this same park I have seen fierce battles between the rock squirrels themselves and many of them are covered with scars, or have missing ears or chewed up tails from past battles. Anyway, the squirrel at home started out playful—chasing and fighting the cats and just being hyperactive as one would expect a squirrel to be—but then it started charging at everyone in the house, tail all puffed up and making a sound like a rattle which was its battle cry.

It got to the point where the lady who helped us with the chores would climb up chairs in fear whenever she saw the squirrel (or "el ardillo" as she called it), and there wasn’t one person in the house who didn’t get bitten in the toes or ankles by the squirrel. It became so bad-tempered that it had to be kept in a wire cage, where I (a kid after all) would torment it by blowing air in its face, which it hated, but it seemed fair to me because it had bitten me many times already.

Eventually the squirrel was moved to a larger cage built for it in the yard, but it then started gnawing at the wires trying to escape, until its mouth and teeth were all bloody and the decision was made to release it into the wild.

We took it to the grounds of a seminary, where we had seen plenty of rock squirrels as well as other animals such as skunks. We knew that the squirrel would probably have a shorter life now, but thought that at least it would get to live like it was intended to instead of going crazy(er) in a cage. As soon as the animal carrier was opened the squirrel leaped into the grass and disappeared. We never knew what became of it. If rock squirrels are anything like rats or other rodents I suppose the local squirrels may have killed the intruder but then again, it was a vicious little beast so, who knows?

Photo courtesy of Hodari Nundu

Put Some Meat in Your Shark Week

While the world is watching bogus documentaries with eternal commercial breaks on TV this week, may I suggest some factual material for your reading pleasure?

In Shark Attacks, I collaborated with National Geographic's team of scientists and editors to tell of sharks eating people--and vice versa. You'll read about these topics:

  • The Red Sea shark attacks of 2010.
  • A man swallowed whole by a great white.
  • The species most likely to remove your hands.
  • How humans inadvertently draw sharks to shore. 
  • How a shark attack turned one woman against soup.
  • How sharks support the huge human population of this planet.

. . . and lots more. 

And if you're still hungry after that, may I suggest The Book of Deadly Animals, available in paper or ebook form. Its shark chapter covers these topics:

  • The Jersey Shore attacks of 1916.
  • Motives for great white attacks, plus some of the most brutal cases.
  • Sharks in war, including the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis.
  • A record dive attended by oceanic whitetip sharks.
  • Jaws and our cultural reactions to sharks.

. . . and lots more. 
That's just the shark chapter, mind you; this book surveys the mightiest killers in the animal kingdom in text and photos. 

Illustration: Ugly Shark Week by Beckett Grice

Python Behavior--On Killing Two Children at Once

Credit: MangoAtchar/Creative Commons

Further thoughts about the tragic case in New Brunswick, in which a rock python apparently killed two sleeping children in the same room. In a thoughtful comment on Monday’s post, James raised this question:

A final point which leads me to think that, even if nothing sinister is going on, somebody is not being truthful is the way things supposedly went down. For all the guff and hype about snakes being "silent predators"--although I have not fed live rodents for years now, I can testify that mice, rats and hamsters, even when grabbed by snakes larger in relation to them than this python was to the children, do not die instantly or silently. The animal typically kicks and thrashes, and usually has time to squeal once or twice. Obviously, as the Jesse Altom case shows, exceptions occur, but the odds of a snake pulling off back-to-back killings without causing some sort of commotion seem very long to me.

My response: There are precedents for this. In a 2011 paper in PNAS, Headland and Greene report a case from the Philippines in which a reticulated python entered a hut where three children were sleeping. It killed two boys, aged 3 and 4, and was in the act of swallowing one of them when the father discovered the attack and killed the python with a knife. The snake had not harmed the other sibling, an infant girl. The same paper reproduces an x-ray image of a reticulated python which has swallowed two long-tailed macaques.

These cases show that pythons can sometimes succeed in killing several primates in sequence. In another interesting case, a retic killed a dog and then attacked a 22-month-old child, who was rescued by his father. (Incidentally, there are also cases of big constrictors swallowing juvenile monkeys along with their mothers.)

Young children typically sleep far more soundly than adults do, an ability that gradually wears off as the child matures. That may help explain how the second victim was able to stay asleep while the first was killed. It’s also plausible that, even if the second victim heard some sort of noise, he might not have seen or suspected danger.

Speculation aside, what we do know is that taking multiple small prey items at a time is definitely python behavior. We know that, in at least one other case, a python has killed two children in the same room. And we know that, in the case of Jesse Lee Altom, a python killed a child without rousing either of the two adults sleeping next to him.

Python Kills Two Children

In Campbellton, New Brunswick, a pet snake escaped, then apparently crawled through the ventilation system and into a living room. There it killed two children--Noah Barthe, 5, and his brother Connor, 7. An RCMP spokesperson said they were "strangled," but probably the mode of death was asphyxiation by constriction. That, at least, has been the cause of death in other cases of large constrictors killing humans. Such incidents are rare; the victims are almost always either the owners of pet snakes or their children. Though the snake involved here was kept in a pet store, it was actually the private pet of the owner. He was the best friend of the children's father, and the children were sleeping over with his son at his apartment above the store. After discovering the children's bodies, the owner found and captured the snake. He turned it over to police. His own son was sleeping in a different room and was not harmed.

The motive in such attacks appears to be predation but, as in this case, the snake does not actually consume the victim. As mentioned in The Book of Deadly Animals, the snake will examine its killed prey carefully before consuming it. It is at this point that the snake apparently finds something about humans unpalatable. Tales of predation on humans in the wild are common but polluted with folklore, though a couple of scientific publications in recent years support the idea that reticulate pythons may prey on humans. 

This snake was an African rock python weighing 45 kilograms (99 pounds) and measuring between 3.5 and 4.5 meters (roughly 11 and a half to fifteen feet). A much smaller member of this species killed three-year-old Jesse Lee Altom in Centralia, Illinois, in 1999, as he slept between two adults. 

Thanks to D'Arcy for the news tip.


Photography by Dee Puett
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