Category Archives: 7 Deadly Sins


Of the seven deadly sins, Envy is my least favorite. It is the only one that offers no pleasure at all in having it, and which necessarily can never be fulfilled. While it is fun to sleep in, gorge yourself, get laid, get paid, and dress up, it is absolutely no fun to want what’s not yours. Even Wrath, while technically an unwanted emotion, is a guilty pleasure at times, a green, intoxicating gamma-ray cocktail of adrenaline, testosterone, and bile. But Envy? Envy is a sulking sin. It whines like a child whose sibling got the front seat. It screams like a man in love with a married woman. Envy, an unchecked desire, is the root of all pain. It is samsara.

So you might think that envy is the one vice that is truly human. But think again. Animals can possess things (food, mates, nests, territories, physical attributes), and where ever there’s possession, envy is sure to follow. It’s especially prevalent in social animals that have fluid hierarchies. Primates are well-known for jealousy: female gorillas offer non-procreative sex when they see other females mating with the silverback, just to curry favor with him, and capuchin monkeys are far less likely to cooperate with researchers when other monkeys were given better treats. Elephants show jealousy, especially sibling rivalry. And a recent study of dogs found that, in what should be no surprise to dog owners, dog become envious when other dogs receive more attention or better rewards. Birds, too, feel envy and jealousy, and not just those sociable, evil-eyed parrots. When it comes to mates, even bluebirds, those harbingers of marital bliss, are known to become abusive husbands when they suspect infidelity.

With envy so ubiquitous in the animal kingdom, but mainly only proven in domesticated lab animals, which wild animal can I pick to represent Envy? For the answer, I turn back to the King James Bible. Maybe it’s not an envious animal, but the object of envy:

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour’s.

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Finally. The one you’ve been waiting for.

The list of bizarre sexual rites in the animal kingdom is almost too numerous and well-documented to enumerate. Even if I were to define “lust” by the quantity of sex a species has, as opposed to just the quality, I’d be writing until you fell out of your chair, stunned by the sheer depravity and shocking variety taking place in the name of sexual selection. For example, lions in heat will mate 20-40 times a day for several days in a row, and the male lion’s corkscrew-shaped penis has backwards-facing barbs which both help him stay attached and rake the vagina to induce estrus. A pig’s orgasm can last half an hour. And how do porcupines make love? Very carefully… and also insatiably, as the female is only in heat for 8-12 hours a year. With only a half-day window of opportunity, the female will mate with a lover until he is exhausted, and then move right on to the next. Conjugal visits begin with foreplay which involves the male hosing the female with urine from six feet away.

My natural pick for an animal to represent “lust” would be the bonobo, a chimp-like ape which uses constant sex as a means of social bonding. However, since I’ve already written about the bonobo in another context, I’ll have to choose something new. Reproduction being essential for life, it’s hard to define “lust” as an over-indulgence in the animal kingdom; animals that procreate often are just fulfilling their biological imperative. But there are a few cases so exceptionally naughty, so blue, so indisputably NSFW that I am forced to admit that, when it comes to the dirty deed, Homo sapiens is a total prude.

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In prehistoric Africa lived a beast that terrorized our hominid ancestors like no other creature in history. In fact, it killed more early humans than lions, crocodiles, and water buffalo combined. With over two tons of bulk and sharp, foot-long tusks – its skin oozing a red viscous liquid that made it appear to be sweating blood – one of these monsters would attack suddenly for no reason, charging out of the water far faster than its hapless human prey could run, snapping their entire body in half with a massive bite. But it didn’t eat its victims – it was an herbivore. It killed simply because it was 8,000 lbs of testosterone-fueled rage.

The scary thing is: It’s still around. And everything that was true then is true now. It’s the deadliest, most wrathful animal in the world.

And it’s hungry, hungry.

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Let’s hear it for the nappers. Let’s hear it for the procrastinators, for the layabouts, the buddhas and the snooze button junkies. Let’s hear it for getting stoned mid-morning. For siestas, for Thanksgiving food comas, for sleeping in on Sundays and not going to church, for faked sick days. Let’s hear it for the dreamers; not the day-dreamers, half-cocked on hopeless ambitions and fantasies, but for the people who dream at night and cannot be bothered to quit in the morning. For you are Nature’s perfect creatures at the far, peaceable frontier of a violent kingdom.

The ultimate animal to represent Sloth is the Sloth; in the mammal world, it is simply the paragon of effortless existence. But since I already wrote about the sloth, today I’ll write about Australia’s marsupial sloth analogue, the Koala.

It is an oft-repeated factoid that the koala sleeps for 18-22 hours a day; the average koala is awake for a mere 2 years out of the 12 of its lifetime. Like the sloth, it needs that rest to digest the leaves that make up its diet, leaves being extremely poor in nutrition. While the sloth has at least some variety in its salad, the koala is a specialist on par with the panda: it eats only one type of leaf, that of the eucalyptus, which is highly toxic and completely undigestible by almost any other animal. The lack of competition, the surplus of eucalyptus, and the fact that eucalyptus makes koala flesh taste like a poisonous cough drop has made the koala quite successful. The koala has done well for itself by doing almost nothing.

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You take everything — the laurel and the rose, too! Go on, take them! But, in spite of you, one thing goes with me now and tonight, when I, at last, God behold… and that’s my panache. -The dying words of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Evolution only requires two thing from us: 1) Reproduction, and 2) Survival, which really only matters if you reproduce. So really, one requirement. It doesn’t matter how long you live; it only matters how many offspring you have, and how fit they are. Of course, if you live longer, you improve your chances of having more offspring. But you’ll really improve your chances of having more offspring if you dress so beautifully, so outrageously that you are constantly flirting with death. In other words, if you have panache.

Panache, that quality so highly prized by Cyrano de Bergerac and swashbucklers everywhere, means “flamboyant confidence of style or manner.” But literally, a panache is the long feather in the cap of a young braggodocio — think of the ostrich plume in the hat of a Musketeer or the pheasant tailfeather in Robin Hood’s archer cap. And when it comes to panache, in every sense of the word, no animal does it better than the King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, one of Papua New Guinea’s many splendid fops.

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The problem with writing about animal “sin,” besides the fact that animals can’t sin, is that several of the Seven Deadly Sins could be categorized as “overindulgences,” which evolution often abhors. Eating more than you have to, for example, can slow you down, and is only useful when you’re threatened with starvation. The same is true for “greed:” why spend time accumulating things you don’t really need when you could be doing something useful, like foraging or fucking?

Yet there are hoarders. I don’t mean animals that cache food for later, like a squirrel. I mean animals that take, steal, and collect objects they don’t really need because it suits their fancy. And when you say “hoarder,” the first animal you probably think of is…

The Pack Rat. (Not to be confused with The Rat Pack.) Out here in the Western half of the U.S., pack rats collect sticks, grasses, animal dung and stones to build messy nests called middens, which are usually a foot or two high but can be over six feet tall. Notwithstanding the fact that a two-inch mouse doesn’t really need a house the size of a beaver dam, the “greedy” part about pack rats is their keen eye for shiny objects. If they encounter a piece of jewelry, they’ll often drop the stone they were carrying for this new bit of tinsel, lending them their other name, the “trade rat.”

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Vice Week continues with The Seven Deadly Sins. The next seven posts will describe an animal or animals that exemplify Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Pride, and Lust. And no, “Sloth” will not be a Sloth, because I have already done the Sloth, because I cannot plan ahead.

When I think of animal gluttons, the first thing to come to mind is the Wolverine, whose other name is “the Glutton.” In fact, his scientific name, Gulo gulo, is Latin for “Glutton glutton.” The largest of the weasels, wolverines make up for in ferocity what they lack in stature. The adamantium skeleton doesn’t hurt, either.

You wanna dance, bub?

A wolverine can bring down a moose. They’re not particularly fast, but because of their broad feet they can outrun almost anything in deep snow. They’ve been known to challenge grizzly bears for a meal. And while they can eat a lot in one sitting, because they don’t eat often in those Arctic winters, they’re not the most gluttonous animal I can think of.

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Food vs. Wild

Stretched out on the couch after a long hike the other night, I texted a friend to say that I was flipping between “Man vs. Wild” on Discovery and “Man vs. Food” on the Travel Channel. She responded with a prediction that the two would soon merge into a blur of “Food vs. Wild.” And I realized, I need to pitch this to a T.V. exec, like, right now. Wouldn’t you watch a show that featured hucking hot dogs at bears really hard? What about cupcakes vs. slow lorises? Grapes vs. hawks? Super soakers of hot soup vs. squirrels? WHO WILL PREVAIL?

Naturally, once my mind started creating brackets of potential animals vs. food match-ups, I had to bet on an eventual winner. And the one animal that I think would never lose any battle with food of any kind is the subject of today’s post, and one of the most rapacious, fearless animals in the world: the honey badger.

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What separates man from the beasts? Language? Dolphins would beg to differ. Tools? Even birds can use ’em. Well, at least we’ll always have good old fire, right?

Ah, human exceptionalism. You never fail to fail me.

Bonobos are the sixth member of our “great ape” family, a little-known species because they live only in the Congo, and because zoos refuse to display them, on account of the fact that they are the horniest animals alive. Bonobos have gained a sort of cult following among antropologists and animal aficionados as the “other chimps” we hope we’re more closely related to; while chimpanzees are violent and warlike, bonobos — which are smaller, slighter, and far more bipedal — settle all disputes with sex. All kinds of sex. Male-on-male, male-on-female, female-on-female, male-on-female-on-female-on-male, hanging upsidedown, anal, oral, you name it. If we (by which I mean, “freaky liberals”) look to peaceful, sex-crazy bonobo culture as a model society we could learn from, it turns out that bonobos also can learn a great deal from us. Including how to make and use fire.
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Meditation on Slow Angels

Something you may know about me: in college, I was a botany major. Something you may not know about me: in my junior year, my concentration was in canopy ecology. My grand plan was to go climb trees in the rainforest and inspect the animal life living in epiphytic bromeliads. (I am somewhat off-track.) But last week I found a book my dad bought second-hand and forgot to give me for Christmas, Life Above the Jungle Floor, a travelogue by a canopy ecologist working in Costa Rica, and have been enjoying ever since. And this brings me to my latest “weird animal” post:

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