Slippery Beast A True Crime Natural History, with Eels

Slippery Beast

A True Crime Natural History, with Eels

  • ISBN: 9781419765858
  • Publication Date: August 6, 2024


Price: $28.00

Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Slippery Beast is a fascinating account of a deeply mysterious creature—the eel—a thrilling saga of true crime, natural history, travel, and big business.

What is it about eels? Depending on who you ask, they are a pest, a fascination, a threat, a pot of gold. What they are not is predictable. Eels emerged some 200 million years ago, weathered mass extinctions and continental shifts, and were once among the world’s most abundant freshwater fish. But since the 1970s, their numbers have plummeted. Because eels—as unagi—are another thing: delicious.

In Slippery Beast, journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell travels in the world of “eel people,” pursuing a burgeoning fascination with this mysterious and highly coveted creature. Despite centuries of study by celebrated thinkers from Aristotle to Leeuwenhoek to a young Sigmund Freud, much about eels remains unknown, including exactly how eels beget other eels. Eels cannot be bred reliably in captivity, and as a result, infant eels are unbelievably valuable. A pound of the tiny, translucent, bug-eyed “elvers” caught in the cold fresh waters of Maine can command $3,000 or more on the black market. Illegal trade in eels is an international scandal measured in billions of dollars every year. In Maine, federal investigators have risked their lives to bust poaching rings, including the notorious half-decade-long “Operation Broken Glass.”

Ruppel Shell follows the elusive eel from Maine to the Sargasso Sea and back, stalking riversides, fishing holes, laboratories, restaurants, courtrooms, and America’s first commercial eel “family farm,” which just might upend the international market and save a state. This is an enthralling, globe-spanning look at an animal that you may never come to love, but which will never fail to astonish you, a miraculous creature that tells more about us than we can ever know about it.


“Every now and then, if writers get lucky, they find a seemingly small subject that provides a keyhole view of a vast, surprising landscape. Ellen Ruppel Shell has found that in eels, and through eels, nearly forgotten worlds of food, centuries-long mysteries of biology, huge battles over Indigenous rights, heroic ocean quests, vicious international criminal syndicates, and an amazing four-hundred-year-long scientific dispute. A masterful group portrait of obsession, Slippery Beast joyfully introduces readers to a millennia's worth of eel thieves, eel scientists, eel farmers, eel historians, eel chefs, and all the other eel fanciers who have long made these enthralling creatures a shockingly big—if slimy—part of the human story.”
—Charles C. Mann, New York Times bestselling author of 1491 and 1493

"The enigmatic eel has captivated scholars from Aristotle to Rachel Carson to Freud—and now, to the list of eel aficionados, add Ellen Ruppel Shell. In this rollicking book, Ruppel Shell tells the epic story of an ancient creature, artfully weaving the centuries-long scientific quest to understand the eel's mysterious life cycle with the madcap modern fishery that threatens its future. As wide-ranging and beguiling as its subject, Slippery Beast is guaranteed to make you an eel enthusiast—and to forever change the way you think about the unagi on your sushi platter."
—Ben Goldfarb, author of Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet and Eager: T

“The eel may be loathed or loved, but Ellen Ruppel Shell takes us on a deep dive to discover why this fish—yes, it is a fish—fascinates and frustrates humanity like no other. Where eels come from and where they go remains hotly contested, while their mating habits and gender-bending ways continue to baffle scientists. Ruppel Shell takes us from the beaches of Bermuda to the rocky Norwegian coast in a quest to understand not just the eel’s many mysteries, but the men and women drawn to this enigmatic creature by passion or profit—or both. This enthralling account, as Ruppel Shell says about the eel itself, ‘never fails to surprise.’”
—Andrew Lawler, bestselling author of Under Jerusalem, The Secret Token, and Why Did the Chicken Cros

“Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Slippery Beast is witty, smart, extremely well reported, and full of good storytelling. The writing manages to be both elegant and colloquial at the same time. This book masquerades as a study of eels, and, for sure, there is plenty to learn about the lifestyles of eels, but, in fact, Slippery Beast touches on many topics of human concern, from commerce to government to living communities, from Aristotle to Darwin to Freud.”
—Alan Lightman, MIT professor, bestselling author of Einstein’s Dreams, and host of Searching: Our Qu

“If you are not already enchanted by eels, this anomalous situation will be resolved after a few pages of this spellbinding book. Ellen Ruppel Shell will astound you, delight you, distress you, and make you fall in love with these mysterious, shape-shifting creatures, and with the many ways eel and human lives intertwine.”
—Sy Montgomery, New York Times bestselling author of The Soul of An Octopus

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