By Mandy-Suzanne Wong
Welcome to Kiskadee, a yellow-breasted, black-masked, ruffling and squawking celebration of nonhuman vitalities. In this column, you’ll find true stories of nonhuman beings living extraordinary lives, defying human comprehension, and inspiring masterpieces.
On a skittish afternoon smelling of storms, a snail crawled out from between two envelopes I’d collected from the postbox. With the mouth of a dusty ivory shell striped taupe and umber like an antelope, the snail I would call Toru had given a long kiss to a utility bill, vertically snuggled it with a mucus epiphragm, and gone to sleep.
Toru was a centimeter across, a young whosit-whatsit, a ubiquitous species I was used to ignoring. Toru slimed around the address label. Considered the postmark by gesticulating at it with waving eyes. They struck me as adorable. One look and I was stricken. Smitten, within minutes, with Toru’s quietly inquisitive comportment.
Their eagerness to explore. Their refusal to rush their explorations. Their disinclination to simply disengage, to retract into their shell despite the outsized horror that was me. (Nearly every snail is a they, by the way. They can be social and sensual or take the initiative and found a colony in solitude.)
Toru stayed with me a few days. Because affection breeds a desire to possess. I googled what they might like to eat.
That’s how I learned Toru’s species is called Otala lactea. Toru had the run of the house and a lidless plastic container with vegetables and water. They slept during the day. At nighttime I heard munching. I got up to sit with Toru in the dark.
I’d thought snails were slow and simple, passive creatures. But this snail, whom I’ve called Toru, moved me irreversibly to complicated feelings that few others short of Dostoevsky have ignited in me. Just by being themselves, Toru overhauled my expectations of nonhumankind. And of my own kind too.
Three years later, I was walking, my eyes on the ground. I’d read enough to know the heavy sky and sodden air were irresistible to snail-explorers. On the sidewalk made of ill-kept tiles run through by weeds, I glimpsed a flash of orange in time to leap away.
Other humans were on the sidewalk. They didn’t notice the snail I would call Sora. Sora was just about Toru’s size and likely to be crushed. Nostalgia flared. I put out my hand. Sora climbed onto my hand.
A shade of pink between salmon and coral. Shot through at shell’s edge with red petals. “Radiating flames,” one naturalist called them. Like the sky of a new day.
I took Sora to a place where I knew there were no pesticides or rosy wolves. Not an indoor place. Sora slimed over my fingers, stomaching skin for the first time, tasting the briny air with waving eyes, and memories of Toru squeezed. I couldn’t subject Sora to captivity like I did Toru. I couldn’t make a possession of them.
Day after day, emotion drew me back to the place where wild vegetation offered hiding spots. Sora’s shell was almost translucent. While they slept, I saw their tiny body, boneless, full of dreams, turning over in the shell.
Sora hung around for about a week. Then adventure called to the snail who feared no sidewalk.
I’d never seen a living snail like Sora. I never will again.
But I knew their ancestors. As I child, I’d find the bone-white fossils of land snails embedded in boulders on Bermuda’s beaches. I’d no idea what the fossils were. It was only thanks to Toru that, as an adult, I read up enough to recognize Sora as a member of Poecilozonites. Bermuda’s one and only endemic snail genus.
Once upon a time, Bermuda had no humans. Instead it was a paradise for snails, birds, tortoises, fishes, plants, and other amazing beings the like of which existed nowhere else on Earth. According to paleontologist Stephen Gould, Bermuda’s biodiversity was once as abundant and dynamic as the Galápagos’. The genus Poecilozonites comprised at least twelve species.
Humans settled Bermuda in 1609. Over the centuries, they imported other animals as food. Including Otala lactea. “Despite the local legend attributing its introduction to a wartime visit of General De Gaulle,” Gould wrote, “the arrival of Otala [in Bermuda] dates from 1928 when snails…came from New York’s Fulton Fish Market and won their liberty by crawling out of a paper bag.”
No one who’d met Toru would be surprised by Toru’s ancestor’s enterprising spirit. But in 1928, Bermuda’s humans were perturbed. Here was a slow morsel defying their control and every expectation. Not only that: snails and humans both ate vegetables. The Earth’s deadliest predator found itself competing against escargot for food.
Humans’ response was predictable. They brought in Euglandina rosea, the rosy wolf snail or cannibal snail, to help them gobble up Otala. According to Gould, the humans burned snails by the barrelful. They made limestone and mortar from snails’ cooked-down corpses. They made houses with limestone roofs. Limestone is indispensable to Bermuda’s storm-resistant architecture. Like my house, the house where I lived with Toru.
The burning was indiscriminate. Otala burned. Poecilozonites burned. Meanwhile Euglandina defied all expectations and every effort at control. The cannibals found endemic species tastier than imports. Poecilozonites was decimated. Otala, true to form, adapted and survived. Euglandina got the blame. Homo sapiens thrived.
When Gould began his research on Poecilozonites in 1963, “at least three species survived and were thriving in Bermuda.” Ten years later, he wrote, “I could not find a single animal alive” in the Poecilozonites genus.
Poecilozonites survived a million years of ecological upheaval only to succumb to extinction in Bermuda’s economic heyday. Gould said: “It is so hard for an evolutionary biologist to write about extinctions caused by human stupidity.”
Bermuda’s conservationists refused to give up on Sora’s genus. They sent interns to Gould’s old haunts. Peeking into cracks in shadowy limestone walls. Peering at undersides of leaves. Poking in compost. In 2002, Alex Lines saw a flash of slow flame in Paget. He saw another in Devonshire.
He took 56 snails, Poecilozonites circumfirmatus, to the London Zoo. At least some survived the airplane, the London fog, the lab’s cold light, a ceiling not the sky. They submitted to imprisonment and a breeding program.
In Bermuda, humans searched for other Poecilozonites without success. Sora’s remaining cousin, Poecilozonites bermudensis, was written off as extinct.
For the snails at London Zoo, 3,446 miles from home and under lock and key, conditions can’t have been ideal. Scientists like Gould admit that humans know very little about snails’ needs and concerns. Nobody who’s not a snail understands how a snail feels. So the fact that Sora’s cousins survived in captivity, even felt like making babies and lots of them, testifies to no one’s prowess but their own. They may have missed the smell of the Gulf Stream in their cilia, but they went on. Made the best of life’s meager offerings. Seneca the Stoic would’ve saluted them.
Except in a small paragraph in the Bermuda Sun, the snails’ deportation in hope of their potential descendants’ repatriation passed unnoticed for the most part. Probably because, despite their own track record, Homo sapiens still couldn’t bring themselves to feel—in the stomach and in the feet, where true understanding lives—that our species causes extinctions. We’re doing it right here at home.
Bruce Lines, Alex’s father, didn’t have to spread his arms in the alley. The buildings reached for him on either side. Step forward and he was standing on the entrance to an underground water tank. A high wall rose before him, covered in mold and creepers. Above his head, air conditioners jutted out of the buildings. The walls and air conditioners discouraged sunlight. Pipes wriggled down to the crumbling cement floor, rank with mold.
Around the corner was Bruce’s ice cream shop. A high point of Old Cellar Lane, just off of Front Street, Hamilton. Hamilton is Bermuda’s capital city. Front Street is among its busiest thoroughfares. I don’t know what made Bruce poke the discarded plastic bags under the air conditioners. But when he glimpsed rosy flame, he knew. Even though he could hardly believe his eyes.
He knew Poecilozonites circumfirmatus was extinct in the wild. He knew because his son was working hard to save the species in captivity. He knew Poecilozonites bermudensis was extinct altogether. He knew all that remained of their numerous and diverse relatives were fossils.
But the snails in front of him were unmistakable. And alive.
They were living on biofilm: grime they’d found growing on the plastic bags. They were living on moisture dripping from the air conditioners. Mark Outerbridge, a researcher at Bermuda’s Department of Conservation Services, wrote that they “appeared to favor longitudinal cracks in the cement” as well as quiet spots “under various pieces of wood, among fern (Adiantum bellum), within the moist folds of plastic bags, and beneath construction debris (most notably short lengths of metal and PVC piping as well as pieces of insulation material).”
He called them “a Lazarus species.” “Back from the dead,” trumpeted BBC News. It was 2014. No human since the 1960s had set eyes on such a snail. Gould had declared them extinct in 1991.
Another flight over Greenland. Another lab, another zoo. 166 P. bermudensis snails on a plane to England.
I assure you I would not survive a captive breeding program. Nor would I breed successfully, producing well-adapted babies. To see a comparison between me and a snail as inappropriate would be to reinforce the hierarchical, anthropocentric myth that drives our species to decimate literally everything. Well, the snails took everything in stride. At Chester Zoo they made 4,000 babies. The babies flew home to Nonsuch, Bermuda’s human-free reserve, in February 2019. The Chester family made more babies. 11,000 or thereabouts. They took up residence in Bermuda on August 7, 2019.
This time, it was news. The BBC, MSNBC, the UK’s Metro, Evening Standard, Independent, Jamaica’s Observer, and other news networks carried the story.
Not because the average Homo sapiens cares any more about snails than did the humans who burned snails alive for mortar. Admiring gastropodan resilience hasn’t gotten any trendier. The threat of extinction, however, has become a palpable dread. We feel it in our stomachs. In our feet. Americans scurry to Alaska to gawk at polar bears while they still can. Bermudians rush to Africa to gawk at elephants. There’s serious talk of colonizing the Moon. In the climate collapse that we have wrought, all species are endangered. So the possibility that somebody, anybody, even a snail in an isolated country, can “escape the axe of extinction,” as Outerbridge put it—that possibility gives us hope.
The hype isn’t just to do with hope. There’s another feeling humans sometimes value more than hope. Pride is the engine of anthropocentrism, the idea that Homo sapiens is the best and most important species of Earthling. All ruling ideologies, whether capitalist or communist, dogmatic or democratic, are anthropocentric.
That’s why all the media stories, official reports, and scientific coverage I have found about Poecilozonites’ “rescue” delicately sidestep the issue of humans’ involvement in the snails’ demise. Instead the blame falls squarely on the 7 cm shoulders of the “predatory snail” Euglandina—which at its top speed of 8 mm per second can hardly claim to spread like wildfire—and in turn the 2 cm “pest” Otala—whose refusal to submit to death-by-frying-pan so exasperated humans that they brought in cannibals to subdue the rebels. It’s typical of humans to fabricate scapegoats rather than acknowledge their own cruelty or carelessness.
Yet humans are eager to congratulate other humans for Poecilozonites’ rebound from the brink. As the burnings and the cannibal snails’ anthropogenic origins are swept into the shadows, the humans who subjected Sora’s kin to captive breeding leap to center stage. China’s CGTN hails Poecilozonites’ survival not as the snails’ own triumph but as a “success for British zoo[s].” Taking a passive tone on the snails’ behalf, Bermuda’s Gazette says it is thanks to a government initiative that the Poecilozonites genus “has been saved from extinction.”
As the root cause of the snails’ brush with annihilation, humans’ refraining from killing them obviously makes a difference to their survival. But humans deserve little to no credit for the snails’ resilience. I sometimes think the Poecilozonites’ greatest coup was unwittingly tricking Homo sapiens into believing they were extinct.
On the one hand, the snails’ decision to live in the armpit of the city, where no human would’ve dreamed of looking for them, couldn’t have been savvier. That decision ensured they were left alone. That’s what snails need more than anything. More than rainy skies and tasty vegetables. Snails thrive when humans and other predators leave them alone. Toru and Sora taught me that.
On the other hand, it’s only because humans the world over believed Poecilozonites bermudensis to be extinct that, instead of bringing in exterminators, Bruce Lines called Mark Outerbridge; and when the alley was scheduled to be razed and redeveloped, Conservation Services made sure its snaily inhabitants were already elsewhere.
But, to be clear: the snails survived the alley in the first place because humans were not there. No humans had settled it and made a garden; all it had was concrete, metal, and PVC. No one like Toru was interested in it, and therefore no cannibals were interested either.
Even if the Poecilozonites had found themselves in the alley by accident—which I think is unlikely, given Sora’s propensity for exploration and the fortitude to move on from impractical places—they were the ones who evaluated the environs, elected to remain, and learned how to turn the conditions to their advantage. No human helped them learn to live on moldy plastic bags and air-conditioner droppings. No human taught them how to make the best of imprisonment. The courage and ingenuity for that was all the snails’. Those 166 red-orange, fingernail-sized individuals.
Mandy-Suzanne Wong is the author of the award-winning fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging Press) and the novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House), a Permafrost Book Prize Finalist, Conium Review Book Prize Semifinalist, SFWP Literary Award Shortlistee, and PEN Open Book Award nominee. Her nonfiction book on nonhuman animals in radical art, Listen, we all bleed, was named a finalist and awarded an honorable mention in the Red Hen Press Women’s Prize Competition.
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