What do a spider, an octopus and quadruplets have in common? They have eight legs and nobody really wants them."
That is the kind of thing you hear about certain creatures all the time. In Animals Nobody Loves (Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, Vt., $6.95; Bantam, 75¢) a Vermont naturalist named Ronald Rood records a number of such libels:
"Then the creeping murderer, the octopus, steals out...while its evil goat eyes watch coldly."—John Steinbeck, Cannery Row, 1945.
"Spiders convert to poyson whatsoever they touche."—George Pettie, 1576.
"The wolf is naturally dull and cowardly. The color of the eyeballs is of a fiery green."—Wonders of the World, 1894.
Then Rood undertakes to rehabilitate the octopus, the spider, the wolf, the rat, the bat, the flea, the mosquito, the snake, the vulture, the coyote, the pig and the eel. In this he is not 100% successful. The best thing he can find to say about mosquitoes, for instance, is that some of them eat other mosquitoes. And a rat seems no more lovable because Rood once saw one back a Doberman pinscher up a large mound of debris, or because when a friend of his jabbed at one with a rake the rat "promptly climbed up the handle and chased her out into the driveway."
Nor is it likely to ease anyone's phobias to learn that Biologist Karl von Frisch decided that "if human beings were tuned in properly we could hear from the thick fur of a large dog a choral concert like that of crickets and grasshoppers in a grass field." Or that there exists a large form of bat which looks like "a chihuahua with the wings of a goose."
Rood does squelch a number of popular canards about these widely frowned-upon beasts and fleshes out the popular image of each varmint or creepy-crawly with such absorbing vignettes and remarkable observations that the reader is not likely ever again to feel like destroying any of them—except the mosquito. As far as I am concerned a mosquito will have to yell, like the bugs in Pogo, "Careful! If you skooshes a bug we gets rain!" before I will show it any consideration.
I do feel a little warmer toward black widow spiders now. Rood does not attempt to deny that female black widows often eat their mates, but he does make us recognize the moxie of male black widows. The male lands on the edge of a female's web knowing full well that she may not be in the mood for love, in which case you know what she will be in the mood for. Sometimes he brings an insect to push in front of him; maybe she will eat that (Rood doesn't tell us whether there has ever been a case of a female black widow saying, "Speak for yourself, lightning bug," to this go-between). But usually the male arrives alone, takes his heart in his mouth and plucks a strand of the web, like the string of a mandolin. If the female does not respond, that is a good sign.
"He plucks the net once more," explains Rood. "This time there's an answering jiggle from the other corner. Wonderful. He places a tentative foot on the web, then another. More twitches and countertwitches, and he reaches the side of his beloved.
"Now begins an unusual process."
And here we shall draw the veil. Discover what happens in Animals Nobody Loves. It is full of good inside stuff about creatures about whom you will never again be able to say simply, "Yecch."