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Thu, 29 Mar 2012 13:27
For the release of the paperback edition of Gordon Grice's Deadly Animals we've got Gordon himself to give us a little intro into his world of savage encounters...
How I Came to Write Deadly Animals
My journey toward writing Deadly Animals began with a single step-actually, with two steps, which landed on the same spot. One was made by my own size-12 boot, which left a print on the fine soil of a country road in Wyoming. The other was the step of a cougar, which left its own print-four oval toes plus an M-shaped pad-neatly within my bootprint. I had felt watched as I walked the road the previous evening.
Here was confirmation. It may seem like an odd reason to start a book, but the real story for me was the conflict between my gut and my brain. My gut said I was in danger as I walked back to the ranch house that cool evening. My brain told me cougars don't eat people, because I'd read that in books.
Current events quickly told me the books were wrong. In Colorado, a teenaged runner was killed and eaten by a cougar. In California, another cougar ate a mother of two.
I took another look at old books, and what I saw revealed a puzzling pattern. Victorian writers had no doubt that cougars were dangerous to humans. Some of their accounts, like an 1860 bit of fiction by Harriet Prescott Spofford, reek of melodrama. Spofford's "Indian devil," as the animal was often called at the time,has "breath like a vapor from some hell-pit." It stands in for Satan himself, causing the heroine trapped in its claws to engage in all manner of theology before escaping. (If you ever find yourself trapped in the claws of a cougar, a better strategy is to gouge the eyes. Eye-gouging beats theology every time.) Nonetheless, Spofford's story reveals some understanding of real cougars. She knew, for example, that a cougar can lick the skin from its prey with its "rasping tongue." And there are true accounts from that era, including one from the meticulous Charles Darwin, attesting that cougars occasionally ate people.
Reports of death-by-cougar dwindled in the twentieth century. From 1949 to 1971, there were no cases of predatory attacks on people. It's easy to find books from this era that describe cougars as "cowardly," no danger to humans except when sick with rabies.
Starting in the late 1980s, the attacks resumed. They were hardly common -certainly not as common as death from bee sting or dog bite - but the pattern was puzzling. In talking with biologists, I learned that the biggest factor in play was human behavior. It used to be the custom to kill predators on sight. In the rural area where I grew up, men would stop their trucks to shoot at any coyote they happened to spot. They'd patiently decapitate rattlesnakes with garden hoes. This approach to predators reached its apex in the mid-twentieth century, when well-armed humans were plentiful across the Americas.
But in recent decades, we've come to understand the many ways ecosystems can be damaged by such indiscriminate killing. We've sensibly changed our ways. And one result is that some cougars no longer fear us.
We used to think of that fear as innate, a tribute other animals paid us as a special species. It turns out that we'd made ourselves fearful through violence. This is a radical shift in thinking, for it means we have to accept that cougars and other animals aren't mere machines responding with hard-wired instincts. Young cougars learn from their mothers which animals to treat as prey and which to leave alone. When they strike out to establish their own territories, the young males experiment, testing unfamiliar animals to see which ones taste good and which ones are dangerous. They're smarter than we thought. And more like us.
That changes everything. It's not just the cougars; across the animal kingdom, we're beginning to understand how our own behavior interacts with the behavior of other animals. We know, for example, that deforestation sometimes leads elephants to trample people and that dumping garbage into the sea can cause shark attacks miles down-current. The animals are ancient, but the circumstances are new.
There were good old books about animal attacks-or human-animal conflict, as we've come to call it-but they may as well have been written in a different world. I wanted a new book for the twenty-first century. So I decided to write it myself.
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