Deadly Merchandise

As you'll soon learn from the book version of Deadly Kingdom, the elephant knows more ways to kill a human than any other animal. A bunch of us were sitting around discussing this fact over coffee the other night (yes, I do throw the best parties) when we realized we needed coffee mugs celebrating elephant violence.

My own drawing stinks, so I bribed my eldest son, Parker. He sprang into action and invented Elgar, the Irritable Elephant. His first cartoon has Elgar threatening to squish one's head. That's a fairly uncommon, yet well-attested, method.

Not to be outdone, my younger sons seized Sharpies and went to work. Eleven-year-old Beckett invented Samuel W. Shark, your classic great white "with manga touches." Eight-year-old Griffin asked me if locusts are dangerous. I told him swarms can kill people by eating all the food or even by polluting the air. He came up with the superheroic Locust Lad.

My mother pointed out that T-shirts are better advertising for my book than mugs. After all, you might use a coffee mug in your own home, but once you put on the shirt and leave the house, you're a billboard.

That made sense, but I leave the choice to you. Mugs. Shirts. Other stuff. Just don't spend all your money before you've picked up a copy of the book.

New Video: Alligator

The crocodilians may be the deadliest predators in the Deadly Kingdom. A hint of things to come.

Earth Day: A Guilty Green

My landlord rigged a trap for the mice in my garage. Into a five-gallon bucket, he poured a few inches of antifreeze. On a wire across the top, he threaded a Mountain Dew can smeared with peanut butter. Mice would go for the food, find the can spinning under them, and fall into the antifreeze. He nestled the trap in a corner, piling boxes and tools around it to discourage children and dogs.

A few times a year, I’d find a carcass floating in the green fluid. They all looked black while they were afloat, but once I’d fished them out with a gardening fork, they were mostly gray with a green tinge. I tossed them into the woods behind my house. Sometimes I found three mice at once, in absurd confirmation of the nursery rhyme.

One time I fished a mouse out of the green and put it in a little plastic tub and carried it to the woods as usual, then tried to toss it far into the box elders. The mouse described a circle, its gray-green body coming to rest on the back of my hand. It was cold, and a few droplets of antifreeze speckled my hand. I saw myself twitch and the mouse sailed into the woods and bounced off a tangle of twigs and came flying back at me. Surely those childish squeals weren't coming from me?

Two hand-washings couldn't remove the green imprint I felt on my hand. I'm not usually a clean freak, but the mouse gave me the creeps.

Aside from that slapstick episode, I hardly thought about the trap. But one summer day my sons came in to tell me about its latest catch.

Eight-year-old Beckett, enthusiastic: “Dad, there’s a bird in the mousetrap.”

Me, incredulous: “A bird?”

Twelve-year-old Parker, logical: “It has a beak.”

When I looked into the trap, I saw the beak submerged in the green, but I also saw that a limb closer to the surface was furred. I tried to see the texture of feathers there, but, no—it was fur. The animal took up the whole width of the bucket. It floated, a black abstraction in a green surface dotted with dead flies and dust. I felt as if I were looking at one of those optical illusion drawings. It was on the verge of making sense.

I worked the tines of the gardening fork under it gently. I could feel the rigor mortis instantly, and it occurred to me that the mice had always been limp as banana skins. As I carefully levered it to the surface, trying not to touch the dead thing or knock it against the peanut butter, its shape emerged. It was a rabbit.

What had seemed a beak was the sharp angle of hind foot with leg. I held the thing over the bucket to let it shed its moisture. On this larger carcass, the green highlights seemed almost phosphorescent. I laid it in the plastic tub. The fluid in the trap sloshed a bit. Its level was noticeably lower, as if the rabbit had soaked up, or swallowed, a fair amount of it. Dead flies came swirling back up from the depths.

In the tub the rabbit lay stiff, its eyes clenched. The fur remained black. When I poked at its foot, the whole thing slid. Something about it seemed gruesomely wrong; it had the quality of a human fetus. It was the proportions, I decided. The sticky fluid had flattened its hair so that this normal-sized cottontail looked stunted, deformed.

I took it to the woods. My children would want to look at it, so I would leave it uncovered. I carried the tub at arm's length, as if typhus germs were even now trying to leap onto me. The disproportion of it and the incongruity of its presence in the garage gave me a much stronger sense of contamination than the mice had. How long had the body been afloat? Rigor mortis lasts less than two days in a human. And how had it managed to get where it got?

Things seemed to clear up for me then. I'd felt guilty all along, having a toxic trap in my garage. I didn't mind killing mice, but I did mind polluting. It was a hypocritical objection, since I've never found a way to make a living without a car. This dirty antifreeze had already served its turn in a vehicle. I could say I was recycling. But you read horror stories about kids drinking antifreeze. Of course I warned my sons away from it, but the stories lingered. The little tub I was carrying the rabbit in? It was a freebie we got from the hospital when our third son was born.

I recalled the pied rabbit I’d kept when I was a child. Its wicked bites made it unsuitable for human affection, and all I could really enjoy about it was watching its mouth and nose work as it devoured the weeds I proffered. Its droppings accumulated like mounds of marbles beneath its cage, and it was my obligation to shovel them onto the garden. But that was a long time ago.

I left the carcass gleaming green in the woods.

Photo by Parker Grice

Video: Harvestman is now on video! Our first offering is a 4-minute opus about the common but misunderstood arachnid known as daddylonglegs or harvestman. This film grew out of questions here on the blog. Here's the original blog post.

Here's a follow-up post explaining the different critters that go under the name daddylonglegs.

And here, without further ado, is the video.

I hope Johnny Depp doesn't get jealous.

Octopus attack

During World War I, a teenager named John Rau was walking on the coast near Cape Otway, Victoria, Australia, along with some other boys and a clergyman. Rau recounted his experience in Frank W. Lane's Kingdom of the Octopus:

"We were proceeding along the sea edge at the base of cliffs and bluffs, a jumble of rock, some stratified and shelving. I was about six or seven paces behind the parson, who was leading, when I heard him shout and looked toward him. He was standing on a shelf of rock about three feet above the water and about a foot from the edge. An octopus had left the water and attacked him. Its tentacles were in rapid motion, at least one around each leg and one at his waist and arm. I judged them to be about four feet long and as thick as a man's arm at the base. The body of the octopus was well out of the water and almost at the edge of the rock shelf.

"The parson was jabbing at the octopus with the butt of his fishing rod, and leaning back against the drag of the creature which seemed to be well anchored by other tentacles going down into the water. I did a very stupid thing. I was carrying a .22 rifle and took a pot shot at the octopus and fortunately missed both it and the parson. After jabbing at the creature for perhaps 20 seconds, during which it squirted its black discharge over the rock and the legs of the parson, he was free and it went back into the sea taking with it the bottom section of the parson's fishing rod. It released this almost immediately and it was recovered by means of the line."

Mantis Battles Hummingbird

In The Red Hourglass, I mentioned the case of a mantid preying on a mouse. This video shows something almost as startling. The mantid seems to have staked out a hummingbird feeder. . .

Animal Attacks: A Pilot Whale

When we were discussing Tilikum the killer whale a while back I mentioned another famous captive whale named Bimbo. A little more about him:

Bimbo starred at Marineland of the Pacific in the 1960s. At nearly 18 feet, he was the largest pilot whale in the park. For three years, he performed his spectacular tricks. The finale of the whale show had him plunge to three-story depths, then rocket to the surface and beyond. His landing literally shook spectators in their seats.

But, like a lot of stars, Bimbo went out of control behind the scenes. He began to pummel his pool-mates. Keepers retaliated by draining all but three feet of water from the pool. That left his dolphin victims free to maneuver while Bimbo was stranded and helpless. The smaller animals clustered around the distressed giant, offering whistles that sounded to human observers like comfort.

He went a month without food, dropping a thousand pounds. He refused to cooperate with his trainers and even knocked them around. Nobody was killed, but with a 4500-pound animal throwing the blows, it seemed only a matter of time.

Why did Bimbo turn mean? Several theories were proposed. A curator at Marineland thought training in itself was to blame. Bimbo had come to the park as a middle-aged whale, too set in his ways to endure the learning of tricks. Others felt grief was the answer. Bimbo's main companion in the pool was a female pilot whale. She may have been his mother. Her death, closely followed by the demise of a smaller dolphin companion, seemed to drive Bimbo into depression. He held his dead companions by the flipper and took them circling in the pool. Observers thought he was trying to resuscitate them.

A doctor called in to treat Bimbo rendered his diagnosis: manic depressive psychosis. That was something doctors could treat—though not always effectively. Bimbo got 6000-milligram injections of anti-depressants when he was down, then tranquilizers to calm his wild moods.

The turning point came with an act of destruction so awesome no one thought it possible. Bimbo slammed through two inch-thick layers of glass, each theoretically strong enough to withstand 15 thousand pounds of pressure. Three hundred twenty-five thousand gallons of water poured into a spectators' area. No one was hurt, but that was plain luck. Park officials knew they had to get rid of Bimbo. While they were working out the details, he tried to smash a fresh set of windows, but failed. Then, in a wrestling match involving ten handlers, a 50-ton crane, a super-sized stretcher, and massive doses of tranquilizers, Bimbo was removed from the park and shipped back to the sea. He immediately joined a pod of fellow pilot whales. Observer saw him racing in 500-yard stretches and pirouetting out of the water with what looked like joy. Some seven years later, he was spotted, apparently prospering, off the coast of Southern California.

In 1967, calling Bimbo "psychotic" seemed to explain something. It meant, in short, that something was wrong with him. He was defective, and that's why he would hurt people and other whales. Ideas have shifted, and now many of us—me included—find it more reasonable to look for explanations in the way people treated Bimbo. Surely captivity itself is the starting point for any explanation. After all, pilot whales don't eat people. They have no history of hurting swimmers in the ocean, though there's at least one case of them sinking a yacht. But it's really only in the pool that people are likely to get hurt by pilot whales—or killer whales, for that matter.

Reviewing the Animal Review

The Animal Review: The Genius, Mediocrity, and Breathtaking Stupidity That Is Nature
In this new book I got in the mail the other day, the unobtrusive clam is a working class schmuck who never gets his due; the sedentary sponge is a symptom of low admission standards in the animal kingdom; and the much-preyed-upon wildebeest is "Nature's punching bag." "Actual passport picture," says the caption under a photo of a flensed wildebeest skull.

This is hilarious stuff. I particularly love the image of Evolution, as a burned-out, snail-designing avant-garde artist, tossing a glass of champagne in the face of a some unappreciative gallery-goer. What may not be obvious from my description is just how informative all this is. Allowing for comic exaggeration, the authors, Jacob Lentz and Steve Nash, are precise with their facts. They don't bother to point out what's true, what's funny, and what's both; they trust the reader to sort that out.

Also missing from this book is that earnest tone I've come to hate in books about wildlife. Where's it written that every wild encounter must be wrapped in a lecture on conservation? Couldn't we just learn something for its own sake, or maybe even get a laugh?

We can now. Lentz and Nash begin by throwing away the pseudo-objectivity of most nature writing. Instead, they write utterly subjective accounts of any animal they please, concluding each with a grade. The king cobra gets an A+ because they're afraid to offend it.

The cobra's not the only dangerous animal Lentz and Nash treat. Everything from the great white shark to the hippo makes an appearance. (The latter, with its cuddly looks and deadly demeanor, reminds our authors of John Wayne Gacy.)

Highly recommended. You might also enjoy the Animal Review blog, which is linked over there in the margin somewhere.
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