5 Animal Attacks That Are The Stuff Of Legends
Animals are evil; this is known. Sure, you may be friends with your particular pet gerbil or may have not personally feuded with any hippos, but that complacence will come and bite you in the ass, next time you meet a python, and it bites you in the ass. So, today, we invite you to leave behind all fears from your everyday life and instead get (irrationally, pointlessly) terrified by the following tales of teeth and jaws.
The Beast Of Gévaudan
Something kept killing villagers in the 1760s in one province of France. It looked a lot like a wolf, but it was bigger than a wolf, it had a weird tail, and people said its face looked more like a calf. It was the son of a lion, said some, while others said it was a hyena (neither animal is known to be native to this part of southern France). Whatever it was, people credited it for killing many victims, 100 by one estimate but much more according to another.
Already, our more skeptical readers are questioning this story, because the witnesses were all French, and Frenchmen are liars. This sounds like ordinary wolves killed people, and everyone exaggerated because they had no idea what was happening. However, we should point out that French villagers were all quite familiar with wolves. Not only had they all watched Disney's Beauty and the Beast, but villages had their own dedicated wolf killers, and normal wolf attacks continued being documented at the same time as the Beast of Gévaudan reigned. The Beast, people insisted, was something else.
Instead of pursuing livestock (the smartest target, if you're an animal looking for the easiest, biggest meal), the Beast focused on human flesh. It almost always went for the head or neck, sometimes severing the head from the body. One time, a woman managed to spear the Beast and send it plunging into a river then retreating, and if that sounds crazy, yeah, that's why they erected her a statue.
The Beast attacked from 1764 to 1767. Its story could have ended with the deaths petering out, leaving everyone to repeat the legends, the unseen creature growing with each telling. The story instead ended with a hunter actually killing it, stuffing it, and taking it to the local castle for everyone to see. The preserved beast then made its way to the court of Louis XV. It was no more just a phantom people whispered about. Everyone got a good look at it in the light of day. And even now, no one was able to identify just what animal it was.
The best guess, combining today's knowledge with these calm people's descriptions: It was a hyena. Yeah, one of the animals we mentioned earlier like we were joking is the closest thing to an answer we have. How a hyena got to France, well, we invite you to construct your own entertaining narrative to fill in that gap. At least this stuffed version ruled out the other best theory people had had: that it was a werewolf. Werewolves turn back into men when you kill them, right?
The Man-Eaters Of Tsavo
Let's go next somewhere that lion or hyena attacks might make more sense: Kenya, at the end of the 19th century. East Africa has had a few different lions who won competitive eating contests, but we want to make sure you know about the most influential ones of all, the Tsavo Man-Eaters. This pair of lions gobbled a few dozen victims in 1898 for one simple reason. Lions hate trains.
The British were building a new railway to Uganda, and this pair of lions would come into the construction camps every night to grab workers out of their tents. They ate dozens of the men, easily getting past the camp's walls and traps.
We've talked about these lions before. But once you've gone back and read about the quest to defend the camp, we want to add a few more details. First is how, early on, the thousand or so local workers decided the smart thing was to get the hell out of there. Nowhere in camp was safe (even sleeping in the trees didn't work, since enough workers sleeping in a tree sent it crashing to the ground), so they gave their ultimatum, saying they wanted out. The British supervisor appears not to have let them leave. So to get a train to stop for them, they lay down in huge numbers in front of it. Then they piled inside it and escaped ... except for the segment of the workers who chose to stay; many of this segment ended up eaten.
Some of the early attempts to kill the lion failed in ways that made this whole thing look like a cartoon. One time, Colonel Patterson, the British army guy in charge, had a lion in his gunsights, but the gun misfired. Another time, he was perched in some scaffolding for safety when an owl mistook his head for a branch and sent him falling down, almost into the lions' clutches. Later, they tried to lure one lion into a cage, and this actually worked. Then a worker tried to shoot the trapped lion, missed, and instead shot out one of the cage's bars, allowing the lion to escape.
Finally, they got their act together and managed to kill both lions. News reached London, where the Prime Minister reported what had happened like this: "The whole of the works were put to a stop because a pair of man-eating lions appeared in the locality and conceived a most unfortunate taste for our workmen. At last the laborers entirely declined to carry on unless they were guarded by iron entrenchments. Of course it is difficult to work a railway under these conditions, and until we found an enthusiastic sportsman to get rid of these lions our enterprise was seriously hindered." This tone gets across the entertaining dry humor with which the British describe serious matters, as well as the cheery way Brits accept the death of anyone who is not British.
Patterson made the lions into rugs then later gave the skins to a museum, which reconstructed the animals for display.
The museum also analyzed the remains chemically. By studying their keratin levels, they were able to estimate just how many humans they had eaten: around 35. This is less than the 135 that Patterson recorded, which makes this tale a little less scary. On the other hand, this suggests 100 additional workers died through unrelated ways, and Patterson found it convenient to blame these deaths on the lions, which makes the data not so reassuring after all.
The Night Of The Grizzlies
For years, national parks had no specific rules on how to avoid bears. You don't bother setting rules till you realize you need them. It's like how, for years, that gas station close to your house never had a sign reading "do not insert pump nozzle into bodily orifices." But then your gas station got a wakeup call in the form of The Day Chris Came, and Montana's Glacier National Park got its wakeup call in the form on 1967's Night of the Grizzlies.
At around midnight on August 12, one bear approached a pair of sleeping hikers, Roy Ducat and Julie Helgeson. He sampled them both and then decided Julie tasted better, so he dragged her away for a more thorough mauling. She actually did survive long enough for a rescue party to find her and load her into a helicopter, but she died before they landed at a hospital.
Elsewhere in the park, employees camped at a beach by a lake, and they had an early scare in the form of a grizzly bear showing up, eating their food, then leaving with one of their packs. Later, about half an hour after Julie died in midair, this bear came back. They were a group of five, but the bear settled on one of them, Michele Koons. "He's got my arm off," she yelled. Then: "Oh God, I'm dead."
When rangers learned of the first death, they were shocked, but, well, not that shocked actually. The park had lacked rules for hikers picking up after themselves or closing trails at dangerous times, but rangers always knew danger existed, so something like this had to happen sooner or later. When they learned of the second death, though, they really were confused. Were these attacks related? The park had never had a single fatal bear attack before now, and now they'd had two, within hours of each other, but by separate bears, miles apart? They had a go at calculating the odds, and concluded the result was "incalculable," because they were cowards.
The really eerie part was how similar the victims were. Both were women, both were 19, both were blonde (a big ball of blonde hair rolled out when they later sliced open one bear's stomach). If the two had been murdered, by a human, you'd blame a serial killer with a specific appetite. How can we not do the same thing, knowing they were slain by bear, not man? Is it because we think bears aren't smart enough to organize and target victims over a large area? Maybe the average bear isn't, but some park bears are smarter than that.
The Demon Of Champawat
We've got another big cat story for you next. Actually, at the time of this story (the start of the 20th century) and the setting (northwest India), a whole bunch of famed big cats went on killing sprees. But let's focus on one cat working alone because this one tigress killed more people than maybe every other animal on this list combined.
The Demon of Champawat started out in Nepal, gobbling up 200 people. The country summoned the army to catch or kill the beast, and they failed at both these objectives. Just by patrolling and (we guess) yelling really loud, they did succeed in driving it across the border to India. There, the demon went on to kill even more people than it had already killed, so nice job with that, Nepal.
After too many maulings for us to even begin to narrate them all (we're purposely skipping the goriest details in all these stories, for your sake), a British hunter called Jim Corbett stepped up to lead the counterattack. We're tempted to call him "famed British hunter Jim Corbett" because this guy would go on to be famous, but this was the first time he slayed a maneater, the first of many.
Jim came up with the plan to follow the blood trail from one girl the demon had ripped open and dragged away. This worked well enough for finding the tiger but not very well at killing the tiger, nearly ending with the tiger killing Corbett instead. The next day, he tried again, this time backed up by a posse of 300 villagers. He succeeded in bagging the animal, thanks to having the presence of mind to shoot it in the foot and make it collapse right before it could spring and kill him.
Corbett went on to be famous not just for killing killers but also for fighting to protect animals that threatened no one, which is why India went on to name a national park after him. As for the demon, when people examined the corpse, they saw its teeth had been damaged, which explained why it hadn't been able to hunt normal prey and had turned its nose toward people. That's a nice explanation ... almost a suspiciously nice explanation. Because here's the weird thing: That was the exact same explanation people came up with for why the Man-Eaters of Tsavo ate people (until they killed the lions, actually examined the bodies, and discovered it wasn't true).
Croc On A Plane
You no longer live in villages vulnerable to animal attacks, and you personally avoid the great outdoors at all costs. That means you needn't fear a predator bringing you to your doom, right? Wrong. That just means your guard is down, which makes you more vulnerable than ever.
Consider the following situation, in which you probably think you're safe from land predators of all kinds: You're flying in the air. In 2010, twenty people aboard a small Filair plane in the Democratic Republic of Congo surely thought they were safe. "There are definitely no crocodiles on this plane," is what several passengers would have said if you had asked them.
And yet someone had indeed brought a crocodile on board, in a duffel bag. Security back at the airport in Kinshasa had let it through (the bag contained nothing dangerous, like large jars of hair gel), and now, with the plane nearing its destination, the animal got free. No, it did not kill everyone it saw. It did not need to. It just scared everyone into getting up and running forward. This plane was small and wasn't built to take such sudden shifts of weight ...
... and so the plane crashed. Into a house. Thankfully, no one was in the house at the time, so the crocodile failed at that part of its mass murder plot. But the crash killed 20 people on the flight. It killed everyone except one person, because one person had to remain alive to tell the tale.
Wait, no. It killed all aboard but two. Because, you see, the croc survived as well. It knew nothing about brace positions or other safety protocols, but it still knew how to avoid harm because it was the one who had engineered the crash. Local authorities then assumed control of the animal. They sentenced it to death—death by machete. We'd offer our wish that it was made into luggage post-mortem, but that would surely somehow allow it to kill passengers yet again.
Top image: Chris Servheen