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.