The Lady, or the Tiger?

“There are always a few tigers roaming about Singapore,” the naturalist and evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace noted in the 1860s, “and they kill on an average a Chinaman every day.”* Not too long ago only slightly less shocking statistics prevailed over much of Southeast Asia, as indeed they still do in parts of India. Such figures give the impression that big predators and humans have waged an eternal, bitter struggle for survival. Yet as the nature writer and novelist David Quammen reveals in his latest book, Monster of God, the relationship between man-eaters and their potential prey is far more complex, interesting, and deeper than that simple conclusion suggests.

Anyone who has taken an African safari, or even visited a zoo, will know something of the relationship between our species and those that make us food. Their eyes stare with such engagement, readiness for action, and propriety as to be almost unbearable. The stark terror evoked by those burning bright eyes has, I suspect, been seared into our beings over countless generations of natural selection; for if our ancestors did not have fears they did not survive. Here I can speak from personal experience. In the 1980s I was a member of a committee charged with investigating the death of a zookeeper. The zoo’s facilities were old, the “carnivore house” a dark, dripping place. A narrow corridor painted with yellow lines on the floor led past the animals to a service area. Beyond those lines, the claws of bears and big cats could drag you to mouths waiting at the iron grills studding both walls. We were shown where the tiger had advanced on the young keeper as she photographed its cubs, all the while feeling secure in the knowledge that the mother was safely locked away. The tigress attacked from behind, its canines piercing the keeper’s skull and breaking her neck, but leaving her conscious as it dragged her around the cage like a limp doll. Another keeper tried to drive the animal off with a spade, and finally succeeded, but too late.

That terrifying knowledge was fresh in my mind as I walked down the corridor, passing the maze of ropes and counterweights that controlled the opening and closing of numerous doors and grills, trying to determine how the fatal accident had occurred. Suddenly the whole building shook and the air was filled with an indescribable sound as the iron grill before me was struck with the full force of a charging male lion. He was stopped there, a yard from my face, roaring furiously, blasting me with his wet breath, clawing at me through the bars. Caesar hated men, a keeper explained. During the twenty years I had worked in New Guinea I’d faced death on several occasions—seated in a failing aircraft, standing at the wrong end of a Papuan arrow—but this was different. This was a terror that could not be sublimated, diverted, or denied—a primal fear that simply takes you over.

Relatively few…

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