What do you believe about animals? Are animals capabale of even a rudimentary form of consciousness? Or are any living creatures other than human beings merely creatures of biology and instinct – driven by what is hardwired into their DNA and genetic history as a species?
To put it more succinctly, is a tiger capable of murder?
I venture to say that, at least to a certain extent, John Vaillant thinks so. In his recently published book The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, Vaillant tells a true story of death and destruction – both of tigers and men, of nations and nature. The complete facts are, and will remain forever, somewhat murky. From all appearances, a poacher in Russia’s hardscrabble Far East – Markov – managed to wrong an Amur tiger in some way. Whether he helped himself to meat from the tiger’s kill or in some manner injured the tiger is beside the point. The point remains that a tiger appears to have intentionally sought out Markov, stalked him, ambushed him and then eaten him – all with very purposeful and identifiable intent.
Vaillant’s book explores the subtleties of Markov’s story and its intersection with the tiger’s story – two creatures moving in overlapping worlds who collide violently after a lifetime of silently passing each other by. Vaillant weaves the threads of indigenous wisdom, evolutionary biology, political science, environmentalism and cultural anthropology together into a tale that is “Wild Kingdom” meets Sherlock Holmes.
I, for one, know that I came away convinced that Markov’s tiger foe committed nothing short of murder – if murder is to be defined as killing with intent. But then again, what does that say about Markov’s alleged killing of other tigers, not just for meat but for the black market? I am left with the unsettling possibility that Markov is a murder as well.
Another recent non-fiction title that probes the depths of human-animal relationships and the true nature of the wild is Thomas French’s Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives. Anchored by the story of Tampa, Florida’s Lowry Park Zoo, French’s book ranges far afield – from Swaziland to Panama and back again – as it explores the contradictions inherent in the “freedom” of the wild and the necessity of captivity to the continued existence of numerous species on the brink of extinction.
Both The Tiger and Zoo Story are challenging books, and both could be very upsetting to those sensitive to the plight of animals and less than sympathetic to their human brethren in contrast. But both are thoughtful and thought-provoking, eschewing platitudes and easy answers in pursuit of a deeper understanding of ourselves, our animal family and our planet.
Series updates: I have eight pages left in Pray for Silence, the second Kate Burkholder book by Linda Castillo! It’s really a good story. Perhaps not quite as strong as the first, but still a noble sophomore effort. I hope to see the characters propelled forward a bit more forcefully in future books, and she could return to fleshing out some of the details of the supporting cast – they make the books more human and more interesting. Off to finish those eight pages NOW!