Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time
Journalists Wanted: Must be willing to dispense with business attire, order drinks in multiple languages, and be open to the possibility of monkeys flinging excrement at your head.
That is the cheeky invitation put forth in Richard Conniff's witty and thoroughly self-deprecating collection of essays, Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff With Animals. Conniff, a widely published science writer, is the author of such provocatively titled books as The Ape in the Corner Office: How to Make Friends, Win Fights, and Work Smarter by Understanding Human Nature. In the stories in Piranhas (most of them previously published), he leads readers around the globe for encounters with exotic animals and the humans who study them.
Conniff debunks many of our misguided ideas about the animal world. He rehabilitates the tattered image of the endangered wild dog: they do travel in packs, but they also practice "family values to a degree that would please, or possibly shame, our leading politicians." Do you fear being killed by a swarm of flying insects? Not to worry; only about 40 people die annually in the United States from such attacks. Are termites threatening to eat you out of house and home? Just remember: "If termites weren't out there breaking down dead trees and other plant material and returning nutrients to the soil, new trees could not live, nor could we." Conniff also quotes two primate researchers who have come to a decidedly non-anthropomorphic view of monkeys and apes. "They're not furry little humans," one tells him. "They're just monkeys."
Along the way, Conniff offers fun facts about the creatures he meets. In a chapter on horseshoe crabs, one learns that the animal "has 10 eyes of varying complexity, including one in the tail and two on its underside near the mouth." Spiders use as many as 3,000 vibration sensors to monitor what's going on around them, and their webs are works of wonder, something Conniff learns the hard way when he tries to construct his own between two climbing walls at the local YMCA.
If Conniff is determined to press a theme amid the accounts of his many whacked-out adventures, it's that scientists are people too, full of flaws, humor, and passions. An American lepidopterist once named an entire butterfly genus Gretchena -- including the species Gretchena delicatana ("delicate") and Gretchena dulciana ("sweet") -- after a woman he presumably adored.
Despite the book's gory moments, the irreverent tone of Piranhas suggests that nothing truly life-threatening can happen to a journalist in the wild. Perhaps Conniff's most compelling point about his line of work is that it "offers moments of sublime beauty most people only get to dream about." After traveling with him from Madagascar to Costa Rica to the blue-blooded environs of Cape Cod, most readers would be hard-pressed to disagree.