The Book of Deadly Animals, By Gordon Grice


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The Independent Culture

The world swarms with dangerous beasts that, given the opportunity, will have you for lunch. Lions like to seize you by the throat and shake you as a dog shakes a rat. Leopards prefer to jump on you in the dark and dispatch you with a single bite to the back of the head. Hyenas use their powerful jaws to take chunks off you as you run away. Crocs, on the other hand, roll you in the water and shake you until bits fall off.

Some beasts are deadly because they see you as a rival or a threat. Jacob Fowler heard the sound of a skull cracking inside a bear's jaws before realising it was his own. Al Johnson (not the singer) was luckier. In his case the grizzly's teeth merely scraped the bone of his skull, allowing his head to pop out "like a pinched marble".

Despite their reputation in folklore, wolves rarely attack people in North America or Europe. But they do run down the odd agricultural worker in Asia, where wolves and people come into contact more often. There were no recorded attacks from cougars in North America between 1949 and 1971. But a dozen victims have been fatally injured since 1988, probably because cougars are now protected instead of shot on sight.

As for hoofed animals, the deadliness of hippos might have been exaggerated, but elephants have a habit of stomping, kicking or absent-mindedly treading on you. The training of elephants for the circus, or as workhorses, "involves impressing them, through physical punishment, that the human trainer outranks them socially". But if "an elephant sees his chance to move up in the hierarchy, he can give his trainer an alternate impression".

Even harmless-looking animals can pack a punch if you catch them on a bad day. The duck-billed platypus can knock out a dog with its poisonous back leg. Armadillos transmit leprosy. A tapir chewed off a woman's arm at Oklahoma City Zoo. In a stand-up fight with the average human almost any animal larger than a Labrador will win, though a heroic Chinaman once kick-boxed a panda to a draw.

Some deadly reputations have been grossly exaggerated. Piranhas might have experimentally nibbled the odd bather, but they don't strip us to the bone. Fear of spiders and sharks arises from factors other than statistics and biology. Lions and tigers apart, most injuries from cats come from captive animals; their natural reaction is to run away.

It is some of the smaller beasties that really make your flesh creep. The nasty little fish so adept at slinking into human orifices and getting stuck is, unfortunately, far from an urban legend. Those fishing for cone shells risk being stabbed with a toxic mini-harpoon that can be fatal. The larvae of the thimble jellyfish are almost invisible but make themselves known painfully when they get inside swimming trunks. Nor did I like the sound of the vampire moth that "occasionally drills into a human victim, causing a few hours of itchy irritation".

Gordon Grice treats his deadly subject with wit and wry humour, but he does not sensationalise it: "I'm not out to blame anyone, only to report and understand". His anecdotes include personal encounters with cougars, black widow spiders and a mouse that defecated in his strawberry pie. There are a lot of corpses in this book. If you don't have a strong stomach, it might be one for dipping rather than reading straight through. It is a savage world out there, but also a sadly shrinking one. In the end, as Grice reminds us, it is you and me, the human animal, which is deadliest of them all.

Peter Marren and Richard Mabey's 'Bugs Britannica' is published by Chatto