BOOKS: Fifty Animals that Changed the Course of History

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  October 2011:

Fifty Animals that Changed the Course of History
by Eric Chaline
Firefly Books (P.O. Box 1338,  Ellicot Station,  Buffalo,
NY  14205),  2011.  224 pages,  hardcover.  $29.95.

The title of Fifty Animals that Changed the Course of History will jar ANIMAL PEOPLE readers even before they open the book.  Both the title and text retain the convention,  fading out in recent decades,  of referring to animals as inanimate objects.  Fifty Animals Who Changed the Course of History would be biologically accurate.

Offered as a “guide to the animals that have had the greatest impact on human civilization,” Fifty Animals that Changed the Course of History includes species who are often considered edible,  are disease vectors,  or are used for transportation,  as a source of materials for making clothing,  or for other economic purposes.

Humans and animals,  including insects and fish,  share the earth,  but as author Eric Chaline’s categorizations of human/animal relationships indicate,  much of the sharing is involuntary on the part of the animals,  and involves suffering and exploitation. Chaline describes human/animal relationships as he finds them, mostly without question or challenge.  The chief value of Chaline’s research may be in illuminating aspects of the animal/human relationship which have been influential,  yet are often not widely known.

The Spanish fly,  for example,  is not a fly but a beetle. This species and many others have been imagined over the ages to have properties which “stimulate the human sexual appetite,”   as Chaline puts it.  Countless species have been hunted and killed for this purpose.  But the so-called Spanish fly could be said to have retaliated.  Found on shrubs and trees in central Asia and southern Europe,  the Spanish fly belongs to the blister beetle family.  These beetles secrete a chemical called cantharidin,  which upon contact with human skin can cause blister-like lesions.  The crushed and powdered remains of Spanish flies have long been alleged to have Viagara-like qualities.  Yet a dose of cantharidin large enough to arouse symptoms of sexual passion can also kill the users.  Unhappy wives in Renaissance Italy are said to have resorted to Aqua Tofana, a liquid including an overdose of Spanish fly,  to poison their husbands.

The rat section caught my notice,  as a former resident of New York City.  In the 1970s New York City subway trains were consistently late.  The trains and their tunnels were covered with graffiti.  Rats were everywhere.  However,  though rats can spread disease,  fleas were actually the primary vector for the Black Death during the Middle Ages.  Rats were among the most ubiquitous hosts for infected fleas,  but so were other rodents.  Panic-driven purges of cats encouraged rodents of all sorts to proliferate.

The cow is “probably the most important edible,  practical and commercial species featured in this book,”  says Chaline.  If cows suddenly disappeared,  life for millions of people around the world would turn upside down.  Cattle appear to have been domesticated separately in Africa,  India,  and China,  thousands of miles and years apart,  but all domestic cattle nonetheless trace their ancestry to the now extinct auroch,  which originated in India before spreading into Europe.  The last known auroch died in Poland in 1627.

Fifty Animals that Changed the Course of History also includes fascinating investigations of animals such as the leech and their relationship with humans.  Each section briefly explains the history and current status of the animal,  with photos,  key dates, and mentions of people associated with the animal. -Debra J. White

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