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In Hindsight

Signs of the Beast

Yesterday’s news is today’s birdcage liner—no longer. Nicole Pasulka begins our new regular feature, reviewing the past month’s headlines. For June 2007: four weeks of staggering animal attacks.

By the time today’s big stories go to print, we’ve already forgotten what happened yesterday. Looking back at recent news can seem a bit like playing out the World Series after your team’s already won four games. It’s over, right? But when it comes to animals tearing into humans, not necessarily. There’s a lot to be learned from hindsight; at least, there’s a lot to be learned about how dark and menacing animal attacks can get. June 2007 wasn’t just the month when General Pace was forced to resign from his post as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Paris went to prison not once, but twice, it was also the month when an ark’s worth of animals got their attack on. As the world plods ineffectively through phony conversations about “curbing global warming” and “protecting threatened wildlife,” the frequent victims of resource shortages and rapid geographic expansion roared their terrible roars.

Nature battled it out with people, and nature occasionally won: Like a scene from a horror movie, when, on June 17th, a black bear dragged an 11-year-old boy from his tent at a Utah campsite and killed him. Then on June 24th, an ex-Marine killed a black bear with a log when it came after his kid. These nightmares gave me a newfound fear of the beast and a strong desire to make sense of it all. In June 2007, animals attacked people on land, at sea, and from the air. I can’t say why these attacks happened, all I can do is tell you how they occurred.


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June is the perfect time for outdoor recreation. Before the heat of July creeps in and everyone takes solace in air-conditioned cars and homes, we relish our ability to relax in the breezy sunshine. However, it can be difficult to enjoy yourself while boating if you’re constantly worried about an eight-foot sturgeon slapping you unconscious. The most recent sturgeon attack occurred on June 24th, when a sturgeon hit a six-year-old girl and broke her leg, and sturgeons faced off with boaters ten times last year. Perhaps some anxiety may be necessary. Sport fishermen and women in Humboldt County, Cal., have learned from experience to keep hands away from a squid’s tentacles and mouth. Why the mouth? It’s like having your fingers caught in a pair of slimy, panicking pliers.

Whether we’re playing outdoors or on our way to work, we’ve come to think of animals as a part of the scenery. And few are taken for granted more than squirrels. They run around in trees, chase each other in parks, and generally stay out of the way. Until one bites three people in quick succession, or causes a widespread power outage in Florida, or starts a house fire in an Illinois home not once, but twice, no one really pays attention to a squirrel. Unlike an elephant, which is difficult to ignore and even harder to forget, especially after you’re gored by its tusks while on a morning jog through the Kenyan brush.

Despite their intimidating physical presence and their status as protected wildlife, the demand for elephant meat in Central Africa is rapidly growing. A great deal of our connection to animals centers around eating them dead, or, in the case of the Japanese cuisine Ikizukuri, disturbingly alive, twisting tentacles and all. Though it turns out that when an animal attacks you, it may lose some of its appeal as an entree. Who among us ever imagined that a wild turkey flying through the car windshield would ruin Thanksgiving dinner? It did for a New York woman when her car collided with the bird on June 12th. Scarred and shaken, she plans to “never eat a bit of turkey again in [her] life.”

Until one bites three people in quick succession, or starts a house fire in an Illinois home not once, but twice, no one really pays attention to a squirrel.If you suspected a lesson, you were right. There are things we can learn from our violent and painful encounters with animals. As random as nature may seem, take comfort in the possibility that you can improve your relationship with the wild. For example, attempt snake-human harmony, though avoid becoming “nature vigilantes” who preemptively kill snakes in your backyards. Also remember that just because you’re holding the snake, you don’t get to decide who it bites: Human-snake harmony was deeply threatened when a South Carolina resident went after another man with a cottonmouth water moccasin. Smart because it’s one of the “most venomous snakes out there,” but stupid because it bit him instead of the intended victim. Keep this logic in mind next time you want to stab someone: Avoid using a swordfish’s head as two Australian men did on June 12th, and ditto for deer’s antlers. Next time, use a knife; preferably one without an ivory handle. Like other reform movements, small sacrifices will likely add up and make a big difference over time.

So what’s to be done? You can’t avoid rabid bobcats and coyotes by staying at home; in late May, a bobcat jumped onto a Utah man’s porch and forced him into a wrestling match to the death (man won, but at what cost?), and on June 15th, a coyote chased an old woman’s dog before biting her legs and arms (this is why I live in New York City: No coyotes. Well, some.) Talk about inhumane. A hat with nails sticking out of it may protect one Chinese man’s head from a pecking owl angry at the man for moving its nest, but it’s clearly not fashionable, and the owl still wants to peck his brains out.

Putting animals in zoos or keeping them in captivity are possible ways to combat animal ire. Not petting zoos, though. Those seem to have an impossibly high E. coli transmission risk. But regular zoos could even be better for the beast. White rhinos haven’t fared very well in the wild, at least not when humans are about—as of early June all but one have been killed by poachers.

Perhaps animals in captivity are trustworthy animals. Oh, but then I’m forgetting the lion and tiger in Mexico City that mauled their caretaker. And the zookeeper in Denver who was killed this month by a jaguar when she failed to lock the door to its cage. Unfortunately, animals in captivity are still taken care of by people. And people are whom animals attack.

It seems that diligence, caution, and luck are the only ways to avoid conflict between man and beast, at least until we design robot zookeepers. But take heart: in June we learned that giant, invisible holes in the sand still claim more lives than shark attacks.


TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka