Animal Stories


Butterfly traps are constructed by suspending a dish beneath the mouth of a long column of net. The dish is full of the most revolting bait—chiefly rotting fruit and bad meat, although animal waste will do. Some people find this surprising, given the beauty of the butterfly. I do. But in any case, you are free to go off and swat other specimens with your own net while the trap blithely collects butterflies and other hapless insects—maybe even a bird. I learned that the traps work because butterflies do not fly down in times of distress. When they think their lives depend on it, they will knock their heads a thousand times against the mesh roof without ever turning around. How stupid. But who has not been in the butterfly’s place?


There are several different techniques for camouflage. There is mimesis, as when a moth looks like a crumpled leaf or when a stick bug lives up to its name. This decreases the odds of being preyed upon but increases the odds of being stomped. The dizzying zigzags employed by zebras and some warships in the First World War are known as dazzle patterning. This works better in motion, and in the case of the former, it helps that lions are colorblind.

The most famous type of camouflage is crypsis. We see it in leopards and military uniforms, or in arctic mammals and birds who change from brown to white in the wintertime. The chameleon, too. But the best camouflage, perhaps, is the tiny Allobates zaparo, which has the mottled red back and blue belly of a much more poisonous frog. The beautiful can get away with almost anything.


Who can forget the smell of a zoo? Beneath the stench of the primate house, the lizard rooms, the penguin pool, and the muggy tropic zone, there is a stale animal pungence. The smell is uniform not just throughout the zoo, but throughout all the zoos of the world. The oldest zoo in America is in Philadelphia. That’s where I first smelled it. The oldest zoo in the world is the* Tiergarten Schönbrunn* in Vienna, founded in 1752 as a menagerie. I have never been there but I know its heady stink. Apparently the Tiergarten exists for the purpose of science, but we all like to look. In the future everything will be different but zoos.


I had a dog who was fundamentally changed by the death of his friend. When he saw her body he retreated to a corner and moved only his eyes; his chin was planted firmly on the floor. For weeks afterwards he surrounded himself with every one of his toys no matter where he went, even if it took several trips to reconsolidate his holdings. He whined when he pulled out the cotton stuffing as though he were narrating. Grief, then, is not what separates us from animals. Nor mourning.


If you want to kill a fly, wait for it to land. It will clean its front legs as though keeping warm. Hold your hands just above the fly and clap. A friend advised me on how to do this as a fly sat in front of us on a table. When I skeptically clapped, the fly fell dead on the gingham plastic. There is no moral here, just practical advice.