Death By Animals

Lives of the Predators
By Gordon Grice
Delacorte, 259 pp.

Predators and Prey in the Living World
By Christopher McGowan
Henry Holt, 272 pp.

There is an art to writing about science and nature, and like any art it permits different styles. Take these two specimens, two books with the same idea – and a darn good idea, too.

They are both about the wondrous kingdom of life on earth, but they focus specifically on death. They are about how creatures eat other creatures in order to survive, which means they are about fangs and claws, horns and poisons, the frenzy of the kill and the agony of the victim. These are nature books that literally cut to the chase. If they were TV documentaries, they’d melt the V-chip.

Christopher McGowan is curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and his The Raptor and the Lamb is a fine book, no question. It is like taking a tour through the hallways of the ROM itself with the most expert of guides, listening rapt as McGowan explains how, say, the boa constrictor in the glass diorama hunts and eats its prey.

Gordon Grice’s The Red Hourglass is a different type of book. It is like waking up inside the glass diorma with a boa constrictor coiling itself around your leg.

Both authors inspire awe at the terrible beauty of nature’s carnivores. Grice just manages to scare the bejeebers out of you while doing so.

McGowan is marvellous, for example, on how the big cats run down game on the African veldt, and how the lion’s strategy differs from the cheetah’s. But unless you live in Africa and happen to be a ruminant, the likelihood of running into a cheetah is relatively slim. Grice makes you think twice about what might be lurking behind those old paint cans in the corner of the garage. At least until the paranoia wears off, I’m not going anywhere near a cobweb without a pair of rubber gloves and a fly swatter.

McGowan is best at the deadpan description of the ecosystem’s natural-born killers. The cheetah, we learn, is a mostly solitary hunter capable of lightning bursts of acceleration and a top speed of almost 100 kilometres per hour. It ambushes its prey, either bringing its target down promptly or giving up the chase. Dogs, by comparison, hunt in packs and will run their prey into exhaustion through sheer stamina.

Grice deals with felines and canines too, but he’s best on the critters that make most people’s skin crawl: nasty little creepers with more than four legs, and anything that hisses, slithers or salivates neurotoxins. Nerves of steel and a big enough gun will handle a charging lion or a pack of hyenas, but there isn’t a black widow spider alive frightened or deterred by a firearm.

While McGowan maintains the informed, clinical gaze of the trained scientist, Grice – who teaches English at a community college in Kansas – brings an unbridled boyish enthusiasm to the carnage at hand. This is a guy who collects black widows and tarantulas (the title of the book is taken from the distinctive crimson marking on the widow’s belly), and who orchestrates macabre little tableaux in his basement terraria. At one point, he describes feeding a caterpillar called a tomato hornworm to a carabid beetle he’d captured in a jar, simply because he felt the caterpillar “was too stupid to live.” As wonderful as his book is, there are moments when one wonders if the author isn’t as creepy as the crawlies he keeps for company.

So, while The Raptor and the Lamb is informed and informative, there is nothing in it to match Grice’s detailed, seven-page description of the effects of a black widow bite on a human. In the 1920s, even expert opinion held that there were no venomous spiders in North America. So in 1933, a Saskatchewan physician named Allan Blair working in Alabama deliberately coaxed a widow to bite him, just to set the record straight. Grice’s account of Blair’s torment over the next three days – the venom almost killed him – is rich and horrifying and almost loving.

Perhaps the best indication of the difference between the two books is Grice’s passing mention of the fact that he keeps a tarantula named Harriet in a terrarium decorated with the skull of a dog and furniture from a niece’s dollhouse. “The sight of her crawling over the dog skull proved scintillating.” I may be wrong, but I suspect they’d frown on a diorama like that at the Royal Ontario

  • Globe and Mail June 20, 1998