Mark Dery reviews Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals

In True/Slant, Mark Dery finds Gordon Grice's new book, Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals, "endlessly entertaining."
201005241556Sandra Herold, the 71-one-year-old widow who lived alone with Travis the Chimp, believed he “couldn’t have been more my son than if I gave birth to him.” Travis enjoyed honorary Homo sapiens status at home, where he  “lived like a human, eating steak and drinking wine” and sleeping (and bathing!) with his female owner, and in his hometown of Stamford, Connecticut (“he was small and cute and friendly,” a local cop remembered, “he’d wave at you”)…until the day he ran amok, gnawing Charla Nash’s face to an eyeless, noseless pulp. Experts quoted in media coverage wondered if Lyme disease or a dose of Xanax had triggered Travis’s rampage. According to Grice, such explanations turn a blind eye on the answer hidden in plain sight: although we insist on viewing chimpanzees as midgets in fur suits, wearing nature’s mask to mock us, they are, in fact, wild animals. They may star in commercials, eat ice cream, and use the toilet, as Herold’s “son” did, but male chimps like Travis are born to battle their way to the top of dominance hierarchies, five times as strong as a man (“one captive chimp weighing about 160 pounds lifted an 1,800-pound object,” Grice notes), with impressive canines designed to break bone and flense meat. Travis’s attack, says Grice, was perfectly “normal behavior for a captive primate.” Again, the key word here is captive. Forced into close encounters of the human kind, let alone cohabitation, animals can behave unnaturally.

When Animals Attack!: On Gordon Grice’s Deadly Kingdom

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  1. Much of that same paragraph could be written with actual homo sapiens in mind. How far beneath the surface are our animal instincts buried? If we weren’t fully indoctrinated into a society and if we didn’t have social status to maintain I don’t think it would even take an imagination to figure out what atrocities we would commit.

    1. Is suddenly chewing off one someone’s noses really normal behavior for a captive Homo sapiens? I hear bad things about our penal system, but I haven’t heard that.

      1. Depends on what you are counting, really.

        Barring the occasional esoteric allergy, mosquitoes have yet to kill anybody. If you count deaths directly from mosquito borne diseases, you are definitely getting competitive.

        The really hairy question, though, is if you try to compare indirect effects. Social disruption, lost productivity, persistent low or moderate level morbidity, and the like cause extra deaths in a society. However, violence also has invidious indirect effects that are hard to measure precisely.

        Mosquitoes don’t kill people, Plasmodia kill people(tm).

  2. A great book on the few animals that kill and eat people – Quammen’s “Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind”

  3. Somehow an adult woman bathing with an ape is way more disturbing when she refers to that ape as her son.

  4. This sounds like a fascinating book. It does make me wonder about what constitutes domestication–is there something about a human’s relationship with dogs that is more predictable and “safer” than with a chimp? Dogs attack, and often unpredictably, though it appears that breeding plays a non-trivial role in this (e.g., labrador retriever vs. pit bull). But still, how much of domestication is driven by breeding (e.g., wolves were bred to become dogs), how much is innate in the creature (e.g., horses may not battle their way to the top of “dominance hierarchies”, like the chimp, but certainly could wail on us if they wanted to), and how much is just unknown?

    1. A “rebellious” horse threw my MIL on a trail and trampled her. She suffered several broken ribs, a punctured lung, and innumerable serious bruises. She was lucky to escape head injury.

      It’s all “nature red in tooth and claw.”

  5. Chimps keep pulling these nasty stunts off. They look lovely, but they’re just too powerful.

    Why do people insist on keeping them as people-pets? If they imbue them with human characteristics, surely it’s illegal to hold them against their will?

    1,800 pounds. That’s my car. That’s a badass animal. Keep clear. Get a kitten.

  6. Any “Life Form” that is even remotely able to cause harm is “Dangerous” in *potential* for harm. We don’t think of a mouse as lethal but they gnaw wiring causing fires, and Hantavirus lurks in their trail of excreta. Though, Rats&Plague are nearly universally viewed as an inseparable duo of death.

    Some other categorical sets of examples might be found in migratory species Birds that clog jet engines, and Deer- their “Light Startle” reflex often causes them to get hit by cars. Getting a Moose thru your car windscreen also is a grim way to die. Then, snails and frogs etc- by their sheer numbers can simply render a road/sidewalk surface lethally slippery.

    How many BoingBoing readers have seen, or own a Lemmings button?

    So, larger animals being deadly sort of “should be” an obvious reality. The thing that books like this one do so well at is making the city dwellers a bit less ignorant of HOW deadly any sort of animals can be.

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