Now in Paperback: The Book of Deadly Animals
by Gordon Grice
Penguin Books, 2012
Penguin Books has done a typically snazzy job reprinting Gordon Grice’s 2010 book Deadly Kingdom with a new cover illustration and a new (although equally boring – who names books these days, anyway?) title, and this is cause for bookish happiness, since Grice is a terrific, engaging writer in the David Quammen school of vivid, sympathetic natural history writing. His 1998 book The Red Hourglass is more intensely horrifying than a high school talent show (its section on the brown recluse spider will permanently remove your ability to live an unworried life), fully deserving of a permanent spot in every nature-lover’s library. The Book of Deadly Animals doesn’t quite share that earlier book’s put-a-toad-in-your-sister’s-pillowcase exuberance, but then, it has a lot more ground to cover.
Its subject (as the boring title indicates) is evergreen in its fascination: the few fugitive populations of animals on Earth who can pose a threat to human beings. Fifty years ago, two classics of this creepy little sub-genre were published, James Clarke’s Man is the Prey and Roger Caras’ Dangerous to Man, and both are eminently worth re-reading even today, but they’re dispatches from another world – a world that contained many, many more wild animals than our present one does and roughly 6 billion fewer humans. African grassland that once teemed with fauna now boasts the occasional scrawny lizard and some ants; tracts of South American rainforest the size of the continental United States are now suburban sprawls (or the garbage dumps of suburban sprawls); the oceans have one-fiftieth of the sharks they did in the childhood of people still living.
Even a “deadly kingdom” in its last days, however, can still be a mighty vibrant place, and Grice’s book takes readers into every corner of it, in search of anthropophagy in all its many splendors. In a canny move, Grice starts off his roll call with the most familiar face imaginable: dogs and other canids, dispassionately detailing the pitiless nature of canine pack-mentality, how all the dogs in a pack are constantly on the look-out for ways to get promoted – and how that sometimes takes the form of attacking the weakest pack-member around them, namely small children in the family. Here, as occasionally elsewhere in the book, Grice takes the whole ‘dispassionate detailing’ thing well over the border into intentional obliviousness, failing to note that a great number of those villainous house-pets might not have bitten a pack-rival so much as a brat who’d spent the last fifteen minutes pulling their ears or scooping garden-dirt onto their faces. If Grice has never been tempted to take a big juicy mouthful out of some caterwauling little horror-tot, he’s a better man than most of his readers.
(Likewise, about captive elephants who are beaten, slapped, starved, fire-hosed, and dressed in clown-costumes for human profit and amusement, Grice opines, “the reason for elephant attacks is sometimes mysterious…”)
That intersection of the ever-increasing human world and the harried worlds of the wild animals forced to adapt to houses and roads and malls everywhere is of course the focus of Grice’s book, and since he has a great deal of personal experience with that intersection, he writes about it with particular practical clarity:
The urban coyote is dangerous because it’s habituated; it meets the scent and sight of people often without dire consequences. Experts note that killing these bold coyotes probably wouldn’t help. It would merely open their territories for other coyotes to move in. What would help, ironically, is shooting at them and missing often. Canids pass their knowledge to their young. If we kill a few but leave most of them alive to teach their offspring we’re dangerous, then humans, pets, and coyotes could all occupy the same territory more amicably.
He’s also impatient (but congenially so – one gets the distinct impression Grice is a nice fellow; it would a shame if he himself were eaten by anything untoward) with the bustling body of myth and folklore that’s grown up around the whole subject of dangerous animals, and he spends a significant portion of his book dispelling such misinformation – like the old chestnut that sharks often bump their prospective victims because they’re so brainless they don’t know what they’re attacking:
Great whites can poke their heads out of the water and look around in the air. Some have been observed to do so before attacking a boat. This does not seem to me the behavior of an animal confused about the identity of its prey. Large great whites have bitten holes in boats to get at the people inside.
He gets into the killer-animal sweepstakes that so regularly occupies venues like Animal Planet, and although he himself has a favorite:
People often ask me what the most formidable predator in the world is. On the Web you can find message boards where people speculate about which animal would win if there were some way to establish a “fair” fight between them. … As it happens, though, there is a clear answer to this perennial question, and the answer is orca.
… he also has no illusions about the bigger picture against which all such animal-on-human violence takes place:
But one distinction remains to us: we’re the best killers. In a recent year, homicide took 520,000 lives; war took another 310,000; suicide took 815,000, and law enforcement killings took 14,000. The total damage: 1,659,000 lives. This doesn’t include many other kinds of death, such as traffic accidents, that might reasonably be attributed to human causes. We have no near competitors as killers of human beings.
This intraspecies savagery has very likely always been the case, although humans have also always been such maniacally tireless practitioners of murder on other species that they’ve succeeded in making themselves all the more darkly prominent. Grice’s book covers lions, tigers, cougars, moose, stingrays, apes, snakes, sharks, and even domestic pigs, but in geologically recent times, Earth played host to a far greater number of man-killing animals. In the Pleistocene, elk, beavers, lions, bears, snakes, elephants, rhinos, and something called an auroch all grew to enormous sizes, and there were aggressive, venomous spiders the size of small poodles. Six million years ago, Grice’s book would have been much longer and more varied. Its target audience is the reason it isn’t so today.