Here’s a question: what do Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, Edward “Teddy-Bear” Grylls and the ill-fated Taiwanese zoo-keeper Mr Chang Po-yu all have in common?
Answer: parts of them appear on the cover of Gordon Grice’s The Book of Deadly Animals.
In the cases of Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Grylls, it’s the standard, exclamatory, gushing praise, alongside that of David Sedaris and Michael Pollan, presented between the customary inverted commas. In the case of poor Mr Po-yu, it’s his severed hand that features – between the jaws of 31-stone, 18-foot crocodile.
As the Daily Mail gaily reported in their article ‘The man who lent a hand to a crocodile’, the hand in question was eventually returned and reattached. In the world of animal savagings this was a good-news story, accompanied by a photo of Mr Po-yu waving merrily (with his other hand) from his hospital bed.
But the fascination with limb-severances, eviscerations and, for want of a better word, face-lifts at the paws and jaws of our co-habitants on this planet is as much a concern of the broadsheets as the tabloids and extends into a far more ghoulish realm. Since the polar bear attack that killed schoolboy Horatio Chapple in August of this year, no fewer than seven animal attacks (not to mention countless follow-up articles and videos), have graced the main news section of The Times and Guardian – wired in with, some might say, unseemly haste from the Seychelles, Yellowstone Park, South Africa and Australia.
Type ‘animal attacks’ into Google and I guarantee you will need to lie down for a few minutes to restore blood to your brain. But type ‘shark attack’ into the venerable BBC News website and 206 stories appear, 50 of them from within the last year. Is this really news?
Even if it isn’t, the desire to witness these appalling, meaningless, spectacular deaths may not necessarily be as prurient as we have been shamed into thinking. As Eric G. Wilson, Professor of English at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, argues in his superb forthcoming book, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, the desire to slow down and turn one’s head when passing that fresh pile-up on the motorway is a healthy, necessary means of coming to terms with our mortality.
In the case of animal attacks, though, I think there’s something else involved: revenge. I loved Steve Irwin as much as anyone. He was so full of gung-ho, and his shorts were so remarkably tight, you couldn’t help but fall for him. I was genuinely shocked and upset when the barb of a bull ray stabbed him through the heart, killing him.
But then there’s Roy Horn, he of the somewhat freakish Siegfried and Roy stage show, who suffered the loss of a beating heart (twice), a stroke and a quarter of his skull when one of the tigers in their act ‘attempted to protect him when he fell’ – by biting him. Really? ‘Protect him’?
For those who suffer such attacks, we all have speechless sympathy. But animals are not our playthings. And as Grice argues, we humans are animals, too. We may be the most deadly of them all, but we’re as much a part of the food chain as any other. Man bites dog. Why should we be surprised when dog bites man? Or ferret scratches child? Or kangaroo punches walker? Or elephant destroys oil-tanker? (Grice has uncovered some truly bizarre encounters, and the book surely has one of the highest kill-counts of any non-war-related book in existence.)
Not all dogs are called Marley, care for the blind and rehabilitate traumatized war veterans; not all cats are called Dewey and have healing powers. Some seabass are ill-tempered, mutated and have laser beams attached to their heads. And if, like one mother, you smear your child’s hand in honey in order to have his picture taken with the big black bear (as Bill Bryson reports in A Walk in the Woods), is it any wonder what happens next…?
I think that, as well as shocking us into a heightened awareness of our mortality, these humbling reports remind us of our true place in the grand scheme of things. As Tony Fitzjohn, conservationist on the Adamson ranch, author of Born Wild, one-time victim of a lion-mauling and full-time rogue writes, also in praise of Grice’s book: ‘After all we’ve done to them, it’s great to see the animals getting their own back. When are we going to leave them alone?’ We are not the masters of our universe. At least, not all the time. In Grice’s book, it’s clear that we are rarely even masters of our own back yards.
Will Hammond, Editor