We are horrified when a crocodile snatches and devours a baby or a dog. Determined to teach the beast a lesson for violating our sense of decency, we hunt for it with the intent of imposing the ultimate penalty. Such scenarios might someday cease thanks to what naturalists view as an equally alarming prospect: the very extinction of some of Earth's most fearsome, carnivorous animals. In Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, author David Quammen predicts the next 150 years will be critical in determining if some subspecies of flesh-eating animals are confined to zoos or other supervised habitats en route to their eventual disappearance.
"Dangerous predators, of whatever species, are more easily admired from afar," Quammen advises. Then, disregarding his own observation, he takes the reader on trips that make most of the travel industry's ambitious safari packages look like a Sunday picnic. His treks lead to such human-meat consumers as India's Asiatic lions, Australia's saltwater crocodiles and Russia's Siberian tigers. In his previously published and widely praised The Song of the Dodo, Quammen asserts that animal preserves involve isolation and confinement, and thus render the creatures vulnerable to biological or climatic catastrophes that might lead to their annihilation. In Monster of God, he extends that reasoning and tells why he thinks humanity needs menacing, man-eating creatures and would be forever diminished by their disappearance. If you have a habit of skimming, make sure you don't flip through the section entitled "Shadow of the Nine-Toed Bear" or you'll miss one of the most interesting parts of the book. It deals with Romania's brown bears, and the odds are that when you learn about the history of the grizzlies in that country and of the privileged hunting tactics of Nicolae Ceausescu, the deranged dictator executed in 1989, you'll end up rooting for the beasts. Alan Prince lectures at the University of Miami School of Communication.