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    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Me, Spiderman, and the Life-Changing Bite

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 2, 2014


To mark today’s release of yet another tired version of the Spider-Man story, here’s a slightly different version of the story I published earlier this week.  I wrote this version last year while cleaning out my Dad’s house after his death.  It’s being published today, like Hollywood sequels, as if on auto-pilot, because I scheduled it back then and promptly forgot about it.

You remember that scene in the “Spiderman” comic where young Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider?

By way of reminder, here’s a panel from the original comic, published in the early 1960s.  (Yes, cartoonists back then thought that spiders were insects.)  This was the key event that turned mild little Parker into the celebrated web-swinger.

So when my father died recently, I began going through his father papers and I came across a story he wrote about zoo doctors.  Late in 1963–50 years ago now–he took me to the Staten Island Zoo as part of his research, and there veterinarian Patricia O’Connor introduced me to to the year-old chimp in the picture below.

A photo of this scene appeared in the article “Physicians for Fang and Fur,” published in February 1964 in Columbia Magazine.  It wasn’t my first appearance in a magazine.  The Saturday Evening Post had published a poem he wrote about me as a “pink and precious” infant “tiny, elfin, fey.”  But it was my first appearance as an identifiable person.

Anyway, immediately after this photo was taken that day at the State Island Zoo, the chimp bit me in the arm … and NOTHING WAS EVER THE SAME.

Patricia O'Connor, young culprit, unsuspecting victim at the Staten Island Zoo.

Patricia O’Connor, young culprit, unsuspecting victim at the Staten Island Zoo.

O.k., I didn’t exactly develop magical powers to swing through the trees or, chimpanzee-fashion, hurl shit at the heads of approaching strangers.  But I became a writer about wildlife. Same thing, almost.

Until now, I had completely forgotten this episode. When interviewers asked me how I started writing about wildlife, I told them how an editor once asked me to write about New Jersey’s state bird, the salt marsh mosquito, and how I became fascinated with the incredible surgical tools in the mosquito’s proboscis.

Really, all I had to say was: Bitten, age 12, by radioactive chimpanzee.

For the record, here’s my dad’s story.  He calls ungulates “cow- and deer-type animals,” and refers to several species as “monsters.”  But I’m not complaining.  It’s a step up from some of the other stories he was writing at about the same time, co-authored with J. Edgar Hoover.


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