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  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books


    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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Archive for the ‘Fear & Courage’ Category

Cheer Up, Folks: It Ain’t So Bad

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 4, 2020

by Richard Conniff

For all of you who need cheering up in the time of plague (and apologies to those who have lost family or friends and are beyond cheering): I was randomly listening to Spotify when I heard someone named John Craigie singing, and this lyric leapt out, from the song “Dissect the Bird.”

It fits the moment:

So when the candle flickers, when the days get dark
They call them first world problems but they still break your heart
When the universe feels like it’s against you
Just take a minute to realize all it took to make you
Your parents had to meet, as random as that was
And hang out long enough at least, to make some love
And make a baby, and give it your name
And all your ancestors had to do the same
Exponentially backwards to the start of life
So much had to happen just exactly right
Sparks had to catch, oceans had to freeze
Billions of cells had to survive endless disease
Civilizations had to crumble, wars had to be fought Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Fear & Courage | Leave a Comment »

Good God! The Way We Talk to Each Other Sure Has Changed!

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 12, 2020

(Illustration: William Bramhall)


I happened to run across this piece this morning. It’s an “On Language” column I wrote for the September 18 1983 New York Times Magazine, and, holy crap, how much our culture has changed since then! It’s about a time, long, long ago, when Americans were excessively nice to one another. The headline was “The Case for Malediction,” and, America, I take it back.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times Magazine

Apple Computer ran an advertisement in various magazines early this year about the writing of a tricky business letter. The first draft of the letter began with the promising salutation ”Dear Mush-for-Brains.” But by the final version, the magic of word processing had transformed it, in effect, to ”Dear Valued Colleague.” The change may be good for business, but it is bad for the language, not to mention the blood.

Why not just come right out with something really wicked? It is the only healthy response to the terribly friendly times in which we live. The sharp word and the cutting retort are, moreover, commodities badly needed just now in American speech, which is becoming bloated and lazy with smile-button platitudes.

There are at least two ways to approach what might be termed the nice-nice crisis. It is possible, on the one hand, to take a sort of perverse sporting interest in the question of how much farther we can push back the boundaries of our national capacity for vapidness. Not long ago, I heard a television newscaster conclude her roundup of the usual atrocities with the earnest plea, ”Remember, you can make tomorrow a nicer day.”

Or, on the other hand, we can rebel. Tomorrow is almost certainly not going to be a nicer day, and what you’re going to need when you go out there is

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Posted in Fear & Courage, Funny Business | 3 Comments »

Wilfred Owen on the Horror of War

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 11, 2018

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the end of the first world war, and of the armistice that took place, in the mournful phrase seemingly designed for generations of sonorous broadcasters, “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

It sent me back to re-read Wilfred Owen, the British poet who died a hundred years ago this past Sunday, and particularly to the poem where he asks the reader to join him as he watches through the panes of his gas mask as another soldier who did not get his mask on slowly dies:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Owen’s message is the same message almost every soldier unlucky enough to experience war and lucky enough to survive it brings home to whoever will listen:  Honor the dead. But do not glorify this horror.

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Black Hound at Sunset

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 3, 2017

This isn’t quite the first piece I published in a national magazine, but it’s the first one that I felt good about. It ran in 1979 in Sports Illustrated, which back then took an interest in the world beyond Big Four sports.  I sent a copy to E.B. White, to thank him for some of the the things he had taught me about writing, and he replied, saying “when I got around to reading it, later, I could not put it down.”  This piece also appeared in my story collection Every Creeping Thing (Holt 1998).

by Richard Conniff

The sun was shining over the Atlantic when I arrived at the end of what had been a wet, stormy September day. I was staying the night at a hostel on Crohy Head about five miles from Dunglow, County Donegal. Inside, there was a turf fire and tea, and though I had already put in many miles on foot, the sun drew me out of doors again as soon as I had warmed myself a bit.

The hostel stood on a high spot with pasturage running down to the rocks and the water. Clambering over a stone wall, I walked slowly down through the grass. A stream babbled nearby, though the overgrowth almost hid it completely. Distracted by the murmuring water, I didn’t notice until the last moment the black dog racing down on me. It ran with a crazy, bucketing speed, and it leaped up at me almost before I had spotted it.

I have always been good with dogs, and I found I was particularly compatible with those in the West of Ireland. It was easy. The dogs there generally look alike and share the same quiet temperament; they are bred to herd sheep. “You seldom get a cross sheep dog,” a Mayo farmer had told me, as his dog rested its head against my knee. I hadn’t met a cross one yet, and so I didn’t panic when the dog

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Posted in Fear & Courage | 1 Comment »

Animal Music Monday: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 13, 2016

I probably first heard this song in the Kingston Trio version from 1959, because my older brother was a fan and their “.. from the Hungry I” album got played to ruin on the family’s monotone record player.

But the song dates from 20 years earlier, when a group called The Evening Birds stepped up to the microphones in a studio in Johannesburg and lead singer Solomon Linda, otherwise employed as a cleaner and packer for the record company, began to extemporize.  His song, call “Mbube,” or “The Lion,” became a hit in southern Africa.

In 1952, Pete Seeger and The Weavers introduced the song to the West, largely intact, based on a copy of the 78 rpm recording brought to him by the great musicologist Alan Lomax.  Seeger somehow misheard Linda’s “Mbube Uyimbube,” Zulu words meaning “the Lion, you are the lion” as “Wimoweh,” meaning absolutely nothing.  But his heartfelt, soaring falsetto caught some of the loneliness, fear, Read the rest of this entry »

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Raid Frees Whale Sharks Illegally Bound for Ocean Theme Parks

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 11, 2016

A diver leads a whale shark out of the holding pen and safely back to the wild. (Photo: Paul Hilton/WCS)

A diver leads a whale shark out of the holding pen and safely back to the wild. (Photo: Paul Hilton/WCS)

by Richard Conniff/

In the latest episode in a remarkable crackdown on illegal wildlife trafficking in Indonesia, law enforcement officers there have staged a nighttime raid on a major supplier of large ocean species to the international wildlife trade. The raid revealed a scheme to illegally catch whale sharks—the largest fish species in the world, with the potential to grow to 41 feet in length and weigh 47,000 pounds—and export them to Chinese aquatic amusement parks.

Agents of the Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs found two whale sharks, each about 14 feet long, being held in submerged pens. Even fully grown, the sharks are harmless, slow-moving fish, typically swimming with mouths agape to filter-feed on plankton. Divers entered the pens and guided the sharks, which had been held for three months, back to freedom.

The raid was the result of a tip from Indonesia’s Wildlife Crimes Unit, a wing of the Wildlife Conservation Society. WCU had conducted an 18-month  investigation of the target company in the case. It was Indonesia’s seventh marine law enforcement action to take place this year with WCU support. In addition to those cases, which involved illegal trafficking in manta ray body parts, seashells, and sea turtles, the WCU assisted this year in the arrest of two poachers trading the body parts of endangered Sumatran tigers.

The raid was also part of an extraordinary campaign against wildlife trafficking by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Minister of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Susi Pudjiastuti, a former seafood entrepreneur. Indonesia has been notorious as the scene of

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Posted in Environmental Issues, Fear & Courage | Leave a Comment »

I’m Really Hoping That’s Not a Bullet Ant on Justin’s Nose

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 6, 2016

Justin Schmidt being foolish.

Justin Schmidt being foolish.

I wrote about Justin Schmidt and the “Justin Schmidt Sting Pain Index” in my “intensely pleasurable” book Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals.  Here’s the opening to that chapter:

     One morning not long ago, an American entomologist named Justin Schmidt was making his way up the winding road to the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica when he spotted Parachartergus fraternus, social wasps known both for the sculpted architecture of their hive and for the ferocity with which they defend it. This hive was ten feet up a tree, and the tree angled out from an eroded bank over a gorge. Schmidt, who specializes in the study of stinging insects, got out a plastic garbage bag and promptly shinnied up to bag the hive.

He had taken the precaution of putting on his beekeeper’s veil. Undeterred, the angry wasps charged at his face, scootched their hind ends under in midair, and,

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Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools, Fear & Courage, Funny Business | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Why Predators Matter

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 22, 2015


There are no doubt plenty of contenders in the category “most destructive thing humans have done to Planet Earth,” but killing off predators has to rank near the top. And it is a continuing crime against nature.

Looking just at modern times, the list of predators we have driven to extinction includes North Africa’s Atlas bear, North America’s short-faced brown bear, the Caspian tiger, the thylacine (a marsupial carnivore in Tasmania), and the Zanzibar leopard, eradicated in the 1990s because of nonsense folklore about witchcraft.

We have pushed the few remaining big predators into a sad vestige of their old territory. Leopards are now gone from 66 percent of their range in Africa and 85 percent in Eurasia. Tigers are down to just seven percent of the territory they once ruled. African lion are on the brink of extinction in the wild, with just eight percent of their former range. Gray wolves, exterminated from the entire United States except Minnesota and Alaska, have in recent decades managed to slip back into a half-dozen or so other states, but only against the most violent resistance.

Why are we so terrified of predators? We are haunted by the ghosts of our evolutionary history, much as are pronghorn deer. They evolved to outrun North American cheetahs—and still run that fast even though the cheetahs went extinct 12,000 years ago. You might imagine that humans would be smarter than that, and yet we Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Fear & Courage | 2 Comments »

No, Rachel Carson Was Not a Mass Murderer

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 10, 2015

My latest for Yale Environment 360:

Any time a writer mentions Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring or the subsequent U.S. ban on DDT, the loonies come out of the woodwork. They blame Carson’s book for ending the use of DDT as a mosquito-killing pesticide. And because mosquitoes transmit malaria, that supposedly makes her culpable for just about every malaria death of the past half century.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, devotes an entire website to the notion that “Rachel was wrong,” asserting that “millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm.” Likewise former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn has declared that “millions of people, particularly children under five, died because governments bought into Carson’s junk science claims about DDT.” The novelist Michael Crichton even had one of his fictional characters assert that “Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler.” He put the death toll at 50 million.

Carson-w-book-1-340It’s worth considering the many errors in this argument both because malaria remains an epidemic problem in much of the developing world and also because groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, backed by corporate interests, have latched onto DDT as a case study for undermining all environmental regulation.

The first thing worth remembering is that it wasn’t Rachel Carson who banned DDT. It was the very Republican Nixon Administration, in 1972. Moreover, the ban applied only in the United States, and even there it made an exception for public health uses. The ban was intended to prevent the imminent extinction of ospreys, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles, our national bird, among other species; they were vulnerable because DDT caused a fatal thinning of eggshells, which collapsed under the weight of the parent incubating them. But the ban did nothing to stop Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, Fear & Courage | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Got a Favorite Beer? Thank a Fruitfly For That

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 11, 2014

beerWhen I am not thinking about wildlife, I am often thinking about beer. So it’s nice (and also sort of icky) to see these two interests come together in a study showing that  fruitflies give beer its flavor.  Interesting that the study comes from Belgium, home of some of the more aromatic beers.  (Do beer flavors vary regionally depending on the Drosophila species?)  Also not in the least surprising that the researcher got the idea for this work as a graduate student.

I suppose the fruitfly-beer connection shouldn’t seem all that novel because I have often used a small dish of beer to attract and kill fruitflies around the kitchen.  But the idea that the fruitflies have contributed to the taste of beer suggests I need to think about them more kindly.  To butcher  A.E. Housman a bit, “Malt does more than Darwin can/to justify the ways of Drosophila to man.”

I’m going to shut up now and go to the press release:

Meet the bartender

Meet the bartender

The familiar smell of beer is due in part to aroma compounds produced by common brewer’s yeast. Now, researchers reporting in the journal Cell Reports have discovered why the yeast make that smell: the scent attracts fruit flies, which repay the yeast by dispersing their cells in the environment.

Yeast lacking a single aroma gene fail to produce their characteristic odor, and they don’t attract fruit flies either.

“Two seemingly unrelated species, yeasts and flies, have developed an intricate symbiosis based on smell,” said Kevin Verstrepen of KU Leuven and VIB in Belgium. “The flies can feed on the yeasts, and the yeasts benefit from the movement of the flies.”

Verstrepen first got an idea that this might be going on about 15 years ago as a graduate student studying how

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Posted in Fear & Courage, Food & Drink | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »