“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 already lost, 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 farmhouse. 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.
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. 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. Our home in the Oklahoma Panhandle offered daily lessons in biology: a two-headed Hereford calf at the local museum, plagues of grasshoppers and jackrabbits, mastodons dug out of the fields, the tracks of Allosaurs found in stone. One summer when I was 10, 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.
Of course those crickets were really harmless, like most of the animals I watched. But the dangerous ones kept a special fascination for me. As an adult, I wrote magazine stories about obviously dangerous animals like cougars and surprisingly dangerous ones like armadillos, which can give you leprosy if you eat them. They can also scratch you, but that was my own fault for picking the thing up. In my first book, The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators, I wrote about my own encounters with rattlesnakes and coyotes.
It was a happy coincidence when one day a dusty bookshop yielded two classic surveys of my favorite subject. Roger Caras’s Dangerous to Man (1964) was full of quotes from scientists; James Clarke’s Man Is the Prey (1969) was a spicier volume of anecdotes. They were both well-researched and interesting books, and they both had it all wrong.
That’s not a knock on Clarke and Caras. They’d done their homework. It was the world that had changed. It was no longer true, for example, that cougars didn’t consider people prey. A few famous fatalities made that clear. There were more people spread over larger areas, and relations between the species had changed. Science had made progress, too: now we knew about the surprisingly dangerous venoms of komodo dragons and hobo spiders. And then there were the changes in people. It’s become surprisingly common for suburban Americans to own monkeys and chimpanzees, despite the tendency of these primates to bite off human fingers.
What I wanted was a new bestiary for the 21st century. And I wanted to be the one to write it. It took me seven years to finish Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals. There was some unusual research. I stuck my arm into the flensed skull of an alligator to see how it felt. I searched for the black bear my neighbor spotted on her morning jog. I read things in medical reports I’d rather forget, and I learned all over again how gorgeous even the humblest animals can be. And in the end, I saw animal attacks in a new light, not just as interesting and disturbing events in their own right, but also as products of poverty, war and environmental carnage. It’s always been this way for me: looking at other animals is my way of looking at us.
Photo credit: Parker Grice