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My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals

by Richard Conniff

Pub Date: May 4th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-393-06893-1
Publisher: Norton

National Geographic and Smithsonian contributor Conniff (The Ape in the Corner Office, 2008, etc.) offers a delightful collection of pieces about his encounters with spiders, crabs, leopards and other fauna.

With warmth and simplicity, the author spins a beguiling web as he recalls his travels to rainforests, deserts, inner-city neighborhoods and other locales in search of interesting creatures and the often-quirky scientists who study them. He jumped into a tank of flesh-rending piranhas and emerged unscathed. He tried to build his own spider web between two climbing walls after watching a spider attach a silken thread to running water in a stream in Costa Rica. Conniff also recounts his visits with wildlife biologists and others in the field, such as primatologist Patricia Wright, a MacArthur Foundation award winner whose work in Madagascar has led to the creation of a national park for lemurs; entomologist Justin Schmidt, who has “sampl[ed] the stings of 150 different insect species on six continents” to develop his insect-sting “pain index”; and Frans de Waal, the Emory psychologist who dispelled the “killer ape” stereotype, positing that chimps live by a system of “reciprocal altruism.” Whether sharing his fascination with the mites on his forehead, the unexpected meanness of hummingbirds or the inner complexities of seven-foot-tall termite mounds, the author writes with the enthusiasm of someone who follows entomological news “the way other people read the sports pages or the funnies.” In brief personal interludes, he describes the joys of giving “sustenance to mosquitoes” on rainforest treks and his earlier career in journalism—from obituary writer for a small New Jersey paper to managing editor of the late Geo magazine. He credits zookeeper and author Gerald Durrell with teaching him that it was possible to write about the natural world “and still have fun.”

Bright entertainment from a great explainer of the lives of animals.