The Book of Deadly Animals by Gordon Grice

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The Book of Deadly Animals by Gordon Grice

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An exhaustive and compelling look at the nature of animals and how they attack humans.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: November 2011
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0670919673

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Animals and humans have long mixed, even though the one has almost always proven capable of being lethal to the other. Many scientists in the past decided animals killing humans were aberrant, and that the real animal knew it was second best to humans, having been saved in the Ark, and respected our dominion over them. Even now, it seems, there are opinions that creatures attacking mankind are somehow rogue and need destroying. But where is the wrong in an animal behaving as its nature compels it? Similarly, the human wandering around the wilderness, or even the idiot woman feeding a black bear her own toddler's honey-dripping hand (true story - what the bear thought of the taste of honeyed fingers we don't know) is just the same in reverse - humans behaving as only humans can.

Sometimes the balance changes. Bring lots of disease-carrying cattle to Africa, let the disease and your own hunters kill the elephants, then the ground cover they would normally eat increases, allowing for more lethal big cat attacks. Elsewhere, reduce the culling of lethal beasts like crocodiles, and start culling your own kind as a result. But generally, whether in desert, alongside a river, in the ocean or mountain terrain, there is a time and place for some animal to try and take a chunk out of, or poison, you. And this book is a survey of all the animal kingdom and those beasts.

Grice holds little store for those who think the animal should be considered a faulty specimen for being a man killer. It might be because they have inadvertently found a liking for 'long pig', the instance might be a sperm whale bashing a boat containing people harpooning its kin, it might be some lummox larking around with a snake. Whatever the instance Grice knows a cutting, clipping or scientific paper about the animal, and the people it's put paid to.

We can learn a lot from an author such as this - not least several animals whose names get rid of awkward tiles on Scrabble. Among a host of uncredited observations there are toxic birds, Komodo dragons climbing ladders, and more. You could also argue we learn a lot about one animal in particular through this book - us ourselves. Did we learn to bury our dead because animals were eating the corpses and getting to like them too much?

Such a one-note look at wildlife does at times bear all the hallmarks of the bludgeoning shark onslaught of fiction, however broad the church of creatures covered, from wolves, big cats and bears down to the snakes, spiders and other phobia-inducing nasties (and on that subject, beware - it's illustrated). If anything it's top-loaded, with all the documentary channel's favourites at the beginning, and all the itty-bitty bitey things a lengthy second, before we return to blood and guts with primates to close.

But oddly the subject continues to be compelling, and the whole piece has an unusual quality for a non-fiction biology book. It's no real surprise to see the work in progress had been in Granta, for there remains a continual dropping in and out of his family's own interactions with danger, from a snake bite to a cougar up a tree the young Grice was safely averted from. The personal touch, the authority and companion no-nonsense, dry, almost macabre way of looking at death and destruction (witness the three uses of the verb flense in the first two chapters alone) all add up to a very interesting survey.

For our American readers, this edition says it is a revised form of his book Deadly Kingdom.

The animal world threatens again in the pages of Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals by Richard Conniff - both books even refer to the same scale of insect bite and sting pain one scientist self-inflicted.

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Buy The Book of Deadly Animals by Gordon Grice at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Book of Deadly Animals by Gordon Grice at


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