The wild boars of Germany

Wild boars have become a hazard in Germany. The latest boar attack found four people hiding in a dumpster, desperately cell-phoning for help. The root of the problem seems to be a porcine population explosion caused by tighter hunting restrictions. Similar situations have developed in various corners of Asia, where the problem stems from the declining populations of the pigs' predators, like tigers and wolves.

These wild boars are the same species as the domestic pig. After a few generations in the wild, they change so radically that their bodies undergo a morphological shift: they become hairier and leaner, their snouts lengthen, and their backs take on the characteristic "razorback" ridge. The pose more of a threat to crops and livestock than to humans, but a few elderly people have died of boar attacks in the last few years.

On a related matter, I've been regaling folks over at Facebook with info about the grice, a cantankerous little breed of pig that went extinct about 80 years ago. Some claim my family name derives from this critter. It all seems relevant to my eating habits this holiday season.

Beaver Attack

The Tulsa World reports that a five-year-old was bitten by a beaver. This sounds like a defensive bite, since the kid was trying to pet the animal at the time, but authorities are going to test for rabies to be sure. Rabid beavers have attacked people on several occasions, sometimes in the water. A big adult beaver goes better than 50 pounds, and its rodent incisors can penetrate deep.

Spotted hyena attack

In Kenya, a mother and son were badly injured in a nighttime brawl with a predatory hyena. Another son and some neighbors received lesser injuries. The hospital employee interviewed for this newspaper account says he's seeing hyena victims approximately every month.

The attacker here was apparently a spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), which is surpassed only by certain crocodilian and cat species as the major predator of humans in the world. One theory holds that people only arrived in North America recently (some 14 thousand years ago) because that's when climate change forced the spotted hyena south of the Bering Land Bridge. Before that, the hyenas were too formidable an obstacle. Another theory claims lions began to form prides because that was the only way they could survive in an Africa dominated by clans of hyena. And, while I'm doling out theories, there's also the notion that predatory pressure from hyenas forced humans and wolves to cohabit for protection. That led splinter groups of wolves to evolve into dogs, which are merely wolves after a few generations of domestication. It also allowed humans to settle down into agricultural communities and, eventually, towns and cities.

Video: Spotted hyenas vs. Lion

Insects in Food

CB wrote me with some disturbing questions:

So this friend of mine had a jar of organic tomato sauce (maybe it was paste). It was some months old by the time she opened it, but when she did, the lid popped when the vacuum seal was broken. She looked inside to find three largish maggots wiggling around in the sauce. Ew. Ew ew EW!

The question is: how is that possible? The jar was sealed; don't maggots breathe?

Also, just like with canning, the stuff was cooked, right? How could they have lived? And where could they have come from? How could whatever they were hatched from have gotten inside a sealed, sterile environment?

I'd bet the mother insect laid her eggs sometime during the canning process, say when the sauce was cooling in an open vat at the processing plant. Probably the young survived most of the months after canning as eggs, so they would have little need for air. Also, if we're talking a glass jar with a metal lid, there would probably be some air inside. It wouldn't have to be completely airless to seal properly.

In case it's any comfort, I should mention that these wouldn't necessarily be maggots. They could be the larvae of moths or beetles, for example. Moths and their caterpillars are pretty common inside sealed food, especially organic or homemade stuff. All processed food will have some minor contamination from insects. Even in a disgusting case like this, the food was probably safe to eat. (Not that I would have after seeing the bugs, but in theory.) We all swallow an occasional bug leg or rat hair without knowing it, and it does us no harm. Even if these were maggots (fly larvae), they would not necessarily be carriers of disease microbes. Flies have to be mobile adults to pick up nasty bacteria from the wider environment. If these larvae spent their entire lives in cooked food, they had no chance to pick up dangerous microbes. The US government refers to bugs in food as "aesthetic defects," because basically, it's not a health problem. It's just how food is. It's gross, but it won't hurt you.

Rat Tales

I saw Morris step suddenly back from a corner, which he was examining. We all followed his movements with our eyes, for undoubtedly some nervousness was growing on us, and we saw a whole mass of phosphorescence, which twinkled like stars. We all instinctively drew back. The whole place was becoming alive with rats. . . They seemed to swarm over the place all at once, till the lamplight, shining on their moving dark bodies and glittering, baleful eyes, made the place look like a bank of earth set with fireflies. The dogs dashed on, but at the threshold suddenly stopped and snarled, and then, simultaneously lifting their noses, began to howl . . . .
Bram Stoker

Rats are among the most phobia-inducing animals. For many people, they invoke the “disgust response” typically found in phobias directed at cockroaches and spiders. They are dangerous as vectors of disease and, under certain circumstances, as predators. They've been known to eat people who are injured or trapped in collapsed buildings. Unlike many predators, they don't trouble themselves to kill their prey before beginning the feast.

It’s not surprising, then, that horror stories have made excellent use of rats. As a Christmas treat, I’m presenting some of the best rat tales, by authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan LeFanu, HP Lovecraft, and George Orwell. Click here to read these Rat Tales. I don't usually post fiction here, but I'm doing so now because it's Christmas time and because the rat has a special place in the lore of the holiday. Seems to me rats must account for a lot of haunted-house stories—they would certainly explain a lot of nocturnal sounds and curtains that move without wind. Christmas was traditionally the time for scary stories in the English-speaking countries, though Halloween has supplanted it in the last century or so.

If you prefer your rat horrors real, check out The Book of Deadly Animals. The rodent chapter is my favorite part of the book.

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