Book Review: Carnivore Minds
Who These Fearsome Creatures Really Are
by G. A. Bradshaw
Yale University Press, 2017
G. A. Bradshaw is the author of the excellent book Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity, and she’s also the director of an animal sanctuary. She brings to her task of speaking for the animals, in other words, some impeccable credentials and a significant balance-sheet of trust. And she needs every last bit of that trust in her newest book, Carnivore Minds: Who These Fearsome Creatures Really Are, out now in a sturdy hardcover from Yale University Press – because in these pages she takes up the loud and lively defense of some of the most feared and despised animals species on Earth.
Great white sharks, rattlesnakes, killer whales, crocodiles, the lowly coyote … these and other predators humanity has fought and stigmatized for centuries take center stage in Carnivore Minds, as Bradshaw surveys the latest research and field work in order to present a fuller picture of animals long viewed as simple mindless killing machines. That characterization has applied more closely to the great white shark, for instance, than to any of the others (helped, no doubt, by Richard Dreyfuss canting in Jaws about how the beasts only live to swim, eat, and make little sharks), but Bradshaw presents to her readers a far more complex version of the white shark, a far more socially complex animal than previously thought – due in part to the fact that the open ocean is a far more complex environment than previously thought:
Another new twist to white shark portraiture is that they are not the loners they are made out to be. Again, the veiled mystery of the ocean has misguided human perception. While the ocean may look fairly homogenous and unbroken to the onshore eye, it is as dynamic and varied as any terrestrial ecosystem. Thermal gradients, climactically shaped and driven currents, and prey patterns synergistically create a busy and complex world in which sharks live.
“Their social structures and processes mirror this heterogeneity,” Bradshaw writes, and she’s equally contentious about the other killers on her list – asserting, for instance, that the impressive kill-ratios of the world’s giant crocodiles mixes an unexpected amount of cogitation into all that mastication.” Crocodiles are able to wrestle and overcome formidable opponents not only because of their size and bite force strength, but also because of their acumen,” she writes, “There is clearly more brain than brawn at work.”
She turns from these dinosaurian chess masters to that cuddly, misunderstood wilderness fixture, the grizzly bear, quoting a recent study:
The grizzlies’ reputation for fierceness is legend. Even the distant cool of science cannot remain unmoved. “The grizzly bear inspires fear, awe, and respect in humans to a degree unmatched by any other mammal of North America … Contributing to the aura of the grizzly bear is a mixture of myth and reality, ferocity, unpredictable disposition, large size, strength, huge canines, long claws, keen sense, swiftness, and playfulness.”
That quoted study gently elides the fact that grizzlies exhibit most of their playfulness with the half-dismembered corpses of the latest living things they’ve attacked with reflexive, hysterical savagery, but probably the gist applies nonetheless. Certainly Bradshaw’s larger point in renovating all these animal reputations obtains throughout the book: understanding all these deeper complexities in species humans have previously written off as red in tooth and claw is a vital part of living in the world rather than flattening it and husking it dry of all complexity. This is the note of deep caution Bradshaw sounds so effectively when drawing a new graph of how her allegedly ferocious animals interact with the planet’s most deadly species:
Carnivore attacks on humans are the least of our worries. Incidents are so rare as to be statistically insignificant, and nearly all fatal encounters may be avoided. Furthermore, shifting the blame to carnivores for human foibles has left us vulnerable to the real danger: the predator within. The carnivore smear campaign has not deterred the reckoning, only deferred it. On the eve of the Sixth Great Extinction, humanity finds itself in that paradoxical state of getting what it wished for: unchallenged control over the animal kingdom may seem like a glorious achievement to some, but victory is pyrrhic.
Carnivore Minds is the latest and most persuasive in a small crop of 21st-century nature books whose aim is to remove simple villains from the animal kingdom, to replace killing machines with intricate alien cultures far more worthy of study than eradication. It won’t make you any more eager to meet a ten-foot rattlesnake in a dark alley, but it will make you more likely to speak up in its defense when yet more habitat is threatened. Here’s hoping this and all such books aren’t too late.