I’ve just received two copies of the US Edition of Ten Million Aliens through the post, so I’m filled with mad dreams of multi-selling trans-Atlantic glory. Certainly the publisher have done a lovely job with it. And to celebrate, here’s a chapter from the book, one in which I introduce the carnivores as I take the reader on a wild and precarious journey through the entire animal kingdom.
A bear has two faces. You find that out if you get close enough to feel vulnerable. I saw the first face as the bear advanced along the river. I was in British Columbia, in Canada, on a platform that gave a good view of the river but did little to conceal the observers. I was on Gill Island, in Knight Inlet. It was autumn: the salmon were running. So this was the time when the bears were briefly and annually visible. As the salmon come to spawn, so the bears become fishermen for a few short weeks of gourmandising. I had been waiting for a couple of hours, absorbing the quiet forest, hearing the occasional call of ravens. A pine marten, the first I had ever seen – the American species is different to the European — crossed the river by means of fallen tree, as nice a little carnivore as you could hope to see. But it was the nice big carnivore I was looking for.
Waiting for wildlife. If you acquire a taste for the wild, you do a lot of waiting. Convinced you’ll be unlucky, convinced that the day will be blank, trying to convince yourself that pine martens are enough to make any one’s day. And certainly they are on most occasions, but perhaps not when you are in a forest with bears in it. And if I hadn’t known there were bears here, the walk to the platform would have told me: well, you know what bears do in the woods.
But the bear came. He arrived as if now was his moment: any other moment would have been absurd: walking onstage with the immaculate timing of a great actor who knows that the more modest and unassuming his entry the greater the storm of applause that will greet him. This was a black bear: what must it be like, I wondered, to live in a country with three species of bear? Huge and beautiful and imposing and quite tremendously black. He was so all-consumingly bear-like, so unutterably and completely ursine that I could scarcely believe it. Nothing has ever looked more like a bear than this bear. It approached, with its almost comic rolling gate; a bear moves very much like a pantomime horse. And there it was in full face: round, kind-eyed, with semi-circular ears stuck on as an afterthought. It looked like a child’s drawing of a bear; it also looked quite tremendously like a teddy-bear. What could be lovelier, safer, more cuddlesome than the creature half-waddling towards me?
But then he turned his head sideways and showed me his profile. Showed me his other face. The face with a step in it, the big square muzzle sticking rudely and incongruously out of his face. You thought I was your friend, you thought I was your brother, you thought I was the comforter from your childhood: I am nothing of the kind. I’m a bear. A real one. Deal with that, if you can. A teddy bear has no muzzle. The face is flattened, humanised, turned into a furry person: like a human only cuddlier. Real bears look exactly the same, but only in full face. A guide told me that he once had a client who wanted to be taken into the forest “so that a bear can lick honey off my nose”. Possibly more likely to eat the nose off the face and take the rest of the head for pudding. The most fleeting glance of a bear in profile tells you all that and more, and you don’t need a degree in comparative anatomy to understand what you see. With carnivores, our human responses frequently come from our wild past.
This is no lovely furry honorary human: a bear of little brain bothered by long words, a bear from darkest Peru brought up by his Great Aunt Lucy, a bear that calls out “yubba–dubba-doo.” This is a carnivore. Look at the teeth inside that muzzle. Not just their bigness and their sharpness, though these are not irrelevant matters. Look at the way they overlap. The way they create a pair of scissors on either side. This is the carnassial shear: the scissor-bite that defines a carnivore. Next time you are patting a dog or stroking a cat, run a finger — carefully — along the side of the mouth and feel the way the teeth work. Run your tongue round your own molars and pre-molars. They are designed as grinders, not slicers. The fact that most humans eat meat doesn’t make us carnivores, or to be more precise, doesn’t make us carnivorans, or members of the order Carnivora. Watch a lion eat, or, perhaps easier, watch a dog with a bone. They use the side of their mouths, like a movie gangster with a cheap cigar.
There are around 260 species of carnivores. The smallest is the least weasel, found in Asia, North America and North Africa; it can be a small as 120 mm in body length, less than five inches without the tail, and weigh no more than 30 grams, not much more than an ounce, and as large as the polar bear (twice the size of a Siberian tiger) which can weigh up to 680 kg, 1,500 lbs or two-thirds of a ton, and be three metres or nearly ten feet long. Feared, beloved, hated, admired, persecuted, prized, mytholgised: emblems of kings and football teams: the great carnivores are the most talked about and sought after creatures on earth. Our childhoods are full of bears and wolves, and we are taken to zoos to admire lions and tigers. No group arouses such passions: and it is a fact in any discussion of wildlife issues, when carnivores come in at the door commonsense jumps out of the window forgetting trousers.