The Tiger: An Ecology of Teeth, the Anthropocene and Wild Revenge

22 Mar
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illustration by becka rankin

review by Russ McSpadden / Earth First! News

[The text of this work is free to share and distribute under the following Creative Commons License CC-BY-ND 3.0]

There’s just something about a good tale of animal revenge: Moby Dick dragging the wretched Captain Ahab under the great shroud of the sea, yes! Or,  Tyke the Elephant, who, following her abduction from Africa and 20 years of service in a traveling circus, breaks from her handlers, kills her trainer, smashes through the railings of the ring, chases circus clowns and handlers, flips cars and fs them up and pulverizes property in the streets of Honolulu, uh…yeah give me more!

These stories provide hope that human supremacy has its weak points, that “man” has not won, has not completely jumped out of the game and into the captain’s chair. And our inspiration from these stories, whether open or in secret, is telling of our anxiety at being the species at the top of the genocide chain and also of our love of a good ole underdog. But of course, Moby Dick is fictional, and whales have been hunted and run over to near extinction and Tyke was gunned down. Her rhinestone tiara splattered in her own blood is now worn by another slave elephant. In the end its revenge and not animal liberation. We have to settle for that for now. But animal revenge, in the time of boring human supremacy, can be encouraging nonetheless.

John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival published back in 2010 is a top notch tale of such revenge. Yes, the story ends with a tiger shot dead for eating a man and then another, after constant encroachment on its territory and buckshot in it ass but, as far as tales of beautiful animal power, no other piece of literature, fiction or non, compares.

The plot of this true story of revenge goes like this:

In the late 90s, Russia is still chin deep in the tumultuous throws of transition from a shitty communist dictatorship to some sort of shitty free-market capitalist kleptocracy. Some call it Perestroika. The region of Primorye–which the author describes as a kind of Wild West-esque oxymoronic Boreal Jungle, part subtropic part subarctic refugium for the wildest of wilderness–has quickly become a resource colony of China. Its just another resource rich victim of market demands. Timber, prostitutes and poached tigers are smuggled south over the border at an alarming rate. Communities, human, plant and animal, are destroyed almost overnight by poaching, logging, alcoholism, desperate economies and broken dreams and ecologies.

For the indigenous peoples of Primorye, the Udege and the Taz, as well as many traditional Russian settlers, a long held belief that tigers never attack humans except out of revenge, had proven itself to be quite true for hundreds, even thousands of years.

Enter our hero, a desperate, perhaps raving mad, alpha-male Amur Tiger with a taste for bipedal poachers and interlopers.  A spate of eviscerated humans speaks to the end of that time honored inter-species truce that had kept human and tiger communities amicable for generations. 

The scenarios are painfully simple. A pissed off tiger stalks a poacher that has stolen his prey and shot him,  in a manor that shows intense calculation, anger and revenge. The tiger waits days, entering the poachers residence while he is away, naps on his bed, then waits in ambush to strike. What makes Vaillant’s telling of these events so amazing is the weaving of traditional stories with the accounts of conservation biologists, hunters, historians, poachers, and the tales created by animal tracks to show the poetry in animal revenge and especially, the similarities between human and tiger revenge. The reader is dragged through the text as though the tiger’s victim, bleeding in the snow and in awe at a forgotten power equally able to render a kind of justice that “man” has meted out for so long.  Vaillant provides evidence of an ancient humanity that once lived in the shadow of the tiger, a scavenger to the left-overs of its kill, and a part of its regular diet.

Siberian tiger: In the Russian far east, the tiger and humans have traditionally maintained a respectful truce

Unlink most tales of revenge, this one also shows, without being squeamish, the sensual side of the predator: As menacing as they appear, tiger fangs are actually delicate instruments—literally, bundles of nerves and blood vessels encased in layers of bonelike dentin, sheathed in enamel and somewhat rounded at the ends. With these four surgical sensors, the tiger has the ability to feel its way  through prey, differentiating between bone and tissue types to find the gap between two vertebrae in order to sever the spinal cord, or locate the windpipe in order to stifle the air supply—all at attack speed. In this sense, the canines are sentient weapons, capable of grasping and puncturing but also of deciphering the Braille of an animal’s anatomy. As removed as we are from our own origins in the wild, our teeth possess the same sensitivity, and we rely on it daily whether we are gnawing a T-bone, love-biting a nipple, or detecting rot in an apple by resistance alone.

The Tiger, like all the world’s greatest works of literature, transports the reader to another land, another body. I could smell the Korean pines crackling under the weight of a heavy snow; taste the homemade vodka wash away, if only temporarily, the economic anxieties of a new Russia; smell, as the tiger smells, the putrid outhouses of settlers; and feel, as its victims felt, the final absurd, even embarrassing, bone-crunching finality of my own small, tragic and beautifully interconnected life.

Long live the other ones, the fury and slimy and many-legged and silly and wild and untamable ones!

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