David Quammen, “Monster of God” (2003)

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m not a big fan of the subtle anthropomorphically-tinted view of nature often found in discourse, especially environmental discourse. I think it is unnecessary, quasi-New Age nonsense that robs the natural world of much of its majesty and puts humanity at an unjustifiable distance from the rest of the universe. Thankfully, this is something Quammen avoids in Monster of God – while he’s certainly interested and sympathetic with the world’s alpha predators, his text is light, non-reverential. It’s precisely because he’s interested in these animals and their relationship with humans that he can’t “sentimentalize” them – because sometimes that relationship is violent, and involves large carnivorous animals killing and eating people. That’s part of the fun, isn’t it? They’re the very real incarnations of the terrible monsters of our imaginations, which is why there are several tangents about the monsters of various cultural legends and (in the final section) of movies; they are simultaneously our victims and our victimizers, and have been so for millennia. There’s certainly something to be awed here – but it’s completely balanced out by the realization that this is nature at its basest, which Quammen wholeheartedly embraces.

Quammen’s approach to the material also reflects one of the sub-themes of the book – which a class-focused look at that human/man-eater relationship, well-communicated by the down-to-earth, empathetic view. In every section of the book, he talks to a group of people who are forced by tradition or circumstance to make a living alongside these animals, almost always low-income farmers – and it’s in these frank conversations where we learn that it’s hard to see the majesty of the predators when they eat your livestock, or your dog, or your family. Even so, it’s not always a wholly negative relationship being portrayed here – many of locals seem to have high regard for these animals, many having a religious tradition that does so (although there might be some problems there as well – Quammen mentions that while the North Australian aborigines he talked to were part of a group that see the gigantic Saltwater Crocodile as their chosen spirit animal, that can put them at odds with other aboriginal groups who do not, and might not be as willing to overlook crocodile attacks) or simple respect for nature. Not that their views are shown to matter in the bigger picture, as the animals being discussed (the Asiatic Lion, the Romanian Brown Bear, the Siberian Tiger, and the aforementioned Saltwater Crocodile) are or were heavily endangered, and are often government-protected in some way. This leads to another relationship in the book – between the locals and the environmental agencies tasked with monitoring and protecting these animals for various reasons. In the case of the bears and the crocodiles, the reasons are so they can sustain themselves by selling off the license to shoot those animals for fun and profit. It’s a cold, hard reality about how endangered animal protection often has to operate – and it seems especially sad in the instance of the Romanian park ranger who watches over the bears and even gives them names. Both the locals and those experts and government employees make up a colourful cast of the book – an amiable bunch, as lovingly-portrayed by Quammen, quirks and all, as the animals.

But what about that class focus (as well as the profit motive seen in the government protection) I mentioned? This is an especially interesting observation the author makes – tyng the ancient tradition of the great monster-slaying hero like Gilgamesh and Beowulf to the more recent tradition of imperialists and tyrants, who see themselves in the same way. The idea is that these “real monsters” are seen by those seeking power, especially the white explorers from the past couple centuries, as something to be conquered and used to subjugate the locals who fear/revere them. So warriors once proudly boasted about how many lions they’ve killed; so Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausecu made a habit of shooting bears (with assistance). And this trend continues to this day – as Quammen notes, the go-ahead to shoot many of these dangerous beasts ain’t cheap, certainly out of the price range of the people who have to put up with them, and making the act of killing the biggest-and-baddest of the animal kingdom a “luxury” of sorts to the rich and powerful. The imperialist angle of it maybe only be in the background these days, but the class issues are still all too clear: killing man-eating critters is something for rich people to do for fun. And those rich people are the ones Quammen doesn’t talk to – we get the perspective of the farmers, the government scientists, the park rangers, and the guys who make a living pickling crocodile heads for biker gangs; but the people who pay to go out and shoot the things are kept at a distance.

But the book is not just putting them at a distance – it’s also doing the same to the readers, as Quammen recognizes that he himself, and the English-speaking audience, are not separated from this class divide, either. The fascination with the alpha predators shared by Quammen, the imperialist hunters, and the Western culture at large all originate far from the actual presence of these animals. Of course, we have some big predators over here, but none on the level the lion, crocodile, or tiger; as well, mass urbanization has made it so that our interaction with predators big and small are kept to a minimum (although not entirely – back to the bears, one chapter chronicles a neighbourhood in Romania where bears regularly raid people’s garbage, much to the delight of tourists; but, as noted in some of the stories of grizzly attacks in Yellowstone, this crossing of the urban threshold may not be a good thing). We the readers are implicated in this – our interest in or even affection for these animals often goes without really considering the people, who as mentioned are usually poor farmers, who have to put up with them. It’s a human socio-political ecosystem, whose own history is intertwined with that of the animal’s. And of course, it’s all these considerations, the human animal and the non-human animal, taken in tandem that makes Monster of God so compelling.

The preservation of the alpha predators is certainly something that Quammen is advocating, with the final section providing some of the experiments that show how taking the top off a ecosystem can be incredibly damaging (which the book portrays mainly by conflation, but can be seen directly in the depletion of sharks and the rising numbers of jellyfish in the world’s oceans). But that’s the scientifically rational why, which is only part of the argument. It’s made quite clear that the developing human culture has always been taken with these animals, and if current trends continue, we would be losing something. That sounds very close to that sentimentalizing, but in this case, it feels earned – these aren’t prettied-up images of nature, and the book seems to accept that tough decisions must be made in some cases to keep these things alive (like the bear and crocodile hunting). It’s less about telling us why we should love these things, but why we do anyway. Humanity and the great monsters of nature are an inseparable pair, it seems.


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