Richard Conniff has been writing professionally since 1969, and for Smithsonian magazine since 1982. In that time, he has intentionally crossed paths with cheetahs, leopards, snapping turtles, ptarmigans, hummingbirds, wild dogs, ants, jellyfish, spiders and scores of other animals, plus the people who study them, all for the sake of explaining how the natural world works. He has won the National Magazine Award and a Guggenheim fellowship, among other honors. With the publication of the latest collection of his work, Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals, we prevailed upon him to come inside for a bit and answer a few questions.
You grew up in the concrete jungle of northern New Jersey. How did you end up making a living by writing about the wild?
Well, I was never one of those kids who came home with frogs in his pockets. I started writing about this stuff when I was in my mid-20s and a magazine asked me to write a piece about the so-called New Jersey state bird, the salt marsh mosquito. And I just got really interested in how they sneak up on us and all the other adaptations they have for sucking our blood. It was that assignment that got me interested in biology. I never even visited the part of my college campus that was known as Science Hill; I ended up getting my science education on the job. But the good thing about that is that when I interview scientists, I can ask dumb questions honestly and get answers that normal people can understand.
You've written that you admire snapping turtles because they're "unhuggable in a culture determined to make all animals cute." How do you write about the wild world without succumbing to that cultural force?
For one thing, it’s awfully hard to make a snapping turtle cute. Let’s talk about the hummingbird, which a lot of people think is kind of a unicorn on wings, all sweetness and light. When I went out and talked to people who study hummingbirds, they all talked about them as being mean, mean, mean. They have this incredibly high metabolism, where their heart is beating at something like 1,200 beats a minute, and so they have to spend all their time searching for the food it takes to maintain that level of activity. It would be like us trying to find 171 pounds of hamburger every day, which would certainly make me cranky. The trick for me is to find out how the animals really live. I had a problem with cheetahs, for instance, because they’re just so sleek and beautiful. But I met a researcher who spent a lot of time with them and she told me it doesn’t matter if an animal turns out to be more ferocious than you thought, or more gentle than you thought; what matters is how the animal really lives. Because the better we understand that, the better it is for the animals.
You have a gift for metaphor. In your piece on “The King of Pain”—the king being the guy who developed the index for measuring how much bug bites hurt—you wrote that a trapped insect is like Reese Witherspoon in some Hollywood caper movie: “She can’t do any real harm. But she can hold a lighted match up the fire detector.” This is useful in illustrating the idea that bug venom serves the bugs by deceiving predators into overreacting. But when you're writing, how hard do you have to work to keep from anthropomorphizing the animals you're writing about?
I have to say I do anthropomorphize; just the other day I was watching a hawk tearing up its prey, and I wrote that it reminded me of Julia Child making hamburger. But I do that because it helps people connect with the animals I’m writing about—I lead people in with the anthropomorphizing, but then when they’re inside, I try to get them to see the world through the animals’ eyes. That’s the ultimate goal.
A great deal of natural history journalism is as much about the humans studying the animals as it is about the animals themselves. In describing the mindset of some cheetah researchers observing a wildebeest calf on the Serengeti Plain, you write, “No one out here roots for Bambi, except as Bambi tartare.” Of all the researchers you’ve encountered, have you noticed any unifying eccentricity? Or are they individually eccentric?
There’s a lot of individual eccentricity. On the other hand, it’s curious that a number of them in the book seem to name their animals after single-malt whiskeys, so there’s something going on there. As a group, they seem to specialize is sitting back, setting aside their assumptions and watching what the animals really do. And that means they see new things that we can’t imagine. My favorite biologist of that sort is guy named Bill Eberhard, who studies spiders. Most people won’t look at a spider web twice, but he’ll look at one a hundred times. He discovered a species of spider that produces a pheromone to lure a specific kind of male moth, and as it get closer the spider fires this gooey ball of silk thread and pulls the moth in and eats it. Eberhard named that species dizzydeani, after the baseball pitcher. He showed me a dozen things that were equally weird when I was traveling with him in Costa Rica.
Obviously, a lot of people are paying a great deal of attention to climate change and other worrisome ecological events, and yet, as you note, researchers seem to be discovering new species all the time. How do you reconcile such apparently contradictory phenomena?
Well, one reason we keep discovering new species is that we’re cutting roads into places we’ve never been before. I was once in a rainforest in Ecuador, reporting a story for Smithsonian magazine, when a felled tree came so close to the biologist I was working with that it almost killed him. From that tree he took an orchid he’d never seen before—a specimen that would have been really exciting, except it was a specimen from a habitat that would be gone by the end of the week. So finding new species isn’t necessarily good news. One thing I try to do is to keep this stuff fun and get people engaged in a positive way, because once you see how weird and wonderful this stuff is, you don’t want to lose it.
Of all the animals you’ve written about, which ones would you most like to live among?
The wild dogs. I liked the African wild dogs a lot, the ones living on the Okavango Delta in Botswana. These dogs are very closely connected to the other members of their group, and they get to run through some beautiful countryside and chase fast food, in the form of impalas. They just seemed to live really well. Unfortunately, they’re almost extinct. But maybe if we pay more attention, they’ll survive.