Monday, May 19, 2008

Convocation of eaters

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, carnivores

Fair warning: I'll keep the review tamer than the book, but I don't recommend reading either one over lunch. I pretty much knew what I was in for, and hoped I'd get some natural history in the mix. That I did, with some compelling narrative, some of it rather more compelling than I'm comfortable with!

Editor Michael Tougias has gathered a triple-dozen, and then some, pieces of adventure writing with one theme: animals eating people, or trying their darnedest to do so. The book is When Man is the Pray: True Stories of Animals Attacking Humans. The cover art, front and back, leaves one with no illusions.

The table of contents made it evident that this is written for a very Euro-American audience. Well over a third of the book is devoted to bears, the major remaining carnivore in the developed world. Were this written for a more Afro-Asian audience, crocodiles would hold center stage, closely followed by tigers.

I found the following of interest (from British Columbia, their Vital Statistics Agency): In BC, Canada, over the 29 years 1969-1997, bears killed 19 people and cougars (pumas) killed 5. That's it for the land carnivores. Other animals killed another 99 people, including horses (47), moose (19), bees and wasps (16), cattle (11), and deer (5); none of these could have had carnivorous intent. There was one Orca death in that time, but no sharks (California is where most Western shark attacks occur). Did'ya notice that moose are as dangerous as bears?

After bears, the animal eaters chronicled in When Man is Prey are big cats, sharks, crocodiles, a hippo or two, and a miscellany of wolves, monkeys (mainly baboons), and swine. Yeah, that's right. Earlier generations (and a few moderns) recognize that a 400-lb (180 kg) boar is as dangerous as an aroused bear of similar mass, including propensity to consume you after the fight.

A few of the articles/stories were told in an exaggerated bravado mode that I find distasteful, so I didn't read past their first page. One very short piece seemed a total fiction. If it is true, it needs to be better written. For me, it violated the "Some do and some talk; those who do don't talk much, and those that talk the boldest don't do much" rule. Other than those few, the writing is well done with strong narrative.

I looked in particular for trends. I've noted a couple above. Also of note, that Africans and Asians who live in crocodile country, perhaps handicapped by a fatalistic worldview, are as likely to be eaten by a crocodile as the average American is to die in an auto accident. Both numbers are in the mind-boggling range, if you look at them honestly. Actually, looked at backwards: "Americans, perhaps handicapped by an unwonted feeling of invincibility, are as likely to be killed on the road as a Zambian is to be eaten by a crocodile." Yet as horrible as carnivorous death sounds, the numbers are comparatively small compared to death caused by encounters with bees, wasps, and domestic animals!

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