Christopher McDougall Reviews The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
Christopher McDougall is the author of national bestseller Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen. He is a former war correspondent for the Associated Pressand a three-time National Magazine Award finalist. He's written for magazines ranging from Esquire and The New York Times Magazine to Outside and Men’s Health. He does his own running among the Amish farms around his home in rural Pennsylvania. Read his review of The Tiger:
A few years ago, I interviewed a Delaware state trooper named Butch LeFebvre who’d been assigned to investigate rumors that a mountain lion was roaming the outskirts of Wilmington. It was silly, of course--big cats had been wiped out on the East Coast more than a century ago. But just to be safe, LeFebvre strapped on night-vision goggles, loaded a rifle with a tranquilizer dart, and set off into the woods behind the Du Pont Country Club. By 3 A.M, he’d spotted nothing, so he headed back to his truck. The next evening, he returned to the same spot for another look--and found paw tracks following his footprints all the way back to where he’d parked. LeFebvre was an experienced hunter, but he learned something that night: one killer out there was doing a great job of watching and thinking and learning, and it wasn’t him.
To this day, the Wilmington lion has never attacked or even emerged from the suburban shadows. Not so lucky, however, is the Siberian village in John Vaillant’s chilling The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. In 1997, deep in the remote Russian backcountry, a gigantic Amur tiger begins acting like the only thing more savage than a wild animal--us. It doesn’t just attack villagers; it hunts them, picking its targets like a hitman with a contract, at one point even dragging a mattress out of a shack so it can lie comfortably in wait until the woodsman returns home. A few days later, the woodsman’s horrified friends discover remains “so small and so few they could have fit in a shirt pocket.”
Vaillant is as masterful with science as he is with suspense. We feel what it’s like to be in a tiny settlement cut off from the rest of the world, at the mercy of a beast so swift that it can’t be seen until its mouth bites down on your face. Tigers, Vaillant explains, are nature’s last word in mammalian weapons design. Big as three NFL linebackers bundled into one, armed with claws longer than fingers and jaws rated on a strength-scale used for dinosaurs, tigers are built like missiles and can out-swim, out-climb, out-fox and out-run just about anything that breathes. That’s the bad news; the worse news is, they’re also armed with memory and invisibility. “I have seen all the other animals,” one poacher says, “but I have never seen a tiger--not once.”
What enthralled me as much as the deadly cat-and-man game at the center of The Tiger are the side-stories that inform it. Vaillant introduces us to characters like Jakob von Uexkull, a Victorian-era baron-turned-physiologist who specialized in umwelt: the lost art of immersing yourself in another creature’s psyche. You crouch to the height of the animal you’re seeking, learning to see the world through its eyes, inhale scents through its nostrils, feel cool earth and crushed leaves beneath its padded paws. There are hunters in Siberia, Vaillant tells us, who can sniff the woods and identify animals by smell. These maestros believe killing a tiger without cause is as vile as murder, and such a violation of natural order that calamity is destined to follow. They feel such kinship with the big cats that they’ll even share their meals by leaving hunks of meat in the woods, convinced the tigers will re-pay them in kind with a deer haunch when times are lean. They see themselves as blood brothers of the Amurs--but as Vaillant shows us, no one fights more fiercely than relatives.
(Photo © Luis Escobar)
From Publishers Weekly
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