BOOKS: Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2010:

Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time:
My Life Doing Dumb Things With Animals
by Richard Conniff
W.W. Norton & Co. (500 5th Ave., New York, NY 10110), 2010. 304
pages, paperback. $15.95.

Swimming with Piranhas opens with author Richard Conniff and
a park ranger in Botswana looking for African wild dogs. Often
maligned, Lycaon pictus is more closely related to wolves than to
domestic dogs. As with wolves, Conniff explains, “humans
persecuted them into extinction over most of their range.” Only
about 5,000 remain. Playful and gentle with each other, African wild
dogs travel in packs and rarely come into contact with humans. They
have a highly evolved social structure. Despite efforts to protect
the remaining African wild dogs on wildlife preserves, they suffer
from fragmented habitat, diseases introduced by domestic dogs, and
continued hostility from livestock ranchers and herders. They often
end up as lion lunch, too.

A chapter called the King of Pain, about USDA entomologist
Justin O. Schmidt, is aptly named. Schmidt describes a man who
disturbed a hive of Africanized hybrid honey bees. The bees forced
the hapless invader to jump into a river. Every time he surfaced for
air, the bees attacked him, even digging into his mouth and scalp.
A doctor treated him for more than 2,000 stings.
As the book’s title, indicates, Conniff did swim with
piranhas, and escaped unharmed. “People in South America swim with
piranhas all the time and generally emerge intact,” Conniff writes.
Of the 40 or so known piranha species, only a handful are dangerous.
The red belly piranha is notorious as a maneater. Conniff observes,
though, that humans eat piranhas much more often than they eat us.
Hummingbirds, Conniff continues, are among “the smallest
warm-blooded animals on Earth,” but they are also among the meanest.
Some will knock each other out of the air and stab each other with
their bills over food. Fearless and opportunistic, hummingbirds
investigate “any potential source of food,” including insects as
well as nectar. Hummingbirds supposedly remember individual flowers
and come back to them when they produce more nectar.
Conniff takes us on a dynamic journey into the animal
kingdom, but I’m not sure I’d want to repeat all his actions, such
as sticking my hand into a fire ant mound. Reading his book was as
close as I wanted to get.
–Debra J. White

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