Zoologist Bill Schutt knows his animals. Growing up, he kept a squirrel monkey named Guggie — short for Guggenheim — in his living room and several boa constrictors in his bedroom. His father drove a Mister Softee truck and delivered milk; his mother supervised a production line for Estée Lauder. She, he says, was the funny one.
As a grade-schooler in Lindenhurst, young Bill declared his desire to work for the American Museum of Natural History, where he is a staff researcher today. He focused his Cornell University dissertation on the anatomy and terrestrial mobility of three species of vampire bats, then parlayed that research into 2008’s “Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures.”
This vein led the gregarious 61-year-old to his newest book, “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History” (Algonquin Books, 332 pp., $26.95). In England, the title is “Eat Me.” Even before publication, a filmmaker optioned the book, and Schutt, a professor at LIU Post, is relishing an ever-larger readership.
He spoke by telephone from his home on the East End.
Were you surprised that cannibalism exists among hundreds, if not thousands, of species?
Was I. I learned a tremendous lot as this book came together. This — cannibalism — is everywhere in the animal kingdom. I thought, my God. I was as surprised as anybody else.
In the animal kingdom, cannibalism occurs for reasons besides overcrowding or lack of food. It can be a reproductive strategy or function in parental care. In humans, there's cannibalism for ritual and medicinal reaons, as well as instances of starvation or criminal cannibalism.
You write “the circumstances that might lead to outbreaks of cannibalism in the 21st century are grounded in science, not science fiction.” Please elaborate.
Populations are growing and resources are dwindling. If you imagine an agricultural crash — from climate change or whatever reason — in an already overcrowded country, a certain number of people will eat their dead. It’s a response to extreme hunger. It’s extreme behavior, yes, but it’s natural behavior.
What are your thoughts about science in the current political climate?
We’re all sort of waiting to see what happens next. Facts matter. All scientists now need to be careful, vigilant and not give in. We are people who value facts and truth. We can’t draw into ourselves and we can’t just hang out with other scientists. We owe it to everyone to just be clearer and stronger now that facts are interpreted right, and that we have scientific follow-up.
Do your scientific colleagues object to your book’s insouciant tone, with chapter headings like “Go on, Eat the Kids” and “Placenta Helper”?
Not one. I’ve written more than two dozen scientific papers. I’ve established myself as a really enthusiastic, hardworking biologist. Everyone knows I have an entertainer quality — in the classroom or giving a paper at a national meeting. I’ve made a niche taking topics that some find grotesque or confusing and demystifying them. I’m just running with it.
Are there any books you are an evangelist for?
I love this question: E.O. Wilson’s “Diversity of Life” — that’s what I give to my students when they graduate. He is such a wonderful writer. I also like his book “Naturalist.”
You also co-write thrillers featuring the “brilliant zoologist” Capt. R. J. MacCready. Pulitzer winner Marilynne Robinson has said she produces fiction and nonfiction with different parts of her brain. You?
Fiction and nonfiction serve two purposes. It’s certainly easier to write fiction — you sit there and make up these characters. You can crank out the fiction easier. With nonfiction, you travel, you do these interviews: you wade into a pond to watch spadefoot toad tadpoles, follow a cadaver-sniffing dog or get on a plane to Texas to eat a piece of placenta. It’s just as interesting but for a very different reason: with fiction you create a world; with nonfiction you document the world.
Describe your Long Island boyhood.
I was the kid who was always flipping over rocks and looking under logs. I couldn’t wait for the class trip to upstate New York each spring. I was always into weird animals. I had a squirrel monkey when you could walk into White’s of Massapequa and buy one for $30, including the parrot-appropriate cage. Soon after though, my parents and I built a wooden cage the dimensions of a phone booth — right in the middle of our not-very-big living room. There Guggie lived happily on monkey chow supplemented by meal worms and Italian food. He loved pasta.