BOOKS: Monster of God
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2003:
Monster of God:
The man-eating predator in the
jungles of history and the mind
by David Quammen
W.W. Norton & Co. (500 5th Ave., New York, NY 10110), 2003.
384 pages, hardcover. $26.95.
Certain to be classified by most librarians as “natural
history,” Monster of God has already been mistaken by many reviewers
as a screed in defense of “sustainable use.”
Monster of God is actually a book mostly about faith,
exploring the influence of the human evolutionary role as prey upon
concepts of religion, and of the more recent human ascendance as a
top predator on our ideas about conservation.
David Quammen is profoundly skeptical that humans and
predators capable of eating us are capable of coexisting for longer
than another 150 years. He presents a strong circumstantial case
that the protohuman concept of God evolved as a psychological
response to swift and seemingly random predator strikes. Sacrifice,
Quammen suggests, began as appeasement of predators, and in some
remote places continues as such.
Others have written extensively about the emergence of
sacrifice as the ritual sustenance of a learned priestly class,
coinciding with the rise of animal husbandry, and have discussed
especially the role of religion in rationalizing slaughter. Without
taking much note of of this, Quammen explores the role of the
earliest monarchs in recorded history as lion-slayers, pointing out
that the dawn of civilization coincided with the emergence of humans
as quasi-apex predators, able at last to do with weapons what
natural predators do with tooth and claw.
Quammen goes on to trace the rise of Christianity on every
continent parallel to the introduction of superior weapons,
demonstrated between wars of subjugation against non-Christians in
countless episodes of dragon-slaying and trophy-shooting.
Christianity not only gave believers license to exterminate the
predators whom pagans appeased, but also provided the means to do so.
Quammen seems no more concerned that predator-killing is not
in the recorded theology of Jesus than most of the purported
followers of Jesus have been concerned that he told Peter to put away
his sword and in effect sacrificed himself to the predation of both
theocracy and secular government. To whatever extent an attitude
toward predation may be read into the words and deeds of Jesus, his
views appear most similar to those embodied in Hinduism, Buddhism,
and Jainism, which tolerate the existence of predators but recognize
an obligation to protect one’s flock and family.
Quammen explores that attitude among the Maldhari herders who
co-exist, somewhat uneasily, with the Asiatic lions of the Gir
forest in western India. Ancestrally and culturally related to the
Sindhi of Pakistan, and more distantly to the Bishnoi of Rajasthan,
the Maldhari mostly seem to accept that the price of their life in
the forest is that lions will eat some of their cattle, and that if
the lions find enough wild hooved animals to eat, they will eat
neither cattle nor humans. This understanding is encouraged to some
extent by recognition that if the Gir lions decline, the Indian
government under foreign pressure may resume efforts to evict all of
the Maldharis from the forest. Thousands were evicted, along with
their cattle, prior to the rise of the present Hindu nationalist
Much of Monster of God ponders the paradox that the Gir
forest lions, the saltwater crocodiles of eastern India and northern
Australia, and the brown bears of Romania have all been saved (so
far) chiefly by the interest of a few wealthy and well-connected
people in perpetuating their existence not as predators but as prey.
The Gir lions survived the 19th century only because they were so
coveted as trophies that one particular sultan saved their habitat.
Romanian brown bears survived the 20th century chiefly because the
dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu poured resources into breeding them and
protecting their habitat, reserving to himself the privilege of
semi-ceremonially massacring them as a frequent demonstration of his
potence. Saltwater crocs have recovered from the verge of extinction
in two of their most important habitats because of schemes to market
their hides–successful in Australia, a failure in India.
Quammen is quite uneasy about both the premises and practice
of “sustainable use,” and says so, several times. But Quammen is
even less hopeful that eco-tourism can provide an economic motive for
saving large predators.
In Africa, Quammen points out, where eco-tourism has
historically been most successful, the habitat of lions, cheetah,
hyenas and crocodiles is relatively open. The predators are easily
seen and photographed.
In India, conversely, good tiger habitat is notoriously
dense. Eco-tour promoters have learned that the surest way to
provide tiger sightings is to leave only narrow corridors of habitat
beside wild-looking jeep roads–which does not allow the few
remaining tigers to increase their numbers.
If eco-tourists require only the illusion of wilderness,
eco-tourism will preserve only quasi-zoos. Even Yellowstone National
Park, Quammen observes, is more-or-less a zoo, though in recent
years efforts have increased to expand the opportunities for grizzly
bears and wolves to migrate out of the protected parkland into the
less guarded national forests that adjoin the park.
Reviewing the data that Quammen presents, it is difficult
not to share his pessimism about the future of predators. Yet
Quammen has all but ignored the increasing success of international
efforts to restore predators, of every size.
Examples include the reintroductions of wolves to the
Yellowstone region, red wolves to the Southeast, and Mexican grey
wolves to the Southwest; the introduction of legal protections for
sharks in U.S., Australian, and Palauan waters; the recovery of
bald eagles and other raptors from near-annihilation by DDT; the
conquest of U.S. cities by pigeon-eating peregrine falcons; the
growing public appreciation of coyotes; the emergence of foxes and
fisher-cats as suburban species; the recovery of pumas throughout
much of North America; Chinese efforts to bring back tigers and
raptors; global restriction of the traffic in bear parts; and the
post-Free Willy! rise of the once hated “killer whale” to iconic
Quammen is correct that humans mostly love predators at a
safe distance, and that it is critical to give people who live and
work in proximity to predation as much security and economic reward
for tolerance as possible.
Yet one of the triumphs of science and civilization is that
predation is no longer a mystery, no longer an apparent instrument
of a vindictive and wrathful God. In coming to understand the
ecological role of predation, growing numbers of humans recognize
the “monsters of God” as some of the rarest miracles of
creation–like the late Tim Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, who were
recently killed by grizzly bears at the Katmai National Park &
Preserve in Alaska, after years of work to try to ease human fear of
As their longtime friend Paul Watson observed, to them the
greatest tragedy associated with their deaths would have been that
retrieving their remains led also to the deaths of the two grizzlies
who ate them. They did not volunteer to die, but volunteered to
live in proximity to grizzlies for thirteen and seven summers,
respectively, to show that it could be done.
In the same week a captive-bred white tiger mauled
entertainer Roy Horn of the long-running Las Vegas act Siegfried &
Roy. The mauling is expected to end more than 40 years of stage
demonstrations by Horn and his partner Siegfried Fischbacher of human
mastery over predators.
Over time, Siegfried & Roy themselves became leading
advocates of wild predators, and occasionally seemed to acknowledge
that their act had become an anachronism. Born a generation later,
they might have indulged their interest in predators as Treadwell
did, as wildlife filmmakers.
Other reviewers have mentioned the Roy Horn mauling as a
reminder that great predators are still “monsters of God,” no matter
how thoroughly caged and dependent upon human feeding. The real
reminder, however, may have been that great predators do not belong
caged and dependent.
The essence of wilderness, says Earth First! founder Dave
Foreman, is that something there can eat you.
Great predators need to roam, and many humans seem to have a
psychological need to venture at times into wilderness, to rekindle
for whatever reason our ancestral awareness that we are after all,
in Quabben’s words, “just another flavor of meat.”