Paul Doiron here—
Before heading to Monhegan this past weekend—a fog-bound island off the Maine coast where you will always find yourself in need of a good book—I went looking for one to bring with me. I have a teetering pile beside my bed, but I was in a particularly dark mood, having just returned from Las Vegas (another story for another time), and I found myself rejecting one book after the other until my eye fell upon a paperback I had purchased over the winter and then forgotten about: The Book of Deadly Animals by Gordon Grice.
The title is literal. Grice’s book is a bestiary of just about every creature that predates on human beings. I bought it at Longfellow Books in Portland, because I always buy something whenever I set foot in an independent bookstore, and because of its amazing blurbs. How many paperbacks have endorsements from David Sedaris, Susan Orleans, Michael Pollan—and Bear Grylls?
It seemed like a good fit for me. I write crime novels about a game warden. Maine doesn’t have a great number of deadly animal species (although we have more than I realized, I now know), but I had ideas of working a killer moose or rabid coyote into some future book. I started reading the first night and couldn’t bring myself to stop. I don’t want to summarize, since Grice covers so much ground, but here are some of the things I learned:
- In the United States an estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur each year, causing about 800,000 ER visits (but only 12 deaths on average).
- Medieval mastiffs were bred to run into combat with vessels of fires on their backs to burn the undersides of horses (or just disembowel them with their teeth).
- In a 7-month span in 1996 in Uttar Pradesh, India, wolves attacked 76 children, killing at least 22 so forget all that gentle wolf stuff.
- A grizzly can fit a human head in its mouth for a bite, but if a person is lucky the skull slides out (minus the scalp) like a squeezed marble.
- The Champawatt tigress is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the most prolific animal killer of human beings ever documented. It took 200 victims in Nepal and another 236 in the Kumaon region of India.
- Hyenas can find prey by deduction, by following the flight patterns of vultures to injured animals.
- The species of shark that has almost certainly killed more people than any other is the little-known, deep-sea ocean whitetip, which participated in the famous massacre of the crew of the USS Indianapolis, in World War II, in which 875 sailors went into the water following a Japanese torpedo attack, and only 317 survived (and of those, 183 had lost some flesh to sharks).
- Prairie dogs spread the plague and armadillos make excellent hosts for leprosy.
- Cobras kill 10,000 to 20,000 people in India annually.
- The most formidable large predator in the world is the orca, or killer whale, which has been known to rip the tongues out of blue whales for the sheer hell of it, leaving the peaceful giants to bleed to death; leap onto the land to snatch a sunbathing seal; and hold great white sharks out of the water to “drown” the gill breathers in the air (before eating their livers).
I could go on with this litany of death, but instead I’ll just say: buy this book. Even if you’re not a mystery writer looking for elaborate plot devices that involve the use of poisonous boomslangs or chest-impaling hound fish, you’ll find Grice’s descriptions so macabre you never look at even the cuddliest of creatures the same way again.
For my part, I’m trying to come up with a way to pit Maine game warden Mike Bowditch against a rampaging orca in Passamaquoddy Bay. They’re occasionally spotted not far from Eastport. Watch out, Sarah Graves!