What the Wild Things Do
Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals
(The Dial Press, May 2010)
In his new book, Gordon Grice tries to convince us that the Discovery Channel hasn’t cornered the market on gruesome nature documentary. Deadly Kingdom: the Book of Dangerous Animals, is the follow-up to Grice’s unnerving 1998 debut, The Red Hourglass, which covered his personal fascination with, and detailed knowledge of mantids, canids, rattlesnakes, pigs, and especially spiders (the black widow, tarantula, and brown recluse each received their own chapter)—basically the more dangerous contents of a North American back yard.
In Deadly Kingdom, Grice expands the list to include killers and maimers the world over: sections range from “Carnivorids” (anthropophagy is my new favorite word. It means “the eating of humans”) through sharks and reptiles to “Arthropods and Worms”—stopping on the way to list some of the creepier parasites that feed on us. Go look up the Guinea worm if you dare.
Written in a loose, conversational style, but grounded in strong scientific detail, Deadly Kingdom is the perfect read for those who have a hard time finding fiction that scares them enough. It’s probably best read alone, at night, while camping somewhere remote, although one section describing rats “pouring out” of an abandoned bar and attacking a woman may give city-dwellers pause as well.
The book starts off rather slow. Chapters on wolves, bears, sharks, and whales each begin with the known range in size of teeth and claws and the general dimensions and weight of the animal, then end up mostly listing second and third-hand accounts of maulings and deaths. It’s good to know, I suppose, that if your ship goes down at sea the Oceanic whitetip is more likely to eat you than any other kind of shark, but the chapter’s many tales of shipwrecks begin to blur together, and the effect is a lessening, not heightening of tension.
Similarly, there seems to be some filler information early on. A catch-up chapter on “Other Carnivorids” (the more scientific-sounding name for carnivore, I suppose) covers ferrets, honey badgers, otters, and leopard seals, none of which, according to Grice, have given people more than a bite and the risk of rabies. Dangerous? Maybe, but it’ll hardly keep a reader up at night.
The perfunctory writing on whales especially doesn’t live up to the vivid imagery that Grice, who holds an MFA in poetry, is clearly capable of, and demonstrated so well in The Red Hourglass. But it’s the later chapters—on sea-slugs, jellyfish, snakes, lizards, and Grice’s specialty, arthropods and arachnids—when the going really gets good. Here’s one of his typically economical descriptions, on the particular effects of viper venom:
The venoms of vipers are usually full of hemotoxins that not only kill prey but also begin to digest it before the snake has even swallowed it. Similarly, the venom partially digests the foot or hand of a human being who receives a defensive bite, and in the process causes swelling, pain, and bleeding. Doctors advise victims to remove the rings from a bitten hand; otherwise they will cut into the swelling fingers. Things can get worse: nausea, fever, shock, gangrene, paralysis, death.
Grice seems to take special delight in the grosser details. For instance, in describing the 10 foot, 250 pound Komodo Dragon, largest of lizards, he gently explains that its “copious bloody saliva lubricates the meal for easier swallowing. Larger prey must first be torn apart. After digesting its meal, the dragon vomits a neat bundle of indigestible parts: teeth, hooves, hair, horns.”
Getting to the insects, Grice begins to insert himself more in the text, telling the reader, for example that “a five-inch scorpion is resting” in his wife’s old shoe, before making it clear that she’d relinquished it to the scorpion’s terrarium. Grice also begins to recount the experiences of his children—plucking ticks out of his son’s skin, or watching his two year-old inadvertently try to eat a millipede. These stories lead to little scientific excursions, wherein we find that the millipede, a vegetarian, has “repugnatorial glands” for just such instances. Centipedes, however, are both predatory and often venomous. That lucky little boy.
Throughout the book Grice provides a cornucopia of examples of human interactions with the “dangerous animals.” In the more gruesome cases the story often ends in the person’s death or dismemberment (or “partial digestion”). Some tales warn us of stupid behavior—a boy who stuck his tongue out at a captured coral snake barely escaped dying when his throat swelled shut. Another idiot taunting a circus elephant was (rightfully, perhaps) gored, then flung 12 feet in the air after the animal charged the stands.
Sometimes, however, the only cause a human gives an animal is proximity. “As flies to wanton boys are we to elephants,” writes Grice. “They sometimes deliberately pluck off the head and limbs of a person.” Grice also argues that what seems to humans unprovoked may be, to an animal with a far different level of sensory sensitivity, the legitimate defense of territory, food, or children. Often it’s hard to tell, and when the hippo’s charging, it isn’t wise to wait and find out.
Given the one-sided nature of the book (his section on dogs might lead a novice to believe they’re never to be trusted) Deadly Kingdom seems less than useful as a means of learning how to best interact with any particular animal, though his implicit advice—if you’re not sure, don’t go near it—is helpful enough, and would have saved at least a few people. The book sets out to be a sort of encyclopedia of animal attacks, and it succeeds. Contained within is almost every way that a human can be harmed by animals.
But it’s Grice’s fascination with the gross-out—his descriptions of venom slowly liquefying a victim, of skin sloughing from necrotic lesions, or of the dreaded Guinea worm—that provide the most interesting, most squirm-inducing parts. Here, Grice is at his best, giving a reader the sense, not just of what the danger is, but exactly how it works, what the effects are, and essentially why it’s so cool. This is when the book gets fun. “As you may have noticed” writes Grice, “I’m something of a specialist in disgust.” Good thing he writes so well.