Just in time for your summer vacation we speak with Gordon Grice about animals that can hurt or even kill us. Gordon has collected tales of dangerous animals from lions and tigers and yes, bears, to the common house dog. He's published them in the book "Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals," excerpted below.
“But why can’t we go look at it?” I asked my mother.
“Because it’s dangerous,” she said.
“We could watch from the car.”
“We’ll go back into town and let Granddad handle it.”
“We never get to do anything fun,” I said, but the argument was lost already, the red cedar fence posts clicking by faster and faster outside the car window. I picked at the threads in the green upholstery of the back seat. Mom was putting miles of safety between us and the cougar treed in front of our farm house. My grandfather had waved us down as we drove home from errands and told us to proceed no further. I was six; it didn’t occur to me to worry about my grandfather. I only knew I was missing out on something.
The next time I saw him, Granddad was the same as always, tossing his silver head as he told his jokes, smiling in his broad but mysterious way, like the man on the Quaker oats box. He had little to say about the fate of the cougar. Only with the distance of years do I understand what must have passed among the adults of my family, how they must have felt to see a predator like that in the elm tree my sister and I played beneath each day.
We lived in the Oklahoma Panhandle, where the soil was black as coffee and could be coaxed to grow anything if only you could pipe enough water to it. It was a land of extremes, of tornadoes and droughts and dust storms, and the sense of history I absorbed from my family was centered on the apocalypse of the Dust Bowl. It was a land where things that ought to seem strange happened as a matter of course. One clear summer afternoon, we felt a rumble low in our bones, and then the house seemed to quiver like a drop of water thinking of falling. It was over in a second.
"Earthquake!" my sister Meg and I shouted as one. Mom was dubious; whatever it was had made a sound, and the sound had seemed to come from the corral. Granddad sipped his tea calmly. Meg and I tore out to the corral, shouting back to Mom that we promised to be careful.
Near the cattle tank we came upon a smoking scatter of stones, clearly the breakings of a single rock. The original mass must have been bigger than a basketball.
“Volcano rocks!” I said.
“But where’s the volcano?” Meg said. We looked all around us. The horizon was flat in every direction. There were no peaks, nothing that might have passed for a volcano, even with imagination. We came speeding back into the house to report our findings.
“It must be a meteor,” Granddad explained. It was a new idea for us.
“Don’t touch it,” Mom said. “It’s probably still hot.”
The pieces looked different after they cooled—smooth, green wedges, like slabs cut from mint ice cream. They were heavier than they looked, heavier in fact than any rock I'd ever hefted. Meg and I used them when we played Star Trek; they were moon stones, valuable ore, some transmutative substance. Meg came home from school with a set of terminology—meteor, meteoroid, meteorite—which she drilled into me, and when we next saw our cousins, we all went out to watch for meteorites and make fun of people who called them falling stars. And we went on with our lives as if nothing much had happened.
But the Panhandle oddities that interested me most were biological: a two-headed Hereford calf at the local museum, plagues of grasshoppers and rabbits, mastodons dug out of the fields, the tracks of Allosaurs found in stone. Carnivals came through, displaying five-legged sheep and three-legged hens and, once, a pickled two-headed human baby. One summer when I was ten, prodigious congregations of black crickets rose from the soil. They seethed beneath the outdoor lights. Once they came pouring over the edge of our front porch, where a friend and I had just squashed a grasshopper. It seemed, for a panicky moment, like retribution.
Only as I write this do I realize how forbidding the Panhandle must seem to outsiders. To us, it was home. My father's family had lived there since 1904, which was virtually as long as cattle and railroads had been there in place of bison and mustang herds. The lives of my ancestors were riddled with ghost towns and vanished homesteads, but here they had made the earth yield. All of my grandparents were farmers, and that occupation was understood to call for a kind of integrity others couldn't muster.
But we were a family falling away from the land. My mother would have been happier in town. My father liked the country, but not the life of a farmer. By the time I was a teen, he owned a fleet of tow trucks, and my mother held an office job. They'd become townies. I still spent a lot of time in the country with kinsmen and friends, but I'd lost something. I never got it back.
The real cougar passed from my life permanently. I never even glimpsed him. But the memory of him was written in fire. It seemed a special cruelty for my elders to deny me his company, for I was already obsessed with wild animals and wanted to see him more than I can perhaps make clear. Already I had heard the voice of the bobcat and followed the delicate and sinuous track of the rattlesnake; soon I would begin to keep insects and spiders in jars; within a few years I would fill notebooks with my observations and drawings of wildlife. I have spent much of my adult life in the same pursuits.
It was decades before I encountered another cougar in the wild. As before, I never laid eyes on it. I had to use other senses to detect it. I came into the territory of this particular cougar by accident when friends invited me to spend a few days at a ranch in Wyoming.
My friends and I went out for a ride. Our horses’ shoes clapped against the steep granite as we worked our way around the mountain’s shoulder. Then we were into a stretch of open field. My horse, a big, unruly bay, trudged through a clattering pile of bones. I reined him in and asked Virgil, the wrangler, about the carcass. We dismounted.
Virgil handed me the skull. It was about as long as my hand, equipped with broad molars for chewing vegetation. The front of the mouth lacked teeth.
“Pronghorn antelope,” Virgil said, untying his ponytail to bind it tighter. “They don’t have front teeth. They use their lips to pull in grass and leaves.” He used his own lips to hold the rubber band while he worked on his hair.
The horns themselves were gone. We looked the bones over to see if we could figure out what had killed the pronghorn. We found plenty of marks, but what to make of them?
“These look like something chewed on them,” I said, holding up a femur and an uncertain fragment.
“Could be,” Virgil said. “We’ve got coyotes and cougars. Of course, anything could chew on it once it was dead. God knows how long it’s been here.”
Some soft gristle and a flap of hide remained on the skull. It had too much heft to be empty. I didn’t think it was old. I tied it to my saddle to take back to the bunk house. A pair of sluggish insects built like gray bullets emerged from an eye socket and crawled down opposite sides of the nose: carrion beetles.
At the ranch house I scrounged a five-gallon bucket and filled it with water. When I immersed the skull, dozens of beetles came struggling out from the eye sockets and the infinite papery complications of the nasal cavity. A three-year-old boy with a disconcerting tendency not to blink watched me. This small kinsman of my hosts turned to whisper something to his uncle. I had seen them earlier hiking a little way into the hills. They had stood over the leg bones of a deer and talked a long while. The uncle reported the conversation to me: the boy asking how the bones “fell out” of the animal, the uncle trying to explain death as “going back to the earth.” Now they huddled again, apparently discussing the pronghorn skull and its colonizers.
I went to work cleaning the skull and forgot about the little boy. When I looked up I found him standing on the porch above me, staring. I had just plunged the skull into a fresh bucketful of water, and a new set of carrion beetles came out in a panic, as if they had slept through the first dowsing. They struggled over each other to stay above the surface. The boy stared at the troubled water, the skull gazing back from the bottom of the bucket.
“The bugs help him go back to the earth,” the boy said, fingering a toy six-shooter.
As I walked to the kitchen the next morning, led by the smell of bacon, I had to pass a pig pen. I stopped to lean on its rails and look the pigs over. There were five, all patched with brown and white except for one plump pink hog. I wondered what pigs think of that savory smell.
Virgil came up and leaned on the rail next to me. I declined the bent Marlboro he offered. A fresh piece of lumber stood out among the weather-beaten planks and posts; I kicked it idly.
“I put that on last week,” Virgil said. “Cougar tore the old board off.”
He told the story, pausing three times to light the recalcitrant cigarette. He’d woken one night to the screams of the pink hog. The cougar had it by the hind leg and was trying to drag it through the break in the fence. Virgil fired a shotgun in the air to scare the cat off. I could see a deep, black seam of healing wound on the hog’s leg. I asked whether the cat had been back since.
“Not up here close to the house,” Virgil said. He’d gone fishing at a stock pond the day before yesterday. When his horse started acting spooky, he packed his gear and headed for the ranch house. He returned to the pond later that afternoon. The cougar’s tracks led down to the fallen log at the water’s edge where he’d sat fishing.
Near dusk Virgil asked me to help him drive a few head of cattle into their evening pasture. The cattle knew the drill; all we had to do was keep them moving. We did it on foot.
We were walking a dirt road. The cattle, with their hides of rust and cream, hustled ahead of us. On our left was a fenced pasture; on our right was a bank of heavy brush. The road changed abruptly from hard-packed dirt to a patch where frequent run-off from a hill had left soft, smooth undulations of dirt. On this softer ground the cattle kicked up a little dust. It was on this stretch I spotted the pug-marks of the cougar. They dappled the road for several yards, obscured in two places where the cattle had crossed them. A good rain had fallen about two hours earlier. The tracks must have been made since then.
Soon we had the cattle in their pasture. Virgil needed a minute to wrestle the broken gate shut. Suddenly we both looked toward the brush, then at each other, then back at the brush. I scanned the ditch tangled with grass and stunted trees.
Virgil whispered a long string of profanities. He told me later he had heard something at that moment, a subtle click that might have been the breaking of a twig. I wasn’t aware of hearing anything. I just suddenly got a cold feeling in my scalp, and I knew I was being watched. We started toward the ranch house, Virgil cursing steadily. We walked slowly. I puffed myself up to look large. Virgil was smaller than I and would make a more inviting target, I reflected. I noticed he kept me between himself and the brush. “Wish I had my damn shotgun,” he said.
We stopped simultaneously. No signal passed between us, but we must have been thinking the same thing. A thick clump of brush jutted into the road ahead of us, and neither of us wanted to go near it. I stomped on a branch that lay in the road, breaking off a manageable truncheon. Virgil picked up a chunk of sandstone. We walked past the clump, and suddenly we were talking about the weather in loud, angry voices, agreeing that it was nice but a little damp in tones that suggested we meant to kill each other.
We could see the ranch house up the road. Soon we could see our friends lounging on the veranda. We walked slowly, taking turns proclaiming the damn niceness of the weather over our shoulders.
A conversation about politics drifted down from the veranda; someone quipped and several laughed. Why couldn’t they shout down the road to us? Or decide to meet us halfway? Finally we were in the yard and away from the brush. Our friends told us we were the victims of imagination.
The next day I followed our tracks along the road to the evening pasture. A fresh set of pugmarks led toward the house. They ran between Virgil’s prints and mine, and occasionally turned a circle before rejoining our path. One pugmark fell neatly within the spade-shaped impression of my left boot, four blunt toes and a trapezoidal foot pad deepening the dent of my print.
I took the pronghorn skull home when I left the ranch. A fizzing denture cleaner hardly changed its dirty exterior. I had to throw it out after a couple of days, when it began to smell like bad chicken broth.
That incident provoked me to the investigations that led, eventually, to this book. It was not the first time I had felt the sensation of being watched by a predator, nor the first time I had found myself in some danger in the country. What was different here was the clash in my head between instinct and learning. I had spent much of my indoor life reading books and scientific articles about animal behavior. Those sources claimed that, no matter what my granddad might think, the cougar is not a predator of humans. I had met them in other settings: in zoos, in a sideshow attraction where people were invited to pose with a chained and languid specimen for a picture, even in a junkyard where a big haggard tom was set loose to guard the place at dusk. All my reading and experience made me think cougars weren’t dangerous. And in fact I may have been safe enough. One biologist later told me I might have been the object of mere feline curiosity. Still: I’d felt a cold mortality in my belly under the scrutiny of the cat.
It was lucky for me that I’d been ignoring the news for a few years, in another of my periodic fits of disillusionment with my own species. If I had been up to date, I would have known what happened to an 18-year-old jogger near Idaho Springs, Colorado. In January 1991, this young man was found disemboweled and literally defaced. One of the searchers who found the body assumed he was looking at a murder scene—until he spotted a cougar five yards from the body.
When I looked into the matter further, I found that the relation between humans and cougars traced an odd U-shaped pattern. From the earliest European settlements in the Americas, the animal was considered dangerous. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writers as diverse as Ambrose Bierce and Laura Ingalls Wilder mentioned cougar attacks as ordinary events. But by the time James Clarke came to write his classic study Man Is the Prey in the 1960s, authentic cases were hard to come by. He judged cougar attacks rare, and he could produce only one case of a cougar eating a human. Around the same time, Roger Caras turned up several attacks, but called them “rare” and “abnormal.” This wasn't, as some suspected, a mere case of a myth debunked. It represented a real change in behavior.
Recently, writer Kathy Etling found no records of fatal attacks between 1949 and 1971, and only a few in the decades on either side. Then, starting in the late 1980s, predatory attacks on humans became an undeniable reality. There were a dozen fatal attacks between 1988 and 2001. Naturalists had been in the habit of blaming the rare fatalities on the aberrant behavior of rabid or starving animals. But these new cases made it clear cougars were treating humans as prey. The attacks happened in widely separated places—California, Colorado, British Columbia. It was not a common occurrence, of course, but it used to be almost unheard of. What to make of this odd trend?
Thanks to the work of scientists like Lee Fitzhugh of the University of California at Davis, we can make some sense of it. Fitzhugh’s investigations confirm that cougars really have changed their behavior over the decades. The reasons for this change are complex, and they begin with human culture.
There was in North America, and still is, a culture of extermination. Our ancestors here didn't simply hunt down specific animals that had killed human beings or taken livestock; they killed all animals of dangerous or undesirable species. They organized “drives” to round up and kill coyotes, for example. It’s still common practice in some rural areas to shoot any coyote, cougar, or bear on sight.
The result of these practices, besides reducing the numbers of such animals, was to teach the survivors that human beings are dangerous. The large predatory mammals learned to fear humans. And because big mammals learn a lot about life from their parents, this fear was passed down. Zoologists call this transmission of knowledge, which parallels our own, “culture.” We have strong evidence of culture in great apes, crows, killer whales, and others. Among the species potentially aggressive toward us, each population varies in its familiarity with, and response to, humans. In North American wolves, the cultural distrust of humans seems to be holding firm. A wolf will often go miles out of its way to avoid the smell of a human being. Among cougars, the case is different, because they are less social and spend part of their youth, when their tastes and habits are developing, solo. When a surge in cougar population in the 1990s pushed the cats into closer contact with humans, older cougars typically kept their established territories, away from humanity. Presumably they also kept their established definitions of what constituted a decent meal, and this did not include humans, because when they were young soloists, they rarely encountered humans and never experimented with the notion of eating them. As adults, they were set in their ways and unlikely to consider new dietary options.
But younger cats, forced to seek territories in human country, tended to be more adventurous in culinary matters. They saw no objection to eating people. At the same time, a shift in the culture of American humans was underway. The practice of exterminating predators gave way to a more environmentally conscious habit of appreciating wildlife. People even chose rural or suburban homes for their proximity to wildlife. Unarmed people met cougars unfamiliar with human violence. A few people, and a great many cougars, died.
To consider animal behavior without history is to misunderstand it.
The Carnivorids: Wolves, Dogs and their Kin
Mr. Peck, the yellow dog who shared my childhood, could not let prey pass. Almost any small animal that crossed his path was game: field mice, for which he would dig with ferocious energy, pausing to listen for them in their tunnels; porcupines, despite the beard of painful barbs they left him with; skunks, despite the sewer-and-cabbage smell; cats, even the ones we loved. Once, when our kitten was too slow, Mr. Peck left him dead beneath the Chinese elm he’d been racing for, his black coat littered with bits of leaf and twig. I recalled the rubbery scream I’d ignored hours earlier. I felt guilty for not seeing its importance at the time. Long days of misery followed before I could forgive Mr. Peck, days during which my mother told me again and again that he was following his nature, that he’d never learned not to hurt cats and couldn’t be blamed for this.
Rabbits tempted him above all. Their zigzag escape routes didn’t fool the yellow dog. He often brought one home and lay on the lawn, bracing it between his forepaws as he chewed. The largest jackrabbit I ever saw was his kill, a monster that might still, after two days of his gnawing, have been a red head of lettuce. My mother grimaced at this kill every time she passed him on the lawn.
“Pecky, I wish you’d take that elsewhere,” she said to him, but he merely turned his head to the side so the jagged carnassial teeth along his jaw could shear off a chunk of meat and bone.
Our dog’s carnivory was so much a part of my landscape that I hardly remarked it. I learned not to walk too close when he was on a kill, lest he growl to warn me off; otherwise, the bones and blood were routine. What made me notice them afresh was a new item on his menu. Strung through the buffalo grass of our back yard was a skeleton, dragged into disarticulation, the meat mostly gnawed off. The size of the thing startled me—bones strung out for a dozen feet, white in the sun except where they were filmed with red. At the end of the string Mr. Peck lay struggling with a femur. He put its bulbous end between his jaws and bit, but the thing went sliding out the side of his mouth with a clatter.
I found no skull, and had to ask my mother to identify the animal.
“A steer,” she said.
“Is Pecky supposed to kill the steers?” I said.
“He didn’t kill it. It was already dead when he found it.”
“What killed it?”
The next stage in my education about dog carnivory came with the visit of our neighbor’s dog, a broad-chested border collie. I enjoyed its presence at first, because it was always game for a chase. Border collies generally are: they must herd, and will try to guide and turn running geese or sheep or children—even, I have read, a string of ants. This border collie cavorted with my dogs and me, always pushing its side against me to keep me with the pack.
But then it began to kill our hens. We had six of them, five white leghorns and a slender auburn one. They died one at a time, and I would go out after school and track them by the feathers they lost as the border collie chased them.
“Shoot him if you have to,” our neighbor said. He was a kindly old man with great patience for children. “I got cattle, so I can learn him off of them, but I can’t learn him off of chickens.” It was a delicate point of etiquette, the shooting of someone else’s dog. Letting your dog roam free was a major attraction of country life; your dog’s freedom represented your own. But costing someone else his livelihood had consequences. I relayed the permission to my parents. They said we’d be moving soon, that we would have to get rid of the chickens anyway, so there was no need to hurt the dog.
One day I found my favorite hen, Fat Feet, near death. Her feet had always looked like the tubers of irises, extravagantly fleshy even for a white leghorn. I found her in the car port beside Dad's shop. The border collie did not eat the chickens; he only chased them down to kill them. Fat Feet had hated being handled before, but now when I touched her she raised her head and looked at me and slowly put her head back down. She made low sounds, like the raw material for her normal clucks. I had a vague impression of blood among her white feathers. I told Mom—expecting, I guess, that she could do something to save Fat Feet. She told me to leave the bird alone and let her die.
I couldn't. I went back again and again and stroked her feathers, and she raised her head more feebly each time, and the weird monotone she made grew softer as the afternoon went on. I said things to comfort her, though all promises at this point had to be empty.
Back in the yard I told the border collie to go away. He licked my hand. He was big enough to be an adult, but, as my neighbor had told me, he was still a puppy, and killing was his way of playing.
I went back to the car port and found Fat Feet dead. The next day I told my second-grade teacher about the episode. She asked why I hadn't grabbed the hen up and put her in the freezer.
Peck and the border collie were good dogs, but imperfectly trained, each killing certain animals we humans would have preferred they didn’t touch. My mother taught me, in effect, that dogs hunt by instinct; my neighbor’s comment about training taught me that instinct can be shaped to suit our owns needs. I didn’t really understand the border collie’s herding behavior, but that, too, is important: it’s an example of an instinct heightened and refined so that it lingers through generations, though it dissipates when we stop making dogs mate within their own breeds. In fact it is a modification of hunting behavior, the pursuit warped so that capture is less important than the chase itself.
In much of the world—the parts where people have extirpated the large native predators—the dog is the most dangerous large animal except for the human being. In the US, for example, an estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur each year. These bites cause some 800,000 people per year to seek medical help, nearly half of them at emergency rooms. The US government’s Centers for Disease Control, which is the source of these statistics, puts the annual death rate from dog attacks at about a dozen. Other Western countries have similar rates. In the UK, postal workers alone are attacked by dogs at a rate of nearly five thousand a year.
People view most of these incidents as something of a different order from, say, an attack by a crocodile or bear. It is this very difference in perception that allows dogs to be a danger. Because we perceive them as belonging among us, we are more vulnerable to them and more frequently hurt by them. Of course, this is only true in gross numbers. The average dog is unlikely to hurt a person, and most bites are minor events.
The most serious attacks tend to involve children (who comprise half the victims of medically significant bites) and old people. These victims are, of course, less able to defend themselves once an attack is launched, but that's only part of the reason why they are disproportionately victimized. The main reason lies in the social structure of wolf packs.
The dog, despite the remarkable diversity of its body types, is simply a kind of wolf. Wolf packs are structured partly according to a dominance hierarchy, with stronger, more intimidating animals taking roles of privilege and leadership. These roles within a pack are always subject to revision. A low-ranking wolf can improve his standing by out-fighting or cowing a higher-ranking one. In the right situation, a wolf will instinctively attack a pack mate of higher standing who looks weak, even if only momentarily. For example, if a wolf is injured in a hunt, he becomes a target of his social inferiors.
A domesticated dog seems to see itself as a low-ranking member of human society. Most dogs settle happily into their subordinate roles, once those roles are made clear to them. But this is not always the case. Sometimes dogs well past puppyhood try to rise socially by hurting children. I have known badly-trained puppies to constantly rough up the youngest children in a house. The puppy is trying to improve his rank by establishing his dominance over the child. I’ve even known badly trained puppies to attack the adults in a household when they bend to pick something up. Bending over seems to the dog a sign of weakness or submission.
A setter I knew had lived amicably with my friends for years. One day he approached the four-year-old girl who was just tall enough to look him in the eye. He opened his mouth and seized her face. Her father kicked the dog and pursued it into the woods. The girl was left with a scar on her lip. The family was broken up, the human members remaining, the setter exiled to live with other people. Traumatic as it was for all concerned, this scenario is commonplace. Fifty percent of dog bites to children are on the face. It is the eyes that provoke them; a direct gaze is a claim of social superiority, and the dog may challenge that claim from the weakest member of a human pack.
Old people are vulnerable when they appear infirm. An unsteady walk, for example, is a classic mark of weakness in wolf society; it will often draw a challenge. Possibly a quavering voice strikes a dog's ear as a similar mark.
Some dogs are, of course, bred for attack. Just as the border collie I knew would try to herd children, running alongside us to control our paths, other dogs have a heightened desire for inflicting injury. This is simply a different part of the hunting protocol brought to the fore. We humans have kept attack dogs since prehistoric times. The benefit to the wolves was the opportunity of eating human refuse; the benefit to the humans was the wolves' sensory adaptation to the dark. Wolves could hear or smell danger and give warning. They did this, of course, for their own benefit. But gradually the cultures of wolf and human integrated more fully, and the wolf began to serve not just as warning, but sometimes as actual guard, attacking other creatures that invaded a camp. Eventually dogs were bred specifically for this purpose, and they could be made to attack another creature solely for human benefit. For example, a dog does not gain by attacking a bear. Wolves generally do so only if their numbers are strong enough to give them a strong chance of victory. But dogs have been trained to attack bears in defense of humans, or even for human amusement.
Similarly, dogs can be bred to attack invading humans; and, by a very slight extension, they can be induced to selectively attack humans who are not invading. In Medieval Europe, great mastiffs were used in combat. They could disembowel men or horses; they could run beneath the horses with vessels of fire strapped to their backs.
Dogs were invaluable tools of colonialism. Columbus used them as attack animals to help eradicate the Taino people of Hispaniola. In the US, this colonial use of dogs continues. Histories are full of cases in which white settlers trained dogs to attack Native Americans, or white Southerners trained dogs to attack African-Americans. When race riots broke out in the 1960s, many white Americans acquired German shepherds. They’d seen police turning shepherds on black rioters.
Open warfare, conquest, riot control, racist oppression, and territorial defense do not exhaust the violent uses to which we humans have put dogs. There’s also torture. At Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, American interrogators threatened prisoners with attack dogs, the objectives including the amusement value of making prisoners soil themselves. Dogs were used as weapons of torture against political prisoners by a Uruguayan regime of the 1970s and by Robespierre’s revolutionary government.
It’s difficult to nail down the dangers of specific breeds. News reports often, and without sufficient evidence, blame the breeds considered dangerous at the time. Today, for example, pit bull terriers and rottweilers take the blame for attacks from all sorts of dogs. In the past, Doberman pinschers and German shepherds were similarly blamed. These breeds can be more aggressive than others, but the degree of this difference may have been exaggerated.
Larger breeds are generally more dangerous ones than smaller ones, even when we haven’t designed them for attack. St. Bernards, which may weigh more than 200 pounds, have killed people. Dog breeders and owners have made various claims about the temperaments of different breeds. It is said with some evidence, for example, that chows begin life as suitable companions for children, but sometimes turn mean in their old age—old age for a chow being about eight years. The very process of creating a pure strain involves in-breeding, which tends to create unforeseen behavioral anomalies like inappropriate aggression.
Wolves eat a wide range of meat, from field mice to elk and moose. They succeed against larger, more powerful animals by teamwork. Typically, they separate a vulnerable member of a herd from the rest, then chase it in relays. Exhaustion helps bring the prey down; so does the traumatic injury of any bite the wolves can manage on the run. By making exhaustion part of the killing strategy, wolves avoid at least some of the kicks and gorings they might otherwise receive. They may finish the prey with a strangling bite to the throat. This strategy depends for its success on the fact that hoofed mammals typically don’t cooperate to save each other from predators. Each deer, for example, saves itself. There are some exceptions among the hoofed animals; bison defend their young against wolves by forming a circle, their horned heads outward. But a wolf pack’s success often depends on its superior teamwork.
The same factors are at play when wolves prey on humans. During the Black Death of the 14th century, wolves came out of the hills to feast on the bodies of the dead and the ill. The comrades who would normally protect these people were themselves disabled by the disease. Other disease outbreaks have provided similar opportunities for scavenging and mass predation on the weak or wounded, as have wars. This may be one way in which a population of wolves is educated to eat people. Famine offers the same opportunity. In northern China, famine killed nine to thirteen million people between 1876-1879. Wolves and dogs were minor contributors to this toll. Presumably they also scavenged among the abundant corpses. As is the case with many animals, wolves are not especially impressed by the distinction between preying on the weak and scavenging the dead. The custom among many human cultures of defending corpses against scavengers—by burying them, for example—probably has its roots in the need to keep predators from learning to take us as food.
But we don’t have to look to the great disasters of history to see these principles in play. Wherever human communities have trouble guarding their weakest members, wolves learn all over again that we’re viable prey. For example, wolves took 12 children in southeast Holland in 1810 and 1811 and injured others. Similar depredations occurred continually in Estonia during the 18th and 19th centuries, where 136 people were killed by wolves; in Vimianzo, Spain, in 1957, 1958, and 1959, where wolves attacked six children, killing two; in the Bihar region of India, where wolves took 60 children from 1993 to 1995; and in Uttar Pradesh, India, where, in a seven-month span of 1996, wolves attacked 76 children, killing at least 22. The common factor in these diverse times and places was an economic reality: unsupervised children had to do farm work, generally tending livestock. This economic factor helps to account for the variable danger of wolves across their range. In the last 50 years, wolves have killed hundreds of people in Asia, especially in India, where children remain a large part of the rural work force. In North America, where small children rarely have to work without supervision, the death toll for the same period was only one.
Seventeen are known to have died from wolf attacks in Europe during that period, all in rural areas where people must work or travel alone. Hans Kruuk reported a series of attacks in remote villages of Belarus in 1995-96. In one case, a 60-year-old man traveling alone between two villages went missing. Wolf tracks were found around a bloody patch of disturbed snow. Near the village of Hvoschno, a 55-yr-old woodcutter did not return from the forest one day. Parts of him were found surrounded by wolf tracks. In Usviatyda, a teacher kept a nine-year-old girl after school. It was dark by the time she set out for home alone. Her father became concerned and went looking for her. On a stretch of snow darkened by blood and marked by the prints of wolves, he discovered her severed head. He later killed the teacher.
The same agricultural situation prevailed in the most famous series of wolf attacks on record. From 1764-1767, something popularly called the Beast of Gevaudan took at least 64 people in the Cevennes Mountains of south-central France. Though this case is well documented, it is also cluttered with myth and exaggeration. There is the tale of a child decapitated in an instant, her head rolling along the ground; there is the tale of a boy’s shoes left standing in the road when the Beast took him. The fame of the wolf drew the notice of the king and an assortment of journalists. The depredations ended after two large but unremarkable wolves were hunted down and killed.
People brought dogs to Australia about 4000 years ago. The dogs developed into a breeding population in the wild. Feral dogs lose the characteristics of individual breeds, blending into a sort of standard wild dog form—about the size of a German shepherd, yellowish, with upright ears and long snouts. Australia’s feral dogs are called dingoes.
Like other canids, dingoes possess a social structure based on dominance. Their play is often a sort of ritual enactment of social rank. It can easily turn into a bid for promotion. Since they are capable of playing with humans, finding us sufficiently similar to be ranked, attacks sometimes evolve from playing. This happens fairly frequently because people purposely play with, photograph, and feed dingoes in parks, in the suburbs, and in the wilds. Besides social-climbing violence, dingoes occasionally treat children as prey. Like people, they need not act according to clearly separated motives.
In 1980 occurred the most famous of all dingo attacks on humans. At a campground near the tourist attraction Ayer's Rock, a dingo slipped into a tent and seized Azaria Chamberlain, who was less than ten weeks old. Lindy Chamberlain, the baby's mother, witnessed the attack, but arrived too late to stop it. Mrs. Chamberlain was subsequently charged with murder, then convicted on incompetent scientific evidence. She served four years in prison, was released, and eventually won a settlement for wrongful imprisonment. Books and films made the case more famous. Decades later, people still parody Meryl Streep's line from A Cry in the Dark: "The dingo took my baby."
The most astonishing aspect of this tragedy is the incredulity with which Mrs. Chamberlain's story was met. Much of it arose from the rarity of dingo attacks. Dingoes were already biting people in Australian parks, but somehow people tended to define this the same way we define bites by domestic dogs—as accidents that go with pets. A minor bite from, say, a nonvenomous snake almost always provokes more concern than a blood-drawing bite by a pet dog or cat. Just as the dingo sometimes accepts people into its own social ranking system, people have long since accepted dogs and cats into our family systems, and we react to their attacks as we would the naughty pranks of children. This reaction helps explain why most people were not particularly alarmed by the nips and bites of dingoes around campgrounds.
At the same time, a very different feeling was in play, one that cast the dingo, like the North American wolf, as a symbol of untainted nature, of predatory grandeur. People—both Australians and foreign tourists—saw the dingo as a national symbol, and the part of the nation it symbolized was its rugged natural heritage. One could argue the logic of this view, since the dogs are not native and not genetically distinct from Bassett hounds; but it was a feeling, rather than an argument. People want to touch nature, whatever that may mean. Just as tourists in the US feed bears from car windows, tourists in Australia feed dingoes, despite rules and warnings. A peculiar fallacy accompanies this urge to touch the wild: people feel, somehow, that nature will not hurt them because they are themselves approaching it with a kindred feeling.
So it was that the death of Azaria Chamberlain ran counter to prevailing beliefs—for some people, deeply held beliefs that may as well be called spiritual. It was the general view, even among some biologists, that large predators do not view human beings as prey. The idea that our efforts to touch the wild would result in the killing of a baby was shocking, sacrilegious. There’s a contradiction in valuing a predator for its death-dealing powers and simultaneously believing those same predators harmless, but I frequently find these opposed beliefs cohabiting a single human head.
In the death of the baby, it seemed a moral imperative to find a human culprit. Otherwise, nature itself was something different than we’d like to believe.
In 2001, dingoes attacked two brothers, aged 9 and 7, on Fraser Island, part of a national park. The younger brother was injured, the elder killed.
Occasionally my childhood nights were shattered by shouting and gunfire and the panicked racket of the chickens. I would rise from my bed, pleased at the excitement, to see my father standing on the porch in his underwear holding a thirty-thirty. His shots brought Mr. Peck and our two younger dogs growling to his aid. Somewhere out there the coyote that had meant to take a chicken went hurling into the night. Usually the coyote wasn’t hurt; he was too fast for the dogs, and my father couldn’t see him in the dark and could only fire in the air to scare him.
I also knew coyotes from their midnight songs and the flensed bones they left behind. In my childhood, we saw coyotes as distinct from dogs. So did the scientists. Nowadays we know they belong to the same species. They are both wolves imperfectly adapted to the presence of people. The coyote is a small subspecies of wolf, generally weighing less than 50 pounds. It adapts to diverse environments. In rural areas where people routinely shoot at them, coyotes almost never attack people except when rabid. In that setting, people come into conflict with coyotes mostly when protecting livestock.
In recent decades, however, coyotes have proved capable of living in suburbs and even within cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. Most dangerous encounters occur in the suburbs, where coyotes preying on cats and small dogs meet people ill-armed to deal with them. Dozens of attacks have been documented in the US. As with dingoes and domestic dogs, most of these encounters resulted in nothing more than minor bites. Some attacks on small children were clearly attempts at predation. In Glendale, California, in 1981, a coyote fatally broke the neck of a three-year-old girl.
The urban coyote is dangerous because it’s become habituated: it meets the scent and sight of people often without dire consequences. Experts note that killing these bold coyotes probably wouldn’t help. It would merely open their territories for different coyotes to move in. What would help, ironically, is shooting at them and missing often. Canids pass their knowledge to their young. If we kill a few, but leave most of them alive to teach their offspring we’re dangerous, then humans, pets, and coyotes could all occupy the same territory more amicably. It’s too bad the unfettered use of guns in suburbs would create far worse problems.
Habituation also leads to danger when dogs breed with wolves or coyotes. Because these three animals are not really distinct species, they can mate and produce viable offspring. Their matings are unpredictable: sometimes they simply prey on each other instead. Sometimes wolves mate with dogs, then kill and eat them. In fact, the red wolf of Texas and Mexico, once regarded as a separate species, is now recognized as a hybrid of wolf and coyote. In any event, hybrids are common, and sometimes breeders produce them on purpose. There’s a brisk pet trade in hybrid animals. A wolf-dog can be a volatile combination of wild and domestic traits, as comfortable around people as a dog, but as prone to dominance-brawling as a wolf. They have killed several people.
In 1833, a single wolf went on a rampage in Wyoming, biting dozens of people and killing 13. It was a clear case of rabies. The history of the Old West is sprinkled with such accounts—a mad wolf traveling scores of miles in a day, killing cattle and dogs and people, leaving many of the survivors to suffer the disease themselves.
Because of our close relationship, dogs share more diseases with us than most animals do. They play a part in the transmission of diseases as diverse as plague and anthrax, and they spread such parasites as fleas, mites, and worms. But rabies is the greatest danger canids pose. They are the major reservoir of the disease worldwide.
The disease, whether in human or other animal, progresses thus: The virus spreads from the bite wound into the surrounding muscle tissue, where it reproduces, gathering its strength. This latent period may last days, months, or even years. Then the viruses migrate to the nerves near the wound. The wound, though long since healed, may itch, burn, and tingle. The viruses travel along the nerves toward the spinal chord and brain. It may take them a few days or a few months to reach these central locations. When they do, the outward symptoms hit, prompted by the sudden swelling of the brain and spinal chord. In dogs, the behavior becomes depressed; their human companions can hear the change in the tenor of their barking. In humans, there is a battery of symptoms that might go with almost any illness—fever, headache, nausea, malaise, stiffness, sore throat. There are also more troubling symptoms: an excess of saliva, pupils wide like those of an addict in withdrawal, an intolerance to heat, cold, noise, light. This phase lasts a few days at most.
Next is the famous part of the disease, the mad phase. It does not occur to everyone. The mad phase is unknown in some animal species, and with some strains of the virus; beyond that there is blind luck to tell whether you will get it. In people, it comes in the form of insomnia, confusion, delirium, hallucinations, convulsions, psychotic fear, and yes, foaming at the mouth. In canids, the mad phase sometimes includes chewing, an urge to eat anything in reach, even inedible things. The wild attacks come now. To the extraordinary stamina of the wolf or dog is added an utter disregard for its own safety. Every moving thing it sees will suffer.
Foxes are too small to see even young children as prey, but they become dangerous during the mad phase of rabies. They come into yards to attack people. In 2007, a gray fox attacked a woman in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, as she went to a neighbor’s house. She repelled the attack, but it was renewed moments later when she returned home. This time she used a mop to defeat the attacker, which fled to a nearby house. There it entered unbidden and did battle with the two resident canids. A human inhabitant of the house took shelter in a bedroom. The dogs killed the fox. Another spectacular attack took place in 2008, when a fox seized an Arizona jogger. Knowing she’d want the fox tested for rabies, she ran a mile with it clamped onto her arm, then tossed it into the trunk of her car and drove to the hospital. When the trunk was opened, the fox bit an animal control officer.
The mad victim, canid or human, cannot drink, not even his own saliva—the attempt at swallowing makes his throat spasm. The sight of water can make him panic and gasp. He feels he is choking, and he is: the neurological mechanisms that time our breathing and drinking and eating, that keep us safe without our notice, are breaking down. The victim may die now, during this period of wildness. If he lives long enough, he lapses suddenly into lassitude. Paralysis takes him entirely, and he dies when it closes down his breath.
Without treatment, the mortality rate is 100%. A vaccine is effective if administered promptly, but even with treatment, only a handful of people have survived once symptoms appeared. Worldwide, some 50 thousand people a year die of rabies. In some nations it remains among the most feared diseases. China, for example, ranks it among the top three human-killing infectious diseases. In the US, where dogs are routinely vaccinated, it claims only one or two people a year. Americans are more likely to get the disease from skunks, bats, raccoons, and foxes.
But it is the madness of dogs that has bitten most deeply into our psyches. What rabies taught us in the recesses of history is our fundamental equality with the canid: it makes dog and man, or wolf and man, equal, both reducible to savagery. A dog can revert to the wild, and so can a man, a woman, a child. Perhaps this is the basis for the myth of the werewolf.
Excerpted from Deadly Kingdom/ Gordon Grice. Copyright © 2010 by Gordon Grice. Excerpted with permission by Dial Press.