16 May 2013

Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals (Gordon Grice)

Recently I've been working my way through the non-fiction titles on my TBR shelf, which I often neglect. In very brief: a 60s Catholic title on true and false demonic possession, sadly not as awesome as it sounds; Peter Carlson's followup to K Blows Top, May 28th's Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy, another winner about two New York reporters shuffled between Confederate prisons before their daring escape across the Applachians; Leonard S. Marcus's winning collection of interviews with picture-book illustrators, Show Me a Story.

And so I came to Gordon Grice's SUPER AWESOME Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals. As the title implies, it's a compendium of the wide range of animals that are known to kill or injure humans--not just the usual suspects like lions and crocodiles and cobras, but insects that spread disease, domestic dogs that try to better their social standing by biting children, fish that leap out of the water and collide with boaters (one woman suffered a collapsed lung and five broken ribs when a sturgeon hit her), elephants that huck rocks at people (in fact, the elephant kills people in more ways than any other animal, including stomping, goring, swatting with the trunk, even sitting on them on purpose). It's encyclopedic in scope, engagingly written (favorite image: Grice's son's carnivorous water beetle darting around its aquarium "like a frantic pecan"), and a treasure trove of Fun Facts that delight my bloodthirsty inner child. Here are tidbits from all the pages I dog-eared (yeah, maybe it's a bad habit, but it meant I could find these again):
  • "[The panda is] best known as the mascot of a certain conservation group and as a sexually reluctant object of human scrutiny in zoos." [25]"
  • People often ask me what the most formidable predator in the world is. . . . As it happens, there is a clear answer to this perennial question, and the answer is orca." [89]
  • "[The crocodile] can even slow its metabolism so it doesn't starve while waiting to ambush a particular prey item."[133]
  • "In Germany, a single crow with the habit of knocking people in the head drew police to a park where, after one or two stratagems failed, they finally got the bird drunk on schnapps and arrested it." [149]
  • "It has been said that if England had been as rife with chiggers as the southern United States is, English Romantic poetry might have been avoided." [179]
  • "[A]bout sixty [species of millipedes] have repugnatorial glands. (The great regret of my life so far is that I have never had occasion to use that phrase in conversation.)" [182]
  • Wondering why it is that butterflies are exempt from the usual insect disgust: "This thought recurs to me every time I see some painted beauty flexing its wings like a slow dream of sunset while it sips at a pile of dog feces." [207]
  • Caption beneath a picture of a cutesy-wootsy bunny-wunny-woogums: "Pet rabbits have bitten off human fingers." [272]
More anthology than narrative, the book still manages an underlying theme, saying to its human readers: You are not exempt from nature. You are, rather, part of it, for good and bad. You are not at the top of any "food chain"--to animals, you're just another animal, sometimes a pest, sometimes a meal, most often completely uninteresting.

(FYI: I read this in hardcover--the book changed publishers and title for the paperback. I like the hc cover better, because GRRRR TEETH, but you'll probably have better luck finding it as The Book of Deadly Animals, with a yellin' hyena.)

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