How the Leopard got his Spots

Publication history

First published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1901, illustrated by Frank Verbeck. Collected in Just So Stories (1902), illustrated by the author and followed by the poem “I am the most wise Baviaan”.

The story

The Leopard used to live on the sandy-coloured High Veldt. He too was sandy-coloured, and so was hard for prey animals like Giraffe and Zebra to see when he lay in wait for them. The Ethiopian lived there too and was similarly coloured. He, with his bow and arrows, used to hunt with the Leopard.

Then the prey animals left the High Veldt to live in a forest and grew blotches, stripes and other forms of camouflage. The Leopard and the Ethiopian were hungry and consulted Baviaan, the wise baboon, who said the prey animals had “gone into other spots” and advised them to do the same. So they went searching and came to the forest. They could smell Giraffe and Zebra there but could not see them. When night came, they managed to catch Giraffe and Zebra by sound and scent. Asked why they looked so different, the two prey animals demonstrated how easily they could disappear against the forest background.

So the Ethiopian changed his skin to black, and marked the Leopard’s coat with his bunched black fingertips. Then they too could hide. They lived happily ever after, and will never change their colouring again.

Background notes

The manuscript of the story is in the volume Just So Stories in the British Library. The following poem is six lines longer there and includes details of the grounds at Bateman’s, the Sussex estate bought by the Kiplings in 1902. According to Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries, the story was written on 30 March 1901.

Roger Lancelyn Green (Kipling and the Children, p. 171) suggested that an oral version might date back as far as 1898, the first year when the Kiplings took their children for a winter holiday in South Africa. He read the poem as spoken by their eldest child Josephine, but the manuscript does not bear this out, unless Kipling was imagining how she might have reacted to life at Bateman’s. She died three years before the family moved there. Later in Just So Stories, the last verse of the poem “Merrow Down” expresses his grief for her.

Kipling’s American publisher and close friend F.N. Doubleday wrote in his memoirs [F.N. Doubleday, The Memoirs of a Publisher, written for his family in the late 1920s. Published by Doubleday and Co., Inc., New York 1972]:

When [Doubleday’s son] Nelson was about seven or eight years old, Mr. Kipling was writing a series of Just So Stories … These tales were published in St Nicholas and were vastly interesting to Nelson.

He conceived the idea that if Mr. Kipling would write some more animal stories, the titles of which he suggested, they might be made into a book, and asked if I would mind his writing to Mr. Kipling on the subject.

I said no, whereupon he inquired if I would lend him a five-cent stamp, which he promised to repay, and wrote a long letter in his own fist, addressed to “Rudyard Kipling, Rotting Dean,” giving a list of suggestions for new stories about different animals, and adding that if he wrote these stories and they were any good, his father, he was sure, would get them put in book form and give him (Nelson) a royalty of a cent a copy.

The Just So Stories finally came out, and Nelson applied for a contract for his cent-a-copy share. This has gone on for twenty or more years, and how much he has received I have no idea, but it must certainly be several thousand dollars.
[pp. 182-3].

Nelson Doubleday would confirm this story in the Saturday Review of Literature (23 Oct.1948), claiming to have suggested as subjects “how the leopard got his spots, how the elephant got his trunk, about the crocodile and so on.” [Quoted, Kipling Journal 89, April 1949, p. 10.]

Critical Opinion

Of the characters in the story, Rosalind Meyer wrote [“But is it Art?: an Appreciation of Just So Stories,” Kipling Journal 232, December 1984]:

The Leopard and the Ethiopian are cronies, but it is the Ethiopian who is quicker to grasp Baviaan’s advice: for the good reason that he is a grown-up… [p. 13].

Of Kipling’s descriptions, she said:

The game of conscious appraisal is taken a stage further in the story of the Leopard, where various methods of description are exemplified. The mock-awkwardness of “the ’sclusively greyish-yellowish-reddish High Veldt” nevertheless does not inhibit an expression of vast featureless horizons; and is neatly contrasted, in a string of adjectives so often resorted to by young writers, in the evocative description of:

A great, high, tall forest full of tree trunks all ’sclusively speckled and sprottled and spottled, dotted and splashed and slashed and hatched and cross-hatched with shadows.

But more to the point is the crescendo of similes which in this tale begins to impress itself on the mind:

they ought to show up in this dark place like ripe bananas in a smoke-house …
You show up in this dark place like a bar of soap in a coal-scuttle …
… you show up in this dark place like a mustard-plaster on a sack of coals.


Finally, the series modulates from the grotesque into the pleasing, a natural object in a natural setting:

… if you insist on looking like a sunflower against a tarred fence.

Since the first three are, as it were, asterisked for attention with “this dark place” and, once interest is gained, the last is allowed to make its own point, it is difficult not to believe that a lesson is being inculcated, with whatever charming playfulness [p. 25].

©Lisa Lewis 2005 All rights reserved