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?