In certain angles of light, my spots are visible. They call me a black panther, but I am really a black leopard. When I was young I roamed with my mother in the riverside forest of Thailand. At my mother’s side I learned stealth and patience, how to slip silently through the forest, to drink from the rushing river, to kill only as much as we needed to sustain ourselves, to respect the boundaries of other, to know freedom.
By night the scent of the forest was fragrant with flowers and the earth was cool beneath our feet. By day the forest was a dozen shades of green. We slept cradled in the boughs of trees, safely hidden by the tangle of leaves.
One day we came across some tree branches plaited together on the ground. We walked around them, sniffing, exploring. My mother put a tentative foot on it and the ground gave way beneath her. She tumbled into a trap from which she could not get free.
I stayed by her through the night into the next day, when humans arrived. They talked excitedly when they saw us. I retreated into the forest, but not quickly enough. I was captured, my mother was killed, and they took us out of the forest. My mother’s body was used for ceremonies and luxury clothing. I was too little to be of use that way, so I was sold into the exotic pet trade.
I changed hands many times. Some of my owners, as they called themselves, were kinder than others. Eventually, I traveled across the water and came to this place called a zoo. My cage here is bigger than the cages in which I was accustomed to living. I can stride six paces in one direction, turn, and stride six paces in the other direction. People come to look at me, and mostly I ignore them. Sometimes I turn my golden-eyed gaze on them. In the eyes of the bigger people I see a tinge of fear. In the eyes of the little people I see only wonder.
There is a man who brings me food and water and talks to me in a calm voice. He told me that soon, soon, they will build me a bigger enclosure and I’ll have rocks, trees, a little trickle of a stream, and space in which to move.
Sometimes when the night sky is black and the stars glitter, I feel pulled toward my wild nature. My urge to roam is deep and strong and visceral. I close my eyes, and in my dreams go to the riverside forest and remember the fragrant night wind, the soft earth beneath my feet, the sound of the rushing river.