St. Thomas Newsroom

An Observer of the Kingdom of Deadly Animals

St. Thomas English Professor Gordon Grice holds an alligator skull in this studio portrait taken October 6, 2016. These photos were taken to accompany a story about Grice's book, The Book of Deadly Animals.

Gordon Grice likes celebrating nature. He also likes sharing all the ways it could potentially kill us. As he is apt to point out, those two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

“I try to write beautifully about the darkest aspects of nature – predation, death and other delights,” Grice writes in his blog profile. “I love all the faces of nature, but my work is not for the squeamish or the sentimental.”

Grice, an instructor of English at St. Thomas since 2001, said he has combined his love of nature and writing for as long as he can remember. The pairing has resulted in articles in publications such as The New Yorker and Harper’s, as well as several books. The Red Hourglass focuses on the lives of predators; The Book of Deadly Animals explores the relationships humans have with nearly every type of animal on the planet; and The Cabinet of Curiosities assists children in their collection of the natural world.

While Grice said that writing is the most important thing to him, he emphasized that, “You can’t really take nature out of anybody’s life, whether think about it that way or not. It’s what we are.”

Dogs and spiders and gorillas, oh my!

One guiding aspect of Grice’s writing is clarifying what we understand about animals and nature. He described The Red Hourglass as being about his own adventures in nature while The Book of Deadly Animals is a research book that explores both our relationships with various animals and stories of how and when they harm us. Deadly Animals stems from his realization that our worldview in regards to animals has shifted.

“I had come across several interesting books from the ’60s that … survey the whole animal kingdom and tried to gather up objective materials about how dangerous animals were,” Grice said. “Both of those books were really well done and they were really wrong. And the reason they were wrong isn’t because the writers had failed, but because of the world they lived in. … That’s when I realized that our understanding of the environment has progressed so far that we need re-evaluate all of that information.”

For Deadly Animals. Grice interviewed scientists, researched thousands of stories about interactions with animals gone awry and includes his own experiences. One element he explores is how our perception of our relationship with a certain animal affects the actual relationship. That’s a theme he brings to the immediate forefront in Chapter One: Wolves, Dogs, and Their Kin.

“In much of the world – the parts where people have extirpated the large native predators – the dog is the most dangerous large animal except for human beings. In the United States, for example, an estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur each year,” Grice writes. “People view most of these incidents as something of a different order from, say, an attack by a crocodile or a bear. It is this very difference in perception that allows a dog to be a danger.”

On the flip side, he points out that there are plenty of animals whose danger we overestimate. “Why do spiders so often get the blame?” he writes. “Part of the answer seems to lie in arachnophobia.”

While the book is a compilation of times an animal interaction has gone wrong, sprinkled throughout are stories of Grice’s day-to-day adventures, which include animals he and his sons have kept, including tarantulas, dogs and beetles. When asked what animals he thinks are acceptable to be kept as pets, Grice admitted he didn’t think of his own as “pets,” and that only a few animals with a long evolutionary history, such as cats and dogs, should be kept as pets.

Another theme that emerges throughout Dangerous Animals is how being in close quarters with humans often puts stressors on animals in a way that can make them difficult to predict, which is why zoos are often scenes of unfortunate incidents. Grice admitted to having mixed feelings when it comes to zoos.

“Just in the past week, I’ve been to the Minnesota zoo, and I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “I think, on a philosophical level, zoos are kind of indefensible. [At the end of May], because of human misbehavior, a gorilla was killed. But the other side of that is there are more gorillas because the zoos exist to protect them. It’s not as good as the wild, but because the wild is completely compromised for some species, depending on the range and habitat, zoos might be a bad answer but still the best answer.”

Grice said he learned something about every animal he studied, even the ones he was familiar with. In that line, he said that there wasn’t any animal that he wouldn’t be interested in learning more about.

He added this contingency for how best to interact with animals, though: “[Interacting with animals is] what a lot of people want that’s not very good for animals. … In some parts of India, there’s walkways with lucite – see-through walls that go over stretches of the jungle. You can walk by and maybe you’ll get to see a tiger. And whether you do or not, you can’t do anything about it. You can’t alter the tiger’s behavior, other than there being a structure there. That’s the sort of relationship I think we should have with most animals.”

Going wild in the classroom

After Cabinet of Curiosities came out into 2015, Grice wrote a children’s novel based on stories he told his children when they were younger, and is currently working on a children’s novel about Mary Shelley. He said writing for a different audience hasn’t been that difficult, because often the age categories on books don’t correlate with who is actually reading the book.

“I recently had a project where an editor said this is too scary for kids. I’m just convinced that it’s not,” Grice said. “It’s scary for parents who have a certain vision of what’s OK for kids. I know if I were 10 years old and saw a book of scary stories, I would probably be interested.”

Grice uses his writing experience in the classroom at St. Thomas, particularly in topics classes, where he has done classes on animals, monsters and is teaching Thrilling Tales of Adventure this fall. He works to find “high-interest topics” that also have literary depth.

He said, practically, his writing experience also helps him be able to relate to his students better.

“I think it’s really helpful if a student has a problem or a writing challenge or some sort, I can … say, ‘This is how I handled that when I had a similar problem,’” Grice said.

“Students respond so well to [Gordon] and appreciate that he treats them as professionals,” echoed Amy Muse, chair of the English Department. “He really shows students the lived experience of being a professional writer: investigating, drafting, revising, persevering through failures and rejections, finding fresh ways of seeing and surprising himself and readers.”

Finding fresh ways of seeing certainly lines up with Grice’s goals for his students and his writing.

“I want students to break out of barriers, and that’s what I try to do with my writing,” he said.