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23 november 2011
One of my maxims in life is that if you want to write on the Internet, you need the hide of a rhinoceros. I'd never much considered the vehicle of that metaphor till I read Kelly Enright's Rhinoceros. Clearly the rhinoceros is appropriate figurally because we assume its impenetrable hide conceals sensibilities to match. Rhinoceroses are squinty giants with an offputting appearance. Locked behind their skin and their senses, they seem to know little and care less of the world around them. "Stupid" is a word that comes up often in Enright's book: but she shows that this proverbial stupidity is an ungenerous projection of our own onto the rhinoceros, a creature pretty competent on its own terms.
Rhetoric by hunters and conservationists has sometimes questioned that competence. Rhinos are frequently called "unadaptable," usually in invidious comparisons to elephants. Similarities between elephants and rhinos are only skin deep. The elephant is more sociable and more of an opportunist in its lifestyle. An elephant might be thought of as a somewhat smarter version of a horse – a horse with almost human attributes. But rhinos are more like cattle. Despite the fact that they look dangerous as hell, rhinos are apparently very docile creatures who only get somewhat upset when they don't get enough food.
For decades, rhinos were the creatures that would ram your vehicle if you were a nature expert for a television show. They were Martin & Osa Johnson's great nemesis; these famous photogenic hunters of the early 20th century shot lots of rhinos simply because they didn't like rhinos much. Enright, an expert on the Johnsons, features them to their detriment astride dead rhinos who assuredly weren't bothering anybody. The matter-of-fact approach taken by the Johnsons, and other characters like Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, towards shooting as many rhinos as possible and the larger the better, is very disturbing, particularly when coupled with a view of the rhino as a big cowlike animal. At least a tiger might be legitimately gunning for the hunter, if severely outgunned in the contest. The rhino just wants to eat.
Most of the Reaktion Animal books start with biology and taxonomy, and move into culture. Enright saves her taxonomy for last and doesn't do much natural history of the rhino at all. She offers excellent unexpected chapters instead: first on the unicorn and the dinosaur. Why? When Westerners first tried to talk about rhinos, they did so in terms of unicorns; when they first tried to talk about dinos, they did so in terms of the now-familiar rhino. Rhinoceroses became famous in the west thanks to individuals who survived exportation to become the stars of various menageries; following Glynis Ridley in Clara's Grand Tour (2004), Enright sees these individual stars as emblematic for projection of Western ideas onto exotic animals. We then move to rhinos in the hunt, in culture, in conservation. It's a sympathetic and smart treatment of an offbeat animal.
Other Reaktion authors have tried to claim that animals like ducks, parrots, and cows are central to human interaction with the nonhuman. Enright can't claim that. But she makes a powerful case for the dignity of the rhinoceros – both in his wild unapproachability and his curious tameness once approached. Rhino subspecies were going extinct even as I read Rhinoceros, and Enright's book made me regret this change all the more bitterly.
Enright, Kelly. Rhinoceros. London: Reaktion, 2008.