Decisions, Decisions

Decisions, Decisions

‘When we find the fish, or when the fish finds us, I want to
go down in the cage and take some pictures. No one’s ever
been able to photograph a fish this big before.’
‘Not a chance,’ said Quint. ‘Not on my boat.’
‘Why not?’
‘It’s foolishness, that’s why. A sensible man knows his
limits. That’s beyond your limits.’
‘How do you know?’
‘It’s beyond any man’s limits. A fish that big could eat that cage for breakfast.’
‘But would he?’ I don’t think so. I think he might bump it, might even mouth it, but I don’t think he would seriously try to eat it.’
Jaws, Peter Benchley, 1974

Benchley’s character Hooper, the ichthyologist from Jaws opens up an interesting dialogue here – would the shark choose to eat the cage, or would it not? Benchley is acknowledging the animal of being cable of doing something but perhaps not willing to do it, or rather deciding not to do something it could if it wanted to.

The idea of animals being able to decide for themselves is often thought of in a human contest such as lab experiments, skinner boxes and other artificial constructs for human observation. For obvious reasons, observing shark decision-making in a natural setting is almost impossible. Dr. Eugenie Clark set up experiments on captive sharks in pools to train them to ring a bell to receive food and thus proved that sharks can learn. That was in 1958 and little has been done since in terms of agency.

So, then, what do we know about shark agency, ability and decision-making? Very little. Of course, the great deal of research that has been done has been on food preference, preferred feeding times, various attractants – i.e. sound, smell, sight of possible food sources…there has been a lot of great work in this area but in the area of sharks being free to make decisions to bite us or not – bathers, recreational and professional divers, surfers, abalone divers and various other sea visitors are giving sharks those opportunities on a regular basis and the data seems pretty conclusive that sharks are deciding not to make us a prey item. So why then is this data not being held up as evidence to stop netting and drum lines?

In a profound way, sharks ability to make decisions about their agency have been taken away from them by shark nets, drum lines and other government legislated ‘mitigation’ programs. What would happen if we took those apparatus away? Do we really think that sharks will be lining up to dine on us and that our beaches will turn into a shark feeding zone? We, here in Australia, will never know until we allow them that freedom.
For the multitudes of un-netted beaches around the world, the evidence is pretty clear that sharks are not systematically preying on bathers so why is Australia so loathe to have the same faith as other governments?

There are many ways to explore this question yet the path I keep returning to is the perception that the lawmakers seem to hate sharks. Unlike other countries such as South Africa, the United States and Bahamas who seem to embrace the idea and the reality of sharing spaces with sharks, Australian policy makers seem to have a fear that has bred hatred of these fish.
My best guess as to why this is so comes from that colonial fear of the land and sea of this island nation. The colonists’ description of this country was saturated in fear. To them, the place was barren, haunted, ’in rags’. They felt so alienated by their landscape and its flora and fauna that they developed a deep-seeded mistrust and phobia of their ability to exist in it and so, they have waged war on that space – the most un-colonisable of all – the sea.

Sharks inhabit a world we will (hopefully) never fully inhabit or colonise and as such have become a target of scorn, mistrust and hatred. People can see a lion or tiger or bear (oh my!) coming at them and have developed weapons to defend themselves against any possible encounter. Bathers cannot anticipate a similar encounter with a shark as easily, nor can they adequately defend themselves from it in the same way they could with a land animal. The sea is not the domain of humans and there seems to be a resentment of that fact by human lawmakers.

When did we, the public, ask for shark nets and drum lines? I don’t recall any of us marching in the streets asking for government protection from sharks. So why are we being given it? And more importantly, why are we taking it?

The Real Final Frontier

The Real Final Frontier

While humans search for new planets, new life forms and new experiences, the real discoveries are being left undiscovered right under our noses. In our very short time on this planet, about 50,000 years, we have barely scratched the surface of the potential relationships we could be having with the creatures we share this planet with.

To give a few examples, scientists still believed that animals were not capable of feeling pain in my lifetime. Naturalists had to prove to biologists that crocodiles actually cared for their young in the way mammals do. And recently, humans have formed deep long-lasting relationships with hippos, crocodiles and fish; relationships that people believed were impossible between these species.

Dogs have evolved to read our faces differently to other species so as to communicate with us on our level. Meanwhile, we humans are looking but not really seeing the animals we share our space with. We have learnt some basic communicative signs from animals such as a wagging tail in a dog is good but in a cat is bad, but truthfully, we have barely explored this final frontier of human – animal interaction.

Christian the Lion captured the world on an amazing scale and people are still amazed that an animal can hold such fond memories for such a long time about a relationship with a human. But why is this the case? Why are emotion, affection, nostalgia, love and mourning the sole domain of humans? Many have argued that the Judeo – Christian way of thought has shaped this deep-seeded belief that the emotional world and the world of the sole is completely a human one. Surely, humans cannot be the only card-carrying members of this club.

People who loved animals were and still are considered weird, alternative, or somehow different. Thankfully, pioneers like Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, Konrad Lorenz, Ron and Valerie Taylor and many others have helped to break down that bias and have shown the world the possibilities of human – animal encounter in a very enlightening way. Imagine how impoverished the world would be without knowing that chimps share 98% of our DNA or that sharks are capable of learning. This is the tip of the iceberg.

tonic immobility
tonic immobility

We now know of tonic immobility in sharks – an incredible discovery that enables humans to render sharks immobile and harmless by overloading their sensory systems through gentle touch, twisting the tail and flipping them upside down. This is unlearned behaviour and is thought to be a defence mechanism. Tonic immobility allows an engagement with the shark on a very human level as touch is an essential component of the human condition and it has been brought to the shark world in a brave and groundbreaking way.

However, while this procedure has allowed scientist to tag and examine sharks in a much less stressful way, it is also being used in a tourist capacity as a type of circus trick for recreational divers to observe and touch these animals. Scientists are now learning that the procedure is much more stressful for the sharks than previously thought – altering blood pressure and causing hypoglycaemia is some cases.

The ability to interact this way with potentially dangerous sharks is a wonderful discovery and does have very positive implications for shark first aid, however, yet again, wild animals are being ‘put on a leash’ for the safety of human interaction and this does not afford the shark the rights of agency or respect it deserves.

Where does this leave the human – shark interface?

July 25 2014

Probability Neglect and WA’s Shark Slaughter

The term probability neglect is a term used in psychology to describe the phenomena of extreme measures taken to avoid the small risk of danger.

The following excerpt is taken from Cass R. Sustein, Probability Neglect: Emotions, Worst Cases, and Law (2001):


When strong emotions are triggered by a risk, people show a remarkable tendency to neglect a small probability that the risk will actually come to fruition. Experimental evidence, involving electric shocks and arsenic, supports this claim, as does real-world evidence, involving responses to abandoned hazardous waste dumps, the pesticide Alar, and anthrax. The resulting “probability neglect” has many implications for law and policy. It suggests the need for institutional constraints on policies based on ungrounded fears; it also shows how government might effectively draw attention to risks that warrant special concern. Probability neglect helps to explain the enactment of certain legislation, in which government, no less than ordinary people, suffers from that form of neglect. When people are neglecting the fact that the probability of harm is small, government should generally attempt to inform people, rather than cater to their excessive fear. But when information will not help, government should respond, at least if analysis suggest that the benefits outweigh the costs. The reason is that fear, even if it is excessive, is itself a significant problem, and can create additional significant problems.

This is a clear indictment of what not to do in the face of a small chance of danger but it is precisely what the Western Australian Government is doing.

The public are not only acknowledging this probability neglect but are pushing against it. Despite this, the Western Australian government is refusing to acknowledge the very small chance of injury to bathers from sharks and has legislated a shark slaughter in defence of human recreational users of the ocean.

Not only does this legislation diminish the value of sharks, it diminishes the agency of the public to decide for themselves whether or not they choose to enter the ocean and take responsibility for themselves.

The human / shark interface is being forced into narrow parameters within an artificial construct of man-made legislation with the aim of having the human side of the interface the ‘winner’. It would seem that when the rights of animals, including endangered species, are not being protected and the rights of humans to enact their free will are not being allowed that neither side could possibly ‘win’ this game which is being played out without the consent of either party.

Lesley Rochat’s brilliant campaign, “rethink the shark” captures the idea of probability neglect perfectly. It shows, in stark reality, the actual causes of human death per year versus those caused by sharks: toasters and chairs cause many more deaths than sharks.

Various unfortunate accidents can befall human beings anywhere and at any time as Lesley Rochat ‘s wonderful series shows. However, sharks do not even deserve a mention. In fact, human deaths at the hands of other humans rank much, much higher and here, in Australia, where one woman is killed per week by a current or ex-partner, no legislation is being enacted. We need to question the priorities of governments and it appears that the priority of the Western Australian Shark Mitigation Program is not to protect people, it is to eradicate sharks despite widespread international condemnation.
Looking at the policy as being sound on the basis of protecting bathers lives would be erroneous as more bathers die of drowning; 290 to 2 according to the placard below. This hasn’t caused the government to have volunteer surf lifesavers at every beach.
On this basis alone, the policy is dubious and faulty and its real intent is showing. It is a policy to eradicate sharks from the oceans.

This placard is a good example of the probability neglect of Colin Barnett’s shark slaughter policy. The woman holding the sign and much of the public at this rally are much more savvy than the government they have elected. They realise the chance of danger is small, so why then doesn’t the government?

There are various hypotheses here, the chief being a fiscal concern. There is fear of litigation that the government will be sued for failing to adequately protect its citizens while in the ocean. There is the fear of a drop in tourism due to fear of being bitten by a shark…the whole think reeks of the plot of Jaws quite frankly, but in reverse. Colin Barnett thinks he is Chief Brody, Quint and Mayor Larry Vaughn all in one. If the government were to put their policies where their mouths are, they would have volunteer lifesavers at every beach.

The chance of being bitten by a shark is so small it doesn’t even merit discussion. This is the heart of probability neglect; the government is neglecting to acknowledge that the probability of a shark bite incident is small and are instead acting as if it were inevitable. If the government could acknowledge that they are neglecting this probability, then the sharks and us would all be better off.

Words for Animals, Words for People

When people and animals collide in unfavourable odds for humans, the language used in reporting these interactions is decidedly biased on the human side of the argument.

Who can forget that famous placard at the WA Anti-Cull Protests held up by two men which read “Sharks Kill Innocent People”? I still cannot understand what this sign is trying to express or indeed what it means. How do these men know of the innocence of the people unfortunate enough to be fatally wounded in a shark bite incident and more importantly, what do these men claim these people are innocent of? Breaking and entering, impure thoughts, infidelity?

This is not the first time the word innocent has been used on the human side of an animal / human altercation. It creeps into the rhetoric again and again. Just tonight, a piece aired on Seven News of a crocodile handler whose hand was seized while feeding a crocodile at a South Coast Zoo. The couple who filmed the event even claimed that they watched “a man, an innocent man, get dragged to his execution, fair dinkum. ” Again, what does this mean? Clearly there is some sort of perverted sense of justice being applied to human / animal interactions where humans are automatically considered innocent in opposition to animals which seem to be deemed the opposite, guilty.

Here are just some comments I found on a site after a Google Advanced Search with the exact phrase “Sharks kill innocent people” :

Sharks can fight back at least and that is why humans hate them more.
CyberDeath11826-30, MAug 9, 2013

Why do sharks kill innocent people even when unprovoked?
tdmpel22-25Aug 9, 2013

Personally I believe a lot of people live in the “Eliminate the threat” kind of lifestyle, I don’t think these creatures deserve to be killed in their own territory. A man has the rights to “Castle Doctrine” and kill a dangerous intruder in their house, I feel its the same with Sharks, its their territory, they see us as an intruder or food but we see cows as food so no one really has the right to claim “But they’re dangerous!” because cows don’t have a say.
YvonneG9318-21Aug 9, 20131

I want them extinct except the kinds that never get over four feet long and basking sharks, and I am confident we would be fine without them.

The site is: TahatchTruthteller36-40, MAug 9, 2013

There is an interesting range of comments here but again, the language is the human construct of a sense of justice – either for or against.
I do find Yvonne’s comments both insightful and interesting, not just because on the surface I agree with her sentiments, but because she brings up the idea of defence in terms of territory and she also brings up the idea of an animal’s ability to defend itself and it’s agency as being dangerous or not.
We humans are failing to acknowledge that wild animals, and indeed all animals, have the ability to defend themselves and their territory. Even my domesticated cat Rufus has inflicted serious harm on me and others in his four-year lifetime including a tetanus shot for an unfortunate cat-sitter. I do not begrudge my cat or any animal for that matter in exercising their right to defend themselves or their territory if they feel threatened. They have evolved with physical attributes which enable them to do this and our existence and sharing of space with them does not diminish that fact.
The language we use to describe these interactions has to be investigated much more closely. Language is the basis of human communication; it is a vessel for emotion and action and it is being used in a manipulative way when dealing with animals.
Even the word cull, which is commonly used for the mass slaughter of animals in Australia including kangaroos, flying foxes, Indian mynahs and now sharks, is a very misleading word.

Cull is a very gentle sounding word. The Oxford Dictionary definitions are as follows: 1. select, choose or gather from a large quantity or amount (knowledge culled from books) 2. pick or gather (flowers, fruit, etc…) 3. Select (animals) according to quality. Esp. poor surplus specimens for killing.

Even this definition only brings in the truth of the act in the third definition and even then, the WA government’s act must surely be in violation of law as sharks are not in surplus as CITES and many other organisations have attested, they are in fact in shortage in many areas worldwide.

By scrubbing the blood off words such as cull, legislation is able to pass, as these gentle words do not trigger emotional responses in people. If a more accurate and less palatable word such as slaughter were used perhaps the situation would not have gone as far as it has.
It is time to look closely at our language and use of it when dealing with animals and people. People are not innocent in this debate and animals are not guilty.

The Human Language of Sharks

It seems that in the age of the anthropocene that many discussions are happening in regards to humans, animals and the places where we meet. However, many of these discussions concern only one species of our multispecies world – often we humans – and the conversations usually have a colonial attitude in terms of our ability and our right to inhabit the spaces where wild animals live and to be able to do so without impunity and with the presumption of our complete safety. This attitude has extended as far as habitats where human beings cannot live, namely the oceans, and yet still we expect to be able to enter oceans in complete safety as if it is our right as human beings not to dare to be harmed by anything as lowly as an animal.
Our human-created world of technology and resulting
detachment from the natural world we are a part of is causing us to experience and exhibit a form of narcissism that humanity has never manifested to this degree before. We no longer seem to have a fear of the natural world nor awareness that it can better us in any way. Nature seems to have been put permanently on a leash for our psychological comfort and through this concept human law makers and legislators seem completely flabbergasted when nature does get the better of us in some way.
Colin Barnett’s Western Australian Shark Mitigation Program seems a perfect example of this neurosis. The very small chance of a shark having the ability to injure or kill bathers in its own habitat has incensed the government so much that it has enacted what can only be called a genocide on the creatures who live there to ensure the safety of the creatures who visit there. When looked at in a rational, non-hysterical way, this can only be seen as some sort of colonial madness. Sharks are not creeping out of the water and sneaking into people’s homes at night to feed on them, they are not hiding under our beds, they are not organising sleeper cells in our cities waiting to take over. They are creatures who have been here for much, much longer than us and much, much longer than any other creatures on Earth. They are living their lives in the oceans of the world and should be allowed to do so unmolested.
Why is this hysteria occurring despite widespread opposition and condemnation from Australia and the world? Why are sound minds and logic being ignored in favour of a small minority of paranoid lawmakers?

I believe much of this has to do with language. Even as I write this, spell check is continually putting a squiggly green line under the pronoun ‘who’ whenever it follows the noun ‘shark’ or ‘animal’ or ‘creature’. Our language has been hard-wired to think of animals as ‘it’ not ‘he’, ‘she’ and definitely not as animals who think, feel, remember, choose, decide or act. Their ability and agency has been diminished by our language and thus by our laws. Our colonisation of their spaces and their lives has not just come from our nets and boats and hooks and guns but from our language, which has colonised their ability to be.

July 8, 2014

Dear Colin Barnett

Dear Colin Barnett
and the Western Australian Government,

I ___________________________________
understand that the ocean is neither a swimming pool nor an aquarium, it is wilderness, and as wilderness, there is a small chance I may encounter the wild creatures that live there.
I hereby acknowledge that as a recreational user and temporary visitor of the ocean that I do not require special consideration nor do I require the Western Australian Government, nor any government, to legislate on my behalf or in my name to turn the ocean into a slaughterhouse for my protection.
I henceforth can enter the water with this knowledge and take responsibility for myself without your help.
Thank you

Signature and Date