Human Options and Animal Choices

Human Options and Animal Choices

Are these in binary opposition or can they be mutually respectful and beneficial?

Animal choices are becoming increasingly limited as their habitats are being diminished by human interference. Elephants do not choose to run away and join the Circus; they are kidnapped, broken and are then enslaved there. In effect the same goes for our domestic pets. They don’t come to our doors asking for our company, we take them there.
There are of course exceptions to this rule. There are animals who are wild and make the choice to be in our company, sometimes for food, sometimes for companionship and sometimes for both. Pocho the crocodile and Chito Tarzan the man in Costa Rica are an amazing example of this.

It has been pointed out to me that in terms of sharks, the fact that they are difficult to see and study has worked in their favour. They haven’t been put on a leash as much as our terrestrial companions have been. They have thus far managed to avoid annihilation unlike many other species. They, thankfully, continue to exist despite our best efforts.

In February of this year, the shark alarm sounded at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia and my friend and colleague was there in the sea with the shark. His recount of the event was fascinating; mostly because of the insights he got out of it. He said the most striking part was the silence of it. “It had happened so fast that if the shark had hit anyone underwater, there would have been no sound at all – you would just be gone.”

He said that the shark was about 10 feet in length and was about 15 feet away from him in the next swell. It came in diagonally toward the beach. He said it could have knocked any of them off in a second. There were about 15 people in the water bobbing outside the breakers and it swam between them in a lightning burst about a minute later. He said it was only terrifying to him in retrospect, at the time he felt no fear and thought the shark was hunting the fish that were around. He never felt the shark was after them, it was aware of them, but not interested. It was looking past them at its prey, the fish.

Bondi is a netted beach where many sharks are entangled and drown each year. Yet, this shark, who had made it past the nets and was in the surf zone, had chosen not to bite-investigate any of the bathers around it. Instead it chose to pursue its regular prey, fish. This shark made a choice: to pursue small, difficult to catch prey instead of the larger, easier option of the humans within easy reach. This brings up a myriad of questions as to why. Questions we rarely ask.

Was the shark, as my friend had surmised, aware of the bathers but saw them as mere obstacles to its prey? Were the bathers the 23rd bowl – an extra choice – or were they merely part of the seascape the shark was occupying at the time? Sharks have been proven to learn – in fact, 80 times faster than cats according to David Attenborough, yet this is rarely investigated on the side of human / shark benefit.

New research into rare earth magnets as shark repellents is being conducted as an alternative to nets. Sharks can learn to avoid areas and be attracted to others. Regular yearly migrations of sharks to feeding areas have been observed; whale sharks to snapper spawning grounds, various sharks to the South African sardine run…the sharks have learnt where and when the food is. We should be able to harness this intelligence of theirs to become entangled with our own for mutual benefits.
We are only scratching the surface of the hidden lives of sharks. The human world has the option to give sharks the choices they are capable of making. The real question is will it?

Making Sharks Like Us

Making Sharks Like Us

The worldwide campaign to save sharks has gained momentum and is a heartening occurrence. It seems that people really do love sharks and are giving their utmost to make governments and policy-makers listen to them. A recent ad for workplace safety even states that coconuts kill more people than sharks as an example of probability neglect. However, while these campaigns are great examples of human compassion for wild animals, the slant of many of the ads is distinctly mammalian. They are appealing to the soft and fuzzy side of human emotions and are often trying to portray the sharks as soft and fuzzy themselves.

The increased inclusion of tonic immobility in a lot of shark footage is trying and most likely successfully changing people’s minds about sharks. Changing people’s minds may be a good thing but not if it is at the shark’s expense. Tonic immobility – the act of caressing and turning a shark on its side or belly to render it immobile and catatonic is an astonishing discovery. While this a good thing for the image and study of sharks it has been revealed that it is stressful and potentially harmful to sharks.
Photo ops of divers kissing calm, docile sharks are no doubt of value to changing the image of sharks but why can’t we just accept them as sentient beings who share the planet with us and are worth saving? Why the PR blitz of man taming the beast?

To me, the most haunting and real images of sharks are the ones of them being cognisant of our presence. Scenes of them watching us, bumping us, investigating our presence, sometimes even braving the risk of taking food from us, circling us and then swimming away – these are all the most common images of the shark / human interface and yet they have been neglected for the blood-soaked ‘attack scenarios’ or the circus act of tonic immobility.

Shark week is on at the moment and as I do not have pay TV I will be missing the extravaganza of Sharknado 2 and all the other sensationalist portrayals of sharks as man-eaters or even worse, villains who mean us harm. All of this is adding up to the same thing – making sharks like us. That is to say, we are making sharks akin to humans – capable of malice and cruelty and spite, or capable of love and affection and emotional connection, like us. We are also, making sharks like us, that is to say, making them tolerate and look forward to our company through the act of feeding them and ‘taming’ them for our recreational amusement.
None of this seems focussed on the shark side of this interaction. We want them to like us or be like us but there does not seem to be much indication that we like them as they are – wild, able to learn and make choices we may not like, unpredictable and potentially dangerous. These attributes do not seem to fit with what we are willing to expect of them.

The most searing example of sharks as sentient beings comes not from the aforementioned scenarios but rather from graphic footage of them being finned alive – the nictitating eyelid flicks over the shark’s eye with each hacking cut of the machete being used to remove each fin. It’s eye, not a lifeless or dead or doll’s eye as it has been so commonly described, but a sentient, intelligent eye is looking straight ahead as it’s finless body is positioned on the edge of the boat by the laughing fisherman as he grips the skin on the top of its head, squeezing savagely before letting loose his grip and allowing it to slide overboard to drown. That shark is sentient, it is feeling pain and I have no doubt it is feeling its own demise. It is aware and it is telling us that loud and clear as the camera catches that final look.
If we are so desperate for sharks to be like us, then look closely, they are.