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The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

Author: John Vaillant
Rating: 8/10
Last Read: September 2016

Quick Summary:  This book has been on my reading list for years - and I'm sorry that I put it off so long.  I needed an enjoyable book to read while I was flying to China and back, and the Tiger definitely kept me occupied.

On the surface, this book is about a man-eating tiger in the Primorye region of Russia (near China).  However, Vaillant goes into great detail to describe the region, characters, and conflicts that lead each of the participants to the Primorye and into contact with this killer tiger.  I know nothing of Russia's far east, so the book was enlightening on these accounts. I did find myself skipping ahead at times to get back to the Tiger itself.  Vaillant's star of the book is definitely this tiger, and his writing is most captivating when he's discussing the beautiful death machines.

My Highlights

“He realized that in a town a man cannot live as he wishes, but as other people wish. Strangers surrounded him on every side and hampered him at every step.” --loc 465

“In situations like this, my rule is from the Bible,” Trush explains: “ ‘First, there was the word and then a deed.’ It is always better to warn a person first; if he does not understand that warning, take action. That’s the principle that I follow. Not for everyone, though.” --loc 734

“The most terrifying and important test for a human being is to be in absolute isolation,” he explained. “A human being is a very social creature, and ninety percent of what he does is done only because other people are watching. Alone, with no witnesses, he starts to learn about himself—who is he really? Sometimes, this brings staggering discoveries. Because nobody’s watching, you can easily become an animal: it is not necessary to shave, or to wash, or to keep your winter quarters clean—you can live in shit and no one will see. You can shoot tigers, or choose not to shoot. You can run in fear and nobody will know. You have to have something—some force, which allows and helps you to survive without witnesses. Markov had it. --loc 1313

Many people reach a point where they realize that the shape their life has taken does not square with the ambitions they once had for it. --loc 1355

Men carry their superiority inside; animals outside. Russian Proverb --loc 1643

Based on the observations of hunters and biologists, it appears that Amur tigers will occasionally kill bears solely on something that we might recognize as principle. --loc 2234

Due to the extraordinary circumstances, an exhaustive necropsy was done and, in the end, it confirmed that West had indeed crushed the bear’s skull. “In that sort of situation, you only have one choice,” West said later. “It’s live or die. Most people are too scared to think about living.” --loc 2439

“There are two categories of people when it comes to extreme situations,” said the leopard specialist Vasily Solkin. “One gets scared first and then starts thinking; the other starts thinking first and gets scared after the fact. Only the latter survive in the taiga.” --loc 2444

A new model had been created; whatever bonds had held this tiger in relationship to his human neighbors, indeed, to his own nature, were broken. Now, anything was possible. When a domestic animal goes wild—a sheep-killing dog, for example—it is referred to as feral, but there is no name for what happens when a wild animal goes in the other direction and becomes dangerously familiar with the world of domesticated creatures. What should one call it when a tiger starts eating people and shit, and injures itself demolishing man-made things? Is it rage? A loss of bearing? Or simply adaptation to a new order? Perhaps some things are best left unnamed. --loc 2551

“To do so,” wrote Uexküll in “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men,” “we must first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles, the familiar … is transformed.” Uexküll called this bubble the umwelt, a German word that he applied to a given animal’s subjective or “self-centered” world. An individual’s umwelt exists side by side with the Umgebung—the term Uexküll used to describe the objective environment, a place that exists in theory but that none of us can truly know given the inherent limitations of our respective umwelten. In addition to being delightful words to say, umwelt and umgebung offer a framework for exploring and describing the experience of other creatures. --loc 2581

Ultimately, the problem comes down to umwelt; we are such prisoners of our subjective experience that it is only by force of will and imagination that we are able to take leave of it at all and consider the experience and essence of another creature—or even another person. --loc 2616

In fact, the ability to step inside the umwelt “bubble” of another creature is not so much a newfound skill as it is a lost art. Successful hunting, it could be said, is an act of terminal empathy: the kill depends on how successfully a hunter inserts himself into the umwelt of his prey—even to the point of disguising himself as that animal and mimicking its behavior. --loc 2618

“A hunter can only rely on himself,” he said. “If anything happens, there is no one to help him, and all of us who live this way have a very advanced intuition. We also carry the experience of our ancestors in our heads: that’s how a man functions in taiga. The tiger is a hunter, just the same as a man is a hunter. A hunter has to think about how to get his prey. It is different for boar and deer: if leaves or cones fall down from a tree, that’s what they eat; there is no need to think. Tigers think.” --loc 2636

Anthropologists who write about indigenous peoples often note their tendency to anthropomorphize the animals around them. Even though !Kung and Nanai hunters (among countless others) have used this approach to great effect while hunting, the ascription of recognizable emotions and motives to animals causes problems for Western scholars, not least because they are awfully hard to prove in a lab or defend in a dissertation. Such claims are what lawyers and philosophers refer to as “arguments from inference”: anecdotal and unprovable. Under these circumstances, the potential for hair-splitting, semantic quibbling, and “definition objection” is endless, but it also misses the point: these feelings of trans-species understanding and communication have less to do with animals being humanized, or humans being “animalized,” than with all parties simply being sensitized to nuances of the other’s presence and behavior. --loc 2797

The colonel might as well have been describing peasants falling before berserkers. The most painful detail in this anecdote is the baboons’ resignation: with no hope of escape, they fashioned a refuge of last resort from the darkness in their own hands. The image is so poignant, in part, because those hands could so easily be ours. Perhaps it was the possibility of such catastrophes that kept the Sterkfontein baboons from fleeing that night when Brain frightened them so badly: better to lose one or two than risk the whole troop. --loc 2976

In terms of my feelings toward this tiger, I have only feelings of gratitude, and I will explain why: if a person goes through a tough ordeal in his life, he either breaks down or becomes stronger than he used to be. In my case, it was the latter. After this incident, I became stronger—not physically, of course, but spiritually. Maybe it will sound funny, but, possibly, some strength from this tiger was transferred to me.” --loc 3352

The horror in a thing is usually derived from its presence, however distorted or fragmentary, but here in the scrub and snow by the Takhalo was a broken frame with no picture in it. Had there been no tracks and no story, one could have thought these things had simply been abandoned—as if, a year or two earlier, some hunter had come down to the river for a swim, left his belongings in a heap, and simply never returned. Over the intervening seasons, animals, weather, and rot would have shredded and stained them, leaving the ruins that lay there now. But these clothes were only a few days old, and their owner had ceased to exist. --loc 3675

Smirnov may as well have been quoting Henry V:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews,
summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage.
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect.
--loc 3914

The impact of an attacking tiger can be compared to that of a piano falling on you from a second-story window. But unlike the piano, the tiger is designed to do this, and the impact is only the beginning. --loc 4252

The difference between the extinctions at the close of the Pleistocene and the bulk of those taking place today is one of consciousness: this time, however passively they may occur, they still amount to voluntary acts. Simply put: we know better. This is not an opinion, or a moral judgment; it is a fact. --loc 4747

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