The Doctor's Pit

By CodingStrategies on February 9th, 2018

There was a young bull named Ferdinand who did not enjoy butting heads with the other bulls. Instead, he preferred to lie under a tree and smell the flowers. When all the calves were grown, it became apparent that Ferdinand was the largest and strongest of all the young bulls. All the other youngsters aspired to be selected for the bullfights in Madrid, but Ferdinand only wanted to stay and smell the flowers. However, when the men came to choose a bull for the fights, Ferdinand accidentally sat on a bee and raced wildly across the field. Mistaking Ferdinand for a wild, aggressive bull, the men rename him “Ferdinand the Fierce” and took him off to Madrid. When Ferdinand finally faced the matador, he was distracted by the beautiful flowers in the hair of the lady spectators. He did not fight the matador, but simply lay down in the middle of the ring to enjoy the posies, which upset and disappointed everyone. Happily for Ferdinand, he was sent back to his beloved pasture, where he can be found today smelling the flowers. [Condensed from The Story of Ferdinand]

In the jungles of Hawaii’s Big Island, wild cattle roam. As a result, Modern Farmer reports that some of the most dangerous hunting in the entire United States is to be found on a single island in the most isolated island chain in the world. British Navy Captain George Vancouver delivered four male and eight female Hereford cattle as a gift to King Kamehameha I in the late 18th century. Kamehameha placed the cattle under a kapu, a hunting taboo, for ten years to allow the herd to increase in size.

The cows were fruitful and multiplied, broke out of their enclosures and fled to the mountains. By 1846 there were over 25,000 feral cattle (Bos taurus) in Hawaii; and in just a few decades the savage beasts wreaked havoc on Hawaiian settlements. There is also a local legend of “invisible cows,” since vehicles frequently hit cows that congregate on roads to enjoy the sun-heated asphalt. The bull’s horns can grow as large as six feet across and reports of cows on the rampage, even injuring and killing people and horses, are common. And feral cows are huge – where a mature deer buck may weigh 180 pounds, a mature wild Hawaiian bull could weigh up to 2,000 pounds (a ton!).

Which means that very little about hunting wild Hawaiian cattle is like hunting any other animal. Until only a few centuries ago, Hawaii had no land mammals at all, so the plants, insects, and birds that populated the island formed a balance that’s been significantly altered by the rapid introduction of rats, then pigs, then dogs, and then wild cattle. Feral cattle trample and eat the vegetation that’s had no time to evolve any protection against them, allowing other invasive species, like grasses, to take their place. That in turn affects the ability of every other life form on the island to survive – without the plants, the insects and birds lose a food source. And the cattle’s stomping also causes erosion of the island’s edges, forcing sediment runoff down into the coral reefs, which can have disastrous effects on the underwater ecosystem.

David Douglas is one of the best-known botanists in Oregon history, primarily because of the Oregon state tree that bears the common name Douglas Fir. Born in the Scottish village of Scone on June 25, 1799 Douglas was the son of stonemason John Douglas and Jean Drummond. By the time he was eleven, he was working as a gardener for some local landowners. Douglas subsequently attended a series of prestigious schools to learn botany and horticulture. While working at the Botanical Garden in Glasgow, he became acquainted with British botanist Sir William Jackson Hooker.

In 1823, on Hooker's recommendation, the Royal Horticultural Society chose Douglas as a botanical collector. The Society intended to send Douglas to China, but arrangements fell through so he ended up going to eastern North America. Among his duties were keeping a journal of his activities and collecting seeds and plant specimens that might be useful for cultivation in England. Douglas visited North America four times, three times to the Pacific Northwest and California to look for plants, particularly fruit trees, forest trees, and oaks. In 1832, on his return to the Columbia River, he made his first visit to the Hawaiian Islands. He explored the Fraser River district and left the Northwest on October 18, 1833, for a return trip to the Hawaiian Islands, followed by a planned departure to London. Douglas had been intrigued by Hawaii and wanted to continue collecting. Not long after he arrived, Douglas learned that he would have to stay in Hawaii for several months before he could secure passage back to Britain.

Hidden off the beaten path on the slopes of Mauna Kea, a dormant Hawaiian volcano, is a rough stone spire that marks the spot where David Douglas is said to have died. The site includes 200 Douglas firs and is known as Kaluakauka or “The Doctor’s Pit.” On the morning of July 12, 1834 Douglas was hiking Mauna Kea and stopped by the hut of Edward “Ned” Gurney to ask for directions. He ended up staying for breakfast, and was warned by Gurney to watch for pit traps created to catch wild cattle. Later that day, Douglas reportedly met his end when he fell into one of the traps and was trampled by a bull caught in the same deep crater (ICD-10-CM code W55.29XA, Other contact with cow, initial encounter).

Gurney was an Englishman from Middlesex, but that’s where the similarity to Douglas ended. Where Douglas was raised with education and modest wealth, Gurney had run afoul of the law at an early age and was sent to the Botany Bay penal colony in Australia. He eventually went to work on a sea-going vessel, jumped ship in Hawaii and started a new life. When informed of Douglas’s death, Gurney rushed to the scene, shot the offending bull, retrieved the body and took Douglas’s remains to missionaries in Hilo. Although none of these actions portray a guilty man, rumors that Gurney killed Douglas followed him for the rest of his life.

Douglas introduced more than two hundred Pacific Northwest plants to Great Britain, many of them important in British gardens today. At Scone Castle, near Douglas's birthplace, stands a magnificent Douglas fir, grown from seed that he sent back from western North America in 1826. But Douglas was interested in all of nature, including animals. Those named in his honor range from the pigmy short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma douglasii) to the Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii).

With respect to the feral cattle, Ahiu Hawaii (an adventure company with their own television show) operates about 40 cattle hunts per year, and each hunt requires a team of experienced professionals. The cows aren’t hard to find, but they can be hard to round up. They move silently and quickly, and have excellent hearing and vision. A single shot is never enough to bring down a bull, and a wounded bull is apt to charge. And it is always acceptable to run from a charging bull, keeping in mind the wisdom of Publius Cornelius Tacitus (senator and historian of the Roman Empire):

He that fights and runs away, may turn and fight another day. But he that is in battle slain, will never rise to fight again.