John Jeremiah Sullivan's "Violence of the Lambs" (2008)
"Human history is mainly the history of human customs, and we know very little of animal history from this point of view. Nevertheless animals do change their customs."—John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, British Geneticst, What is Life?, 1947
"Animals are changing, and I cannot tell you why."—Inusiq Nasalik, 88-year-old inuit elder, September 6, 2004
Last year I was asked to write an article for this magazine about the future of the human race, a topic on which my sporadic descents to the crushing mental depths of pop-rock culture crit had predictably made me the go-to guy. Nonetheless I undertook in all good faith to fulfill the assignment. The future of the human race is something we ought to take seriously, since despite all the fortunes spent on those giant space-monitoring radio dishes and the exploratory satellites and whatnot, there exists not a shred of conclusive evidence to contradict the rational assumption that away from this blue ball we live on, the universe is an infinity of unfeeling matter. So let's keep this thing going, is my take.
Pursuing insight, I spent a couple of days at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University in England. I called the woman I'd been told was the most farsighted person at FEMA. I talked to any self-identifying and not instantly, obviously insane futurologist who'd answer a query—Bill Lilly at the New School for Human Advancement was especially accommodating. I spoke with someone at the Vatican. The Vatican actually has a future expert, essentially a house Book of Revelation wonk. In short, I want you to know that I tried and tried, for months, to write about something other than what I've ended up writing on here, a tangent that came up early in the research but immediately screamed career killer and was repeatedly shunted aside by this reporter in favor of things like out-of-control nanotechnology of the near future (which, you'll be delighted to hear, is something they're fairly concerned about at the Future of Humanity Institute). But as I tried every way I knew to find some legitimate half-truths about the future for you to read about on your flight to Dallas or wherever your loved ones live—and I do suggest that you visit them soon, as in this year, I really do—the problem became that people who make a profession of thinking seriously about the future won't really tell you anything that isn't cautious, hedged, and quadruple-qualified, because, as I came slowly to comprehend and deal with, no one knows what's going to happen in the future.
My surprise at this pretty obvious-seeming realization showed me the extent to which, thanks to Hollywood or my own paranoia or whatever, I'd unconsciously internalized a belief in the existence of some guy, some prematurely middle-aged guy, either Jewish or Asian (or, in the comedy version I sometimes screen internally, Irish), who sits in a room in the bowels of some governmental building and actually knows what's going to happen in the future, whose mutterings need to be heeded, whose moods must be tracked with concern if not alarm, and whose very existence is a cause all over the world of slight, constant anxiety, and properly so. Is this a dying spasm of the religion gene? Probably. All I know is that it came as a great liberation to me, having this creature expunged from my imagination, with his alert levels and his survival kits and all his total crap that he goes on about while with the left hand building nukes and starting wars. I reminded myself that incessant potential catastrophe is the human condition, is in fact the price of possessing consciousness, and I determined to live with greater ease from now on, and not to let anyone scare me about the future, because the truth is, the worst thing that could ever happen to you is death, and that's going to happen despite all your worry and effort, so it's simply irrational not to say fuck it. I'm not saying start chain-smoking cloves and having unprotected sex with seaport trannie bar girls, though neither am I saying to abjure those things if they're what make you feel most alive. I'm just saying, take courage. That and pretty much that alone is never the incorrect thing to do. And these thoughts were so edifying to me, and I really looked forward to sharing them with you, hoping they might lighten your load along the road.
Then I was introduced to a person called Marcus Livengood.
Good day, sunshine.
A question that lately has been getting knocked around a lot in the better biology departments is this: As we intrude on, clear-cut, burn, pollute, occupy, cause to become too hot or too dry, or otherwise render unsuitable to wildlife a larger and larger percentage of the planet, what will be involved in terms of the inevitable increased human exposure to remnant populations of truly wild fauna? Not for us but for them. What sort of changes, adaptations, and responses might we look for in the animals themselves as the pressures of this global-biological endgame begin to make themselves felt at the level of the individual organism? We have in mind here not microevolutionary changes to existing species but stress-related behavior modification, so-called "phenotypic plasticity," the sort of thing we know numerous animal groups to be capable of, though it is rarely witnessed. Or was rarely witnessed. Now it seems to be cropping up everywhere, as even a casual viewer of nature shows can attest. Across numerous species and habitat types, we are seeing, in crudest terms, animals do things we haven't seen them do before.
I'm tiptoeing around saying anything direct here because I feel what I hope is an understandable sheepishness in reporting on this subject at all, so sharply does it smack of quackery and gullibility; on top of that, it should be clear by now that I take no pleasure in freaking anyone out. What I can tell you is that this thing is real, that it has proved harder rather than easier for reasonable and informed people to deny, and that, however modest and obscure continues to be the small community of researchers and analysts and bloggers who have thus far commented on it and made the first steps toward charting its dimensions, you are going to be hearing a lot more about it in the next ten to twenty years. Even the Future of Humanity Institute is going to want to pay attention to this one, even though its origin lies rather far, academically speaking, from the stone paths of Oxford.
Centerbrook, in southern Ohio, embodies a type of small-town college familiar to anyone who grew up or was educated in the Midwest. It started out in the nineteenth century as some sort of vocational academy, a normal school or a technical school, and accrued its university status over time, adding a department here or a professor there as qualified academics moved back from the Northeast to retire or take care of Mom, until one day all that was left was to stamp it a liberal-arts institution. No one ever got a good job just by saying they went there, but the students, on the days I visited, seemed sharp and ambitious. Many of them were a good decade past 1822. And although the campus isn't pretty—it's all naked brick and parking lots—there was an atmosphere of seriousness about what they were up to there.
Professor Marcus Livengood, who goes by Marc to the point of indulging "Mr. Marc" among his students, attended Centerbrook before getting his Ph.D. in comparative zoology at UC Santa Clara. He then took a job in the life-sciences department at his undergraduate alma mater. When I showed up forty minutes late for our appointment, he was alone in his surprisingly gigantic office. I've never seen a person easier to describe physically. He looks like a young George Lucas. Same head shape, same beard, squint, everything, only taller and not pudgy yet and without the gray. Also, Mr. Livengood wears a ponytail. He wore, too, the heavy square glasses that all rogue scientists are commanded to wear when they are inducted into the Rogue Scientist Lodge. With what struck me as no mean feel for theater, as if we hadn't already been e-mailing for weeks, he said, "So you're here to talk about the animals?"
Whatever process led to this interview had begun about a year before. I fear I'll be trading away some much, much needed credibility by confessing this up front, but it began for me on the Internet. Not on kook sites, mind you; I didn't spend any time on the kook sites until a good bit later, until I got mixed up with Marc, in fact. This was at AOL, American Online, which I, like many others, use to connect to the Internet every day and check my messages. One thing that happens when you connect via America Online is that this little list of news headlines pops up on the welcome page, and you can follow them to the relevant articles. You know this. Well, someone there in a pulsating cubicle on the company's editorial floor, a person entrusted with sifting through all the different wire reports from all over the planet and deciding what merited attention, started seeing something, a pattern. I wish there were a way to determine this person's identity (I've tried), because these days I consider him or her a curious sort of brother or sister in arms. In any event, it seemed like every day, once a week at a minimum, there'd be a far-out animal-attack story.
Not really that, though. An animal-attack story is a mountain lion pouncing on a jogger, a bear busting into someone's car, a surfer losing a leg. Granted, that sort of thing looks to be on the rise, too, in many parts of the world. But that's a story we know. Species self-protection + everybody loving the outdoors = occasional kills. We're talking here about stories having to do with changes in the nature and lethality of animal aggression. Solely in order to go ahead and escort an elephant out of the room here, let's just say it: We're talking about things like what happened to Steve Irwin.
Yes, the Irwin story has long since turned into a butt for bloggers' macabre jokes. I won't make them myself: The man had a little girl, little Bindi. Indeed it was while filming scenes for her show that Irwin perished, a coincidence she's been mentioning on-air repeatedly ever since, for reasons best known to her. The fact remains that in the roughly 300 years during which human beings have been both (a) swimming, unknowingly or not, above giant stingrays in shallow water and (b) recording unusual things that happened to them in the ocean generally, there has been not a single instance of a stingray spiking someone to death in the heart, which is what happened to Irwin. The barbed end of the stingray's tail—over which, I'm told, rays have unholy power of control and accuracy; they kill tiny, tiny fish with it—passed directly in between two of Irwin's ribs and into his left ventricle. He stood up, pulled it out, and died. There was video of this, but the Irwin family has destroyed it. In the weeks following, Australians began killing rays in the coastal waters. Police and beachcombers were finding mangled carcasses. But Michael Hornby, director of Irwin's Wildlife Warrior fund, issued a statement disavowing these acts and making clear that it would "not accept and not stand for anyone who's taken a form of retribution" on the rays.
Freaky things happen all the time in the world. I suppose everything has to happen for the first time at some point. Which is what one told oneself about the Irwin story. We'd gone 300 years without an incident like this; if we could go 300 more, we'd be all right. Clear snorkels, divers!
We went six weeks. On October 19, 2006, in the waters off Boca Raton, Florida, a man named James Bertakis was boating with a family friend when a giant stingray leapt out of the water and into his lap. And it's important to visualize this correctly. Because it landed on his actual lap, with Bertakis in a sitting position, empty-handed—he had no rod—and the ray landed facing him, so they were eye to eye. This scene was described in some detail by the woman present. Bertakis and the ray were staring at each other, and it was flexing its tail. And then, bang. Up over its body and directly into the heart muscle, the heartflesh, inches deep. Reporters immediately asked the internationally regarded marine biologists at the University in Miami if there could be any connection, but Dr. Bob Cowen, the researcher put forward as spokesperson by the department, responded that he could "not imagine any connection" and that the attacks were "just two really unusual situations."
"Except not," said Livengood.
We were sitting now, and I'd just read off that quotation, along with several others, in order to suggest—politely, I hoped—that the position held by those in his profession who might be called mainstream is that what seems like a change in global animal behavior is really just an increase in media attention, or a string of coincidences that get stitched together on the Internet, or most charitably, an increase in the exposure of individual human beings to undomesticated animals as our habitats expand and the animals become more desperate for food sources, more willing to venture out.
"What do you mean, 'Except not'?"
"Except they weren't unusual."
I assumed he meant there'd been other barb-to-heart ray attacks and asked if he'd be willing to share the data with me.
"Rays? No," he said. "Or at least those are the only two we've seen. But everything else..." He looked up into the corner with his head tilted as if I'd told him to pose for a picture that way. Then he popped to his feet.
"You want to see our file?" he asked. He'd gone over to another, larger computer in the corner of his office and was messing around on it.
I'd already shown him my file, when we first sat down. Mine was in a manila folder. It contained cutouts and printouts of all the articles I'd archived in the preceding year. Most of them I'd e-mailed first to friends with little jokey subject headers along the lines of gird thyself. It was one of the lucky recipients who replied, after the thirtieth or fortieth message, "Did you know there's actually a guy who believes this is happening?" When I wrote back saying, "Yes: myself," he sent another message, saying, "Right, but this guy studies animals."
When I proffered my folder, he actually loudly laughed and said, "That's what we get in a week, since people found out about us."
I won't play dumb with you. I already knew at this point that by "us" he meant not him and his colleagues but him and a bunch of isolated obsessives—bloggers and amateur naturalists and sci-fi people dizzy with their first taste of contrarian legitimacy and also, I suppose, people like me who become helplessly fixated for no honorable reason on cabalistic patterns in the news. This "us," if it's even an "us," doesn't have a good acronym yet and hasn't given any papers at conferences or generated much of a media profile at all, really, apart from a few stray "opposing point of view" quotes in wire-service articles like the ones I'd gathered.
"Check this out," Livengood said, sliding his chair to the side to make room for me. On the screen was a large parti-color map of the world, in a circular shape like an old navigational map. The landmasses and coastlines were thickly riddled with tiny black dots, about pencil-tip size. There were maybe twenty stray black dots on the open seas. Livengood said—breezily, like someone giving an office tour to the new guy—"Those are all confirmed, and those are all in the past six years."
"What are they, exactly?"
"Start clicking on them."
I sat there for at least half an hour. At one point, he got up and went off down the hall. It was true that the sheaf of articles I'd been so proud of was a Cracker Jack flip-book in comparison with what Livengood had collected. I should say that for an item to make his list, it must stand up to the admittedly soft but at least not nonexistent test of being (a) not a hoax—that is, independently verifiable as an incident through follow-up research—and (b) not the result of some obvious confusion. I invite you to verify these things as well, through Google or LexisNexis or in a few cases an article in Animal Behavior Abstracts (a complete set of which sat on the shelves behind Livengood's desk); you won't find them in the Weekly World News, either, but on the BBC Web site, the AP, Science, and Nature, places that have a vested interest in not getting fooled. Anyway, I assure you I don't know enough about even the normal goings-on in the animal kingdom to fabricate this many anomalies.
Soon I figured out that some of the little dots, when you clicked on them, led to multiple incidents, signifying vectors of activity, usually but not always confined to a single species. There are four small English seaport towns, for instance, where various seabirds have started targeting people. A swan came out of the water there and took a dog under. Indeed, when measured in actual numbers, birds may be the single most active species in terms of manifesting whatever lies underneath this shift. In Boston, for the past few years, there's been what can only be called an ongoing siege of wild turkeys. Children and old people getting attacked. In Sonoma County, California, the chicken population not long ago carried out "a flurry of attacks on neighborhood children." The mother of one of the victims told a reporter, "It's not charming when you have to see your baby attacked...seeing the blood going down his face and seeing him screaming.... I can't sleep at night."
A fair share of the new violence is animal-on-animal. Needless to say, it garners less attention in the media. In the Polish village of Stubienko, in June of 2000 (one of the earlier blips in Livengood's collection), the storks went crazy and started slaughtering chickens, hundreds of them. (There were, I'm noticing only now, additional reports of "sporadic attacks on humans" at the time.) Observers were "at a loss to explain the aberrant behavior."
You see what I mean about there being something off in these stories. The storks started slaughtering the chickens.
In reality much of the intra-animal violence seems to suggest sheer madness. Chimps have repeatedly been documented engaging in "rape, wife beating, murder, and infanticide." Elephants on the African savanna have been raping rhinoceroses, something that evidently is just as startling to science as it to the layperson.
If you've paid attention to one particular facet of this story as it's unfolded, you're likely to have read about the work of Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist and environmental scientist who's been tracking the accelerated mental degeneration of elephant populations in severely destabilized areas of Africa and Asia. She's an extremely well-regarded researcher whose work is adding up to maybe the most persuasive proof yet mounted that the psychological overlap between our psyches and those of the more developed animals has been massively underestimated when it comes to affection, suffering, stress, and we don't even know what areas. That's how I understand her work, at any rate. Earlier this year, a major magazine brought her to national attention, and she has a book deal, and to get to the point, she declined an interview, for which I blame her not even slightly; if I were an internationally respected animal scientist, I'd drive cold muddy hours out of my way to avoid even a tangential meeting with Marc Livengood (not that I don't personally find him heroic). Nonetheless there is perhaps more of a kinship between their respective working theses than either would leap to admit. (Livengood regards Bradshaw with a bit of jealousy and eye rolling, I am sure you'll be shocked to learn.)
In any case, Bradshaw's interests wouldn't lead her necessarily to be concerned with the animal-on-human part of the elephant breakdown—nonetheless, they are killing us, too, in numbers never imagined. More than a thousand victims in under a decade. Forty-four Nigerian communities "erased" by rampaging elephants in a single migratory season. Some of the incidents have been quite spectacular, with multiple animals working in concert (as opposed to isolated or "rogue" males, which frequently act up); they're storming through neighborhoods, turning on crowds. If you've ever seen an elephant attack a human being, it's very personal looking anyway. They keep going after you when you're down. At least at first, you're conscious while they basically knock the bejeezus out of you with their trunks and then stomp you into the earth. In one place, the animals first rampaged, clearing the town, then broke into unprotected casks of locally brewed rice beer, then hurled themselves against electrified fences and died. Bradshaw writes that "some biologists think that increased elephant aggression might comprise, in part, revenge against humans for accidental or deliberate elephant deaths." Not to be outdone, "angry villagers" are poisoning to death an average of twenty elephants each year, according to The New York Times.
Indeed, as suggested by the tortured-ray carcasses that washed up in the wake of the Irwin killing, swift acts of human retaliation have not infrequently followed the more dramatic of the late attacks. In Salt Springs, Florida, where gators went berserk a year and a half ago and killed three women in a week, the citizens "declared war on alligators." That's how one busy trapper described it. "People are really going crazy," he said.
In other cases, cooler heads have prevailed and more peaceful measures have been pursued. One example: In Bombay, earlier this year, a pack of leopards entered the town—just sauntered out of the forest at the heart of that city—and murdered a total of twenty-two people. J. C. Daniel, an environmentalist who has monitored the wildlife in that forest for forty years, said, "We have to study why the animal is coming out. It never came out before." But the people responded creatively. In hopes of calming the beasts—and with a gesture having weird overtones of the sacrificial offering to assuage angry cat gods—officials in the area are releasing hundreds and hundreds of little pigs and rabbits into the forest. (2 Kings 17:25: "And when they began to dwell there, they feared not the Lord: and the Lord sent lions among them, which killed them.")
In China it's the pets that are changing. The AP reported that "about 90,000 people in Beijing have been attacked by dogs and cats in the first six months of this year, up almost 34 percent for the same period last year, the government said." In America, where animals have perhaps a freer recourse to weapons, at least four people have been shot by their dogs in the past two years. One incident involved a stun gun. One reportedly took place while the animal was being beaten, its owner hoped, to death. That killing, then, could truly be described as self-defense. (In a third incident, in Memphis, a dog shot its owner in the back while the man was arguing with his girlfriend—this one may have been accidental.)
A pack of 200 dogs descended out of the mountains—this was in Albania—ran straight into the middle of the town of Mamurras, and just started going after people—old people, young people, "dragging them to the ground and inflicting serious wounds." One witness spoke of a "clearly identifiable leader." (Lest we assume this to be a seasonal occurrence in Albania, the town's mayor, Anton Frroku, stated that "even in the movies, I have never seen a horde of 200 stray dogs from the mountains attacking people in the middle of a town.")
"Clearly identifiable leader": Elsewhere, too, there are suggestions of organization, cooperation. In India one of the country's busiest highways has been repeatedly taken over and brought to a standstill by what the BBC has described as "troops" of "monkey raiders," 2,000 at a time. "We have already seen that new troops have entered the area in recent weeks," a local official tells the BBC. There was talk of "relocating" them. In Britain, where the rat population has increased by 40 percent in the last decade, and old people are saying they haven't seen anything like it since the Blitz, scientists have pinned the otherwise inexplicable surge on the fact that the rats "have been learning from other rats how to avoid the poisons." Again, look at these numbers. We're seeing increases not of 4 or 5 percent but on the order of 40, 50 percent.
In at least one situation, clearly discernible technological innovation has entered the picture. A community of chimpanzees living on the edges of the savanna in Senegal have learned to fashion and use spears, which they sharpen with their teeth. These are chimps we've been observing for 200 years; they have never used spears. Now they've begun spiking little bush babies with them. The bush babies hide in hollow trees. The chimps do a sort of frog-gigging number on them and pull them out like fondue. Within a year of the first chimp having been observed using a weapon this way, nine others had caught on and were recorded doing it in a total of twenty-two observed instances, suggesting that at least at the simian level these fairly radical behavioral changes are taking place within the span of a single generation.
The science behind all this is, you might say, disturbingly fundamental. As the planet warms, evolution speeds. We've known this for a long time. You learn it in college biology. Things evolve faster nearer the equator. Heat speeds up molecular activity. You have a population of squid—it divides. One branch hangs out up by Alaska, the other goes down to the coast of Peru. Go and visit them 50,000 years later. The group up by Alaska is slowly subdividing into two species. The one down by Peru has turned into twenty-six species and is no longer even recognizable. Well, these days the whole planet is experiencing that effect. More heat, more light. The animals are doing things differently; they're showing up places they're not supposed to go, sleeping at different times, eating different things. Talk with any fieldworker and it's a truism that the guidebooks are becoming obsolete at ten times the speed. As a researcher told the BBC in 2001, "There is a genetic change in their response to daylight. We can detect this change over as short a time period as five years. Evolution is happening and it is happening very fast." And he was only talking about a particular species of mosquito. Dr. Christina Holzapfel, at the University of Oregon in Eugene, has been watching changes among Canadian red squirrels. "Phenotypic plasticity is not the whole story," she told Sciencemagazine last year. "Studies show," another source quoted her as saying, "that over the past several decades, rapid climate change has led to heritable, genetic changes in animal populations." Most recently a piece in Smithsonian stated that "lately there has been evidence that plants and animals are changing much faster." What this means is that we picked a bad time to have all of the animals enraged at us, since just at the moment when their disposition might be expected to turn, they happen to be evolving like crazy.
What stuck out above all else, as I clicked through Livengood's dots, was the same tendency that had presented itself when I was still just idly following news items on the Internet, namely, the extraordinary number of "first time" attacks. That is, not simply unprecedented types of attack, such as leopard packs going forth and killing in a crowded city, but rather, pure cases of: animals that have never shown a desire to kill human beings before, killing them.
It was only a couple of years ago, in an October 2006 posting on the Web site of the Institute for the Future—an "independent nonprofit research group," headquartered in the States, that puts its considerable budget toward working "with organizations of all kinds to help them make better, more informed decisions about the future"—that raised a first tentative flag on this whole issue, insofar as it marked the first time a group of nondismissible, intellectually clubable types had gone so far, had been explicit:
"File this under the wildest of wildcards, but are the number of attacks by animals formerly thought to be relatively harmless or difficult to provoke on the rise? Are there other interesting statistics suggesting an increase in the number of attacks by animals that previously were not especially aggressive?"
Blogger and fellow seeker Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, there sure as hell are.
Attacks of dolphins on humans are noticeably up, with a particularly violent population repeatedly attacking swimmers off the coast of Cancún, killing at least two, with several more unexplained drownings that may have been "take under" incidents. Every marine biologist reached for comment after those confirmed attacks said the same thing: "There's no such thing as a fatal dolphin attack."
This news would be startling to Henri Le Lay, president of the Association of Fishermen and Yachtsmen at the port of Brézellec in Brittany, who spoke with reporters about "a psychotic dolphin," nicknamed Jean Floch, that has been going after fishermen in their boats. "He's like a mad dog," Le Lay said. "I don't want to see any widows or orphans. This could end badly."
Sea lions, too, are going after human beings for the first time. Not accidentally bumping into them but pursuing them through open water. In Alaska one jumped into a boat, knocked a fisherman overboard, and took him down. Sea lions are famous for fleeing any sort of conflict. Expert opinion? "Abnormal behavior."
Unlikely as it may sound, in the history of the European occupation of North America there is but a single recorded fatal attack by a wild but healthy (i.e., nonrabid, nonstarving) wolf on a human being. It happened in 2005, in Alaska. The guy went out to take a pee or maybe just to look at the stars. When they found him, he'd already been worked over by scavengers.
In Uganda and Tanzania, chimps "struggling to survive amid the destruction of their forest habitat are snatching and killing human babies." They've taken sixteen in the past seven years and had killed half of those before anyone found them. The eating of babies is "a recent development," said the article.
Click, click, click—they just kept coming. In Belarus the beavers have been attacking people ("first recorded attack [in that country's long history] of a beaver on a human"). This has happened again, in Lindesberg, Sweden, quite recently; a woman was hospitalized. The decidedly non-Swedish response of the townspeople, as reported by a city official? "Four of the beavers in the river have been shot, and the rest will be exterminated. Then the beaver house will be blown up to prevent other families from taking it over." Not comforting is a related report out of Washington, D.C., that states, "Beavers are expanding rapidly into cities."
For every account that seemed a little far-fetched and made me think a few qualifying facts must have been left out, there'd be another that, while admittedly bizarre, had the instant ring of stuff you wouldn't make up, like the jogger in southeastern North Carolina who witnesses saw get surrounded on the boardwalk by a squadron of oversize male hermit crabs, which approached him, kung fu style, with that one bulging claw forward, and appeared to attempt to drive him off a pier. And as always with cases like these, the quote from the zoologist comes around like a mantra: First recorded...not known to have occurred previously...relevant literature was searched but no prior instances retrieved...experts shocked...abnormal...unheard of...
When Livengood came back, I was six inches lower in the chair; I probably looked like a person whose mind had just been destroyed by a satanic video game.
"Still skeptical?" Livengood said. (When we'd first spoken on the telephone, he'd asked me what my "take" was, and I'd replied, "Skeptically curious," which I'd intended to mean essentially nothing—but oh man it stuck with him.)
I mumbled something.
To which Livengood replied, with a sigh and a fake-bored tone, "Oh yeah. Something's happening."
Then he bounced for a minute in his black office chair, tapping his fingertips together.
I said, "It's impossible."
Then he looked at me and said, as if not having heard me, "Hey! You need to go to Africa with me!"
We were en route to a dry region in the northeast of Kenya, about 350 miles northeast of Nairobi, just before you hit the Somali border, a place called Mandera, although Marc insisted on saying repeatedly that we were "going to ground zero."
In the year 2000—which Marc repeatedly referred to as "year zero"—there were two separate incidents within a single month's time, not far from each other, in villages occupying this area. Marc referred to them as "the battle site" and "the kill site." He'd arranged for us to be met by a tall, extraordinarily upright young woman from Dakar named Sila Fall. Her hair was in braids, and she wore all white with a blue bandanna around her neck. She was the UNICEF liaison for this district. She took us down a road to a village; it looked more like a camp. But the people here were healthy. UNICEF was overseeing the digging of a new well. They asked us to sit and watch a sort of play, performed in Kikamba. I could just make out the plot. One man was sick; he was the patient; another man came, the healer. They spoke to each other—that ancient bond. They danced.
We walked behind Sila Fall, who walked very fast. She showed us all the improvements UNICEF had made—though not so much with pride as with restlessness, as if to say, We've at least done this. The clinic. The school. "In 2000 it was not like this," she said. "In 2000, if it didn't get thrown from the back of an army truck, we didn't have it. We were dying."
"The woman lives here," she said without stopping, "but they say she is at her sister's today." Seconds later, in front of another, identical hut, we did stop. I saw now that Marc was manifesting excitement through physical agitation, moving from foot to foot and emitting little herm sounds. From the shaded interior of the hut materialized a middle-aged woman in a long skirt and T-shirt. Sila Fall spoke to her in Kikamba, she spoke to Sila Fall in Kikamba, then Sila Fall said to Marc, "She says that she welcomes you, she...knows who you are, and she will show you the place that you want to know about." This, then, was Kakenya Wamboi, or as Marc called her in e-mails to me, "the veteran."
It's known that in the spring of 2000, when the drought conditions were at their worst in this district, there occurred a two-hour pitched battle between monkeys and human beings over access to three newly arrived water tankers. As the four of us walked beyond the narrow outskirts of the village, about 200 yards down a truly ovenishly hot road, Kakenya Wamboi, who participated in that event, was speaking through Sila Fall, answering Marc's extremely precise, obviously rehearsed questions, telling Marc and me the story of the fight, how the human beings had rushed to draw water from the tankers, yet within seconds an entire troop of monkeys had appeared. They ranged themselves along the edges of the tankers. Others came from across the road. "They bit us and clawed at us. They threw stones at us from the top of the truck. My husband is dead, but until he died he had a mark on his forehead from where one of the stones cracked his skull. You don't know how strong they are! They struck ten people. Badly enough that we all ran off. The men went back with axes. The monkeys were drinking all of the water. My husband said that they could work the valves. The drivers were still in the trucks. They were scared. The men went at the monkeys with axes and had to kill eight of them before the rest ran off. The drivers would not stay in this village overnight as they usually do, so we had to draw all the water off in a rush; we didn't get it all before they started the trucks again. Some of what we got was in bad containers and spoiled, and the monkeys had already taken about a third of it. Of the people that died in that famine, the most of them died that spring, and my husband always said the monkeys killed them, that the monkeys won that battle."
She made the gesture of, I suppose, a monkey swinging an ax in victory.
At some point, Sila Fall interrupted her and said that we needed to go, because to reach the other place Marc wanted to see, we had to drive two hours, and we didn't want to be on that road after dark; it skirted the Somali border—he made a machine-gun sign—so we needed to say good-bye. Did Marc have any more questions?
"What sort of calls were they doing during the attack? What sounds were they making? Or weren't they making sounds?"
Kakenya Wamboi said that they were chattering the entire time. Not screaming. More like talking. Then she said something else. Sila Fall said, "She says that she is glad to meet you and help you and that you see that she is very poor, you see her house, and she knows you are good people, and that she hopes you will help her." To his credit, Marc looked at me.
Knowing Marc Livengood a little now, you may appreciate the profundity of the Livengood silence during this car ride with Sila Fall. The man was seeing, I'm sure, indescribable things. Sila Fall drove and talked, mostly about a period of years she spent in the United States. I was dying to ask her if she knew why Livengood was here or what it was that Livengood believed, but could neither do this in front of Marc nor figure a way to get them apart. Finally, the van swerved and slowed and through the seat we could feel the tires meeting the sudden resistance of sand. We got out and started to walk. I asked Sila Fall, "Have you seen this place?"
She nodded. "I grew up here."
We walked for twenty minutes through a gap in a low sandstone formation. We came to what must have been the remnant of a sinkhole, a cavity in the earth the shape of an upside-down yarn cone. At the bottom was a pool of water. "Healthy water," Sila Fall said. There was one spot along the rim of the hole where you could slide and clamber down. "I wasn't here in 2000," Sila Fall said, "but if it was as dry as they say, there was only a puddle down there. It was probably the only water for miles."
In late February of that year, a herder named Ali Adam Hussein slid down to that puddle, probably not to slake his own thirst but to gather a little water for his cows. He looked up and saw several monkeys looking down at him. Presumably, he went to go for his weapon. The monkeys responded by lifting several stones and hurling them directly at his head. He died hours later of what a nurse back in Mandera, where we'd just come from, described simply as "severe head injuries."
Marc did not ask Sila Fall's permission before he himself skidded down into the deep natural watering hole. Both Sila Fall and I watched him, somewhat stunned. He seemed to have acted on a sudden impulse. At the bottom, however, he immediately displayed purpose. He stood with his hip cocked, his ponytail jutting out through the back of his khaki Centerbrook University cap, grinning up at me through his beard. I said, "Tell me what you're thinking."
"I'm standing where he stood, John." Marc Livengood is a man who likes to say your name at the end of sentences when he talks to you.
"And what does that mean?" I said. (These were not real questions; he just sometimes liked to force me to go through the whole production of baiting him, and I'd adjusted to it.)
"What does it mean?" he said. "It means I'm standing where the First Victim stood." He said the two words in such a way that I feel I have to capitalize the first letters of each. "It means we are all three standing on the site of an incident unknown to the annals of natural science, and it is unstudied. We met the First Veteran and the First Victim today; you tell me what that means." Then he took pictures for forty-five minutes.
Finally able to converse with Sila Fall somewhat normally, I asked her, "Do you know why he's here?"
"He's a scientist," she said.
"Specifically, I mean? You don't? Specifically, he believes that the animals are turning on us, that we're about to experience a war of animals on human beings, and that it's going to begin here. That it may already have begun here."
"Do you believe that?" she asked.
"I don't think so," I said. I didn't know how to tell her that she didn't need to be polite with me. She was there in a professional capacity. I suppose I was, too, in some deformed way. Really, it was stupid of me to be accosting her. But I'd been listening to Marc nonstop since we'd left the airport in Nairobi, and she seemed very adjusted.
"Most people would probably think he's insane," I said.
Sila Fall shrugged her shoulders. "It's possible," she said.
"Possible that he's insane or that there's about to be an animal-human war?"
She shrugged her shoulders again.
The story runs into an obstacle here, because shortly after we arrived back in the States, Marc Livengood was fired from Centerbrook. Neither he nor anybody at the school will talk about it except to confirm that he's suing. From someone in the town who shall remain unidentified, I learned that he's living with his father, a retired engineer, in Dayton, or was as of two months before. The one time I got him to return a phone call and was able to ask him what had happened, he replied, in an almost boastful tone, "John, when the story of this comes out, you, you...Let's just say Marc Livengood is not going to be what's disgraced by this, okay?" He refused to clarify that and hung up within maybe half a minute, sounding disgusted. A guy in the tech department at the school, whom I called in a Hail Mary way, told me he'd heard his boss talking about it on the telephone and that it was all "computer-related."
Needless to say, it's been challenging, with Livengood underground, to push things forward. I couldn't get anybody else in the field to say anything about him, because nobody really knows anything about him; it had always just been an Internet thing. Even his colleagues at the school thought he was involved, as his chair put it to me, in "a kind of curatorial project." He'd once been the subject of a profile in a magazine calledVarmint Masters, published out of Birmingham, Alabama. Once more, I invite you to research this. It's a real magazine. And these people have radically redefined the definition of the word varmint. They hunt camels, moose, things like that. Reading it, I get the sense that now and then some country, like Australia, will have a problem with an out-of-control population of some feral species and that these VMs will travel from the four corners with their bunker-busting rifles and such. But I haven't been able to find a copy of the Livengood issue, even on eBay, and cannot find contact info for the publisher in Birmingham. Is it possible that Livengood felt some sort of kinship with this subpopulation of men who work to become ever more expert hunters of animals not normally thought of as prey? Now there was no one to answer these questions. I found one guy, a marine biologist at a university on the West Coast—he asked me to name neither him nor the school—who remembered Livengood from a conference. He said, "I actually thought some of what he was talking about was pretty interesting, but back then it was just about predatory patterns, dietary disturbances. It sounds like maybe he had some kind of crack-up or something. I mean, I'm hearing about it from you."
And I was hearing about it from Livengood. We were all supposed to hear it from him and maybe will yet. That's the future, which, as I think we've established, is fairly sketchy terrain to prance out onto without a sure hand to guide you. I present this essay, with its mere sliver of the material Livengood had gathered, with its shadow of an approximation of the boldness of thought he brought to bear on it, as a testament. I think about him every time I see another animal story in the news. The cat at the nursing home in Rhode Island that was able to predict which patients were about to die and would sit on their beds until they'd expired? Marc Livengood had thoughts on that, be assured. And has them still.
Pet loyalty, in fact, was a recurrent subject of his monologue on our last night together in Nairobi. Which eons of their training would prove genetically more persuasive when, for instance, the dogs were asked by the wolves to choose? Us or them, that's what it would come down to. Would they turn on us or defend us?
That night, we sat at an uncomfortably tiny table at an open-air place about a mile from the airport. He talked. I drank, my pencil-hand flying. He spoke of how it would go, how it would really begin, stopping after every third or fourth sentence to hold up his hands in a "stop" gesture and say, "Speculation! Speculation!"
He conjured up one of the eeriest Armageddons I have ever heard described: existence on a planet that hasitself become treacherous. A rapidly approaching period of uncertainty and terror, waves of increased attacks from all over the earth, creatures coming up from the deep oceans to paralyze shipping, possibly at the sonic command of the dolphins. The forests will no longer be a place to camp. Troops of wildcats, deer, and moose. Ever seen hikers get stomped by a moose? It's like watching cans go through a can cruncher.
For a while, everyone will cling to the hope that it's some kind of phase, and all sorts of comforting theories will be peddled: sunspots, magnetism in the earth's core, a different explanation every week, but always something to suggest that "the power will come back on," as Livengood liked to say.
"You have to understand," he told me, "these are normal biological systems functioning. We are a threat to the animals. They're just doing what nature has designed them to do. In this sense, there's nothing revolutionary at all about what I'm arguing. You could even say there's nothing new about my work. Where it gets interesting is when you remember that we're a different kind of threat, right? We're presenting them with the prospect of more or less total global domination by a single species. The lower orders haven't seen this since the dinosaurs. And keep in mind they were undergoing a period of accelerated evolution, too. We always make it that the dinosaurs died, then mammals came forward. Why not at least entertain the idea that the mammals took over?"
We were quiet for a minute, sipping our tea.
"And keep in mind," Marc continued, "that there may be at this moment something like forty dolphins living in the open seas, escapees from marine defense programs. We don't know what they're trained to do. Carry explosives? Kill divers? I'm looking for them to emerge in some sort of overt leadership capacity before 2010. It's the chimps on land and the dolphins in the seas. We can assume that they are working out some sort of mutually intelligible signal system now, probably on the West African coast."
I asked him about the whole interspecies-cooperation thing, which has always and to some degree still does strike me as sheer sci-fi.
"Do you know Kropotkin's Mutual Aid?" he asked, and then, when he saw my blank look, added, "Read it. The book's been out of print for probably a hundred years, but you should read it. He documented hundreds of instances of this—separate species helping one another. Kropotkin's finding was if two or more species are exposed to a shared threat, we will also see shared defense. The only question concerns the mechanism."
"What's it all going to look like?" This was my question.
"Unrecognizable," he said. "People moving about in packs. Depopulation. We don't know how far down the chain this realignment of animal consciousness is going to travel, for precisely the reason that we don't how far down consciousness penetrates. The insects—will they be involved? The rodent classes? The reptiles? You're just making armchair guesses at that point."
I asked him which animal he was most worried about.
"That's hard," he answered. "I think about the dolphins, not because of their lethality—though it's underestimated constantly—but because I think they understand best, of all the species, what damage we've done to the planet. They get the immensity of it. The other animals are responding to sudden infusions of hormones and little instinct triggers, but I believe that the dolphins are capable of hatred and that their hatred of us is essentially bottomless.
"Then, if you're talking scariest land animal to me, you might want to list the bear. Or rather, a combined chimp-and-bear onslaught, with a sort of Master Blaster power dynamic between chimps and bears. My God, bears can mess you up when they have a mind. Takes ten shots to stop one, routinely. Of course, by then we'll be firing on them with bazookas and whatnot. Hunting codes will be off. Still, fighting them is going to be the closest thing to fighting a human army. I fear the bears. Definitely. They know how to get into houses and cars. A species-wide rampage will be just... Fuck, man, part of keeping going in a professional capacity for me is keeping my mind off of stuff like that."
He adjusted his glasses and looked around.
"Think about it like this," he said. "In the early eighteenth century, there were massive combined populations of enslaved blacks, embattled Indians, and poor-white servants living in North America. If at any moment they had truly woken up to the nature of their plight, which is to say the commonality of their plight, and identified its cause as the agenda of the Colonial ruling class, ours would not now be a mainly European continent, genetically speaking. The animals are making the same discovery about themselves. And I don't think they'll squander it."
"So you would say bears are scarier than dolphins in the end?" I asked him.
"You want scariest?" he said. "Scariest is not the animals we know about. It's the animals we don't know about. Have you ever seen the statistics on estimated unknown species globally? We don't know half the crap that's alive on this planet, John. And I mean down at the very bottom of the ocean, in the Marianas Trench...that's an undiscovered planet, in terms of what's down there. And who knows what size those animals are, what they're capable of? Well, the animals may know. They may know what's down there, and they may know how to communicate with it."
Have fear: That's what Marc Livengood taught me. What he teaches us. And if I've in any way satisfied the expectations of this assignment, it's in coming away with that drop of distilled realism: You want to know what to be afraid of in the next fifty years? Everything. Everything that walks and crawls. Everything that moves. Because it hates us. "Why do they hate us?" Remember that? How quaint it already seems, when you think we were so recently asking that question about one another! And yet maybe the answers are the same; maybe we can apply the lessons of the one to the other. They hate us because they can't be us. Can't have our thumbs, our brains, our music, our beautiful flowing hair. Can't have it can't have it can't have it. And right now, sure, I say that I feel bad about that. But in the moment, in the moment when I'm letting explosive tracer rounds erupt from the mouth of my firemaker, just hosing metal right into the faces of a bunch of screaming giant eagles as they come for my daughter—and my cats, who will never betray me, not ever, or who have betrayed me and are scratching the dook out of my back while I struggle to aim—will I be thinking, "Ah, too bad, wish we hadn't fucked you like that"? Don't kid yourselves.
We gave them so much. That's what gets me. What did they have before us? What did they do? We gave them jobs, we put them on television, we cried for their losses. It seems their idea of repayment is the tooth and the claw. I don't think we need them. Everything we need we can make from corn.
Not that I don't hold out hope. If you and I are here in a half century, I hope we'll be celebrating the end of this war. I hope we'll be telling with highest zest, again and again till our great-grandchildren are sick of it, the story of the day of the accord, when we knew it was over. Of little Bindi Irwin, a woman now, wind in her face, her beauty still touched by a bit of Mad Max dog-boy ferality, as she was escorted out through the waves between white flags to a meeting with Dolphin Leader, where they brokered a détente in the chirpy language Steve had just finished teaching her when he got spiked. We, for our part, will have promised to live in greater harmony with Gaia.
But I'm not sure we'll ever say the world is ours again, not sure we'll ever really feel at home here again. That may be for the best. Being brave means saying, in every situation, "I'll comport myself as I think honorable, no matter the risk and no matter what the voice of frowning power has to say about it." That's the kind of thinking that'll get you raped by a rhino.
Takeaway message? Let's get proactive. Starting with a subscription to Varmint Masters. We've been working with this settled-agriculture shit over 10,000 years. What it's gotten us is a poisoned planet and a bunch of furious, mentally retarded beings with teeth and claws and tusks and tentacles and retractable poisoned darts and venom that they can spit and noses so strong they lift tanks and on and on and on, and what do we have? What were we given in this fight? Fucking thumbs. Fucking opposable thumbs. That's pretty weak, I'm sorry. But guess what? Guess what, animales? We did something with those thumbs. We built these weapons. With them we are going to fire on you.
Big parts of this piece I made up. I didn't want to say that, but the editors are making me, because of certain scandals in the past with made-up stories, and because they want to distance themselves from me. Fine.
I made up Marc Livengood. I made up the trip to Nairobi. But I didn't make up the two incidents in Kenya, the battles of monkeys and men and the murder. I did not fabricate a single one of the animal-related facts or stories, the incidents. There's even a real-life guy on the Internet whom I could have used in place of the made-up one, but that got messy, because he wanted money, and anyway, he was insane.
Editor's note: Gay Bradshaw, Christina Holzapfel, and everyone at the Institute for the Future and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University are serious scholars and researchers who had nothing to do with this story and have never discussed animal violence with the author, much less endorsed any of his assertions, nor would they, presumably.