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

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