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Sunday, February 2, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mauritius -- A Remote Island Resonates With Rumors Of A Werewolf

Special To The Seattle Times

The rumors began in a small way, as rumors do: a woman in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, had been menaced by a werewolf.

Within hours of that first report, sightings and encounters with the werewolf, or "Loup Garou," began to multiply. The news was whispered between friends and neighbors, tentatively at first, since no one wanted to be thought a fool, and then more openly in less intimate conversation as the rumors, repeated with greater conviction, acquired an aura of authenticity.

Gangs of men and boys, armed with sticks and clubs, patrolled the dark streets of Port Louis in search of the Loup Garou.

At the time, my family and I were living in Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean about 500 miles east of Madagascar, for a year's sabbatical. Four months into our stay, when we we still struggling with communicating in our pathetic French and trying to understand things like where to buy buttons and how to bargain at the market, Cyclone Hollanda had struck.

In its aftermath, seldom-seen local wildlife found shelter from their flooded homes in our drier one: a snake in the garage, a scorpion in the bathtub, a litter of tenrecs - small hedgehog-like insectivores - in the garbage bin. Local produce was scarce; most people resorted to buying expensive imported foods.

Several weeks after the cyclone, when the Loup Garou rumors started, many areas of the country were still without water, electricity or telephone service. Before long, the Loup Garou was sighted all over the island, sometimes simultaneously. It even made the news.

One evening, it was reported on the English edition of the national TV news that a werewolf had allegedly been sighted in Port Louis. People were cautioned not to take to the streets, but to report any unusual occurrences directly to the police.

Richard Forrest, the English newscaster, could barely keep a straight face as he read the bulletin, but the Mauritians we knew took the matter seriously. At the very least, it seemed likely that someone would get hurt running around in the moonless night and being mistaken for the Loup Garou.

The Loup Garou didn't require a full moon to be active. It was said to have come from Madagascar, which was associated in many peoples' minds with black magic. Most of the ancestors of the Creole population of Mauritius were originally brought as slaves from Madagascar, and a sort of "voodoo" was still practiced in the Creole communities. Perhaps the Loup Garou was exacting revenge.

In any case, it was a werewolf like no other. People claimed that it drove a white 4X4, telephoned its victims from a cellular phone, and assumed the form of a black dog or cat to attack.

Normally rational people were terrified and, although no direct mention of the Loup Garou appeared in the newspapers, the whole country - Hindu, Muslim, Chinese and Creole - was in a state of hysteria.

One morning at the University of Mauritius, my husband, Carl, met a group of unusually animated co-workers clustered in the hallway. "Have you heard the news?" one man asked breathlessly.

"I heard that the Minister of Agriculture has just been sacked," Carl said.

"No, no," exclaimed another. "This is important. The Loup Garou has been sighted in Vacoas!"

As the Loup Garou made its way from Port Louis on the coast up the populous central plateau, sightings were made in Quatre Bornes, Beau Bassin, Vacoas and finally in Floreal, where many expatriates reside.

Some of the children at Alexandra House, an English school, overheard their servants talking about the Loup Garou. Josie, the school's Creole maid, calmed the panicking students.

"Don't worry," she said. "The Loup Garou doesn't bother with foreigners, only Mauritians." Later she told me that she and her husband were so frightened that they had taken to sleeping with a metal pipe under their pillows.

As the weeks passed and electricity and water service were restored, talk of the Loup Garou lessened and peoples' fear subsided.

Some people suspected that the Loup Garou was a government-instigated rumor designed to distract people from the lack of electricity. Or perhaps the Loup Garou was a euphemism for the serial rapist that had been preying on 12- to 14-year-old girls, unreported by a press intent on presenting Mauritius as an island paradise to citizens and foreigners alike.

Others thought the Loup Garou was the tactic of one political party to implicate and topple another.

Most of the sightings of the werewolf had been in Muslim neighborhoods around Port Louis, and the tension between the Muslims and Christians who constituted opposing political parties was very high.

The prime minister, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, had taken personal credit for the lack of cyclones since his tenure began in 1982. Now, in an effort to restore public confidence and assert his leadership qualities, he dyed his hair an unnatural shade of brown and had movie stars flown in from India to give a free public performance in the stadium he had named for himself.

A few days after the performance, the feeling of hysteria was suddenly gone. The Loup Garou was old news or, indeed, might never have existed.

When I asked what happened, I learned that several nights before all the black dogs and cats in Pleine Verte were killed. Life had returned to normal, it seemed.

Lynne Auld is a Seattle freelance writer.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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