Who knew that baboon social behavior resembles Jane Austen novels? Or that the ants in kid’s ant farms are among the most venomous of all arthropods? From big cats to horseshoe crabs and snapping turtles to termites, Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time is an adventurous and uncommon tour of the animal kingdom.
Richard Conniff writes with vibrancy and verve. His prose crackles with the leaves on an African savannah and shimmers with the sun on a Louisiana bayou. He’s self-deprecating and inquisitive, with a knack for drawing insight from unusual facts about animals and the people who study them: a scientist French-kissed by a hummingbird, a leopard tracker who writes field notes on his legs, and a researcher stung so many times by the insects he studies that he developed a scale to research the pain itself. Conniff’s experiences make for lively reading-leaping into a river full of piranha may get the title, but interviewing ranchers protecting livestock by shooting endangered cheetahs is equally as dangerous and just as provoking. Though animals form the heart of Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time, Conniff demonstrates that the practice of science is just as fascinating as the animals themselves.
This review originally appeared in the June, 2009 issue of The Sacramento Book Review.