Horror and Terror and the Better of Us

Horror and Terror and The Better of Us

Sharks and the idea of being bitten or especially eaten by one is an irrational fear many people have. We eat animals by the tonne but the idea of them being able to eat us is now such a distant possibility that the notion is loaded with more horror than ever.

“…non-human animals can be our food, but we can never be their food….Horror movies and stories reflect this deep-seated dread of becoming food for other forms of life: horror is the wormy corpse, vampires sucking blood and sci-fi monsters trying to eat humans (“Alien 1 and 2”). Horror and outrage usually greet stories of other species eating live or dead humans, and various levels of hysteria our nibbling by leeches, sandflies, and mosquitoes.”

Val Plumwood sums up the idea of them and us in Animals and Ecology: Towards a Better Integration (2003). Sharks have been linked to horror since humans first discovered them. Countless films and stories back up this deep-seated fear and the media continues to beat the terror drum.

From the Christians in the Colosseum being thrown to the lions to James Bond and his many (but always) victorious confrontations with sharks, snakes, spiders and other animals under the control of his enemy, sharks have been an effective tool of terror. And who can forget Robert Shaw’s incredible monologue on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in Jaws. The idea of being in the water surrounded by sharks who pick you off one by one as you watch your friends die helplessly is by far the most effective scene in the film – no special effects or mechanical sharks needed – just the power of imagination and a fictional account of a real event where ‘nature won’.

Shaw’s character Quint is in a constant state of rage throughout the film that this shark could possibly get the better of him just as Ahab was about the white whale. Human literatures are rife with the idea that humans are masters and any inversion of this notion causes rage. The Australian governments’ shark culling program is a perfect example, and we know how that ends. The last Tasmanian tiger died in Hobart Zoo on 7 September 1936, the last known thylacine.

The use of sharks as a tool of terror is not just a modern-day media phenomena. It has been well documented in the slave trade. According to Marcus Rediker, History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic Slave Trade (2008), the sharks were both the best friend and the enemy of the slave ship captains. “’Sharks’ would thus take its place in the lexicon of class description, a cant term signifying a worthless fellow who made a living by his wits, sponging, swindling, cheating and scamming. Sailors might invert the class meaning by saying of sharks, ‘we call them Sea Lawyers.’”

The slave ship captains used the fear of throwing disruptive slaves overboard to the sharks as a form of control and they used the sharks to dispose of the sick and dead bodies of the infirm by throwing them overboard and making the other slaves watch. “It comes as no surprise that a collective grouping of sharks is known as a ‘shiver’” (Rediker 2008).

How dare an animal get the better of us? Don’t they know who we are? This seems to be the underlying message here. As Plumwood states, “Being food for other animals shakes our image of human mastery.”

We cringe at the idea of cowering in a cave trying to fend off lions and tigers and bears, oh my! We cannot bide the idea that we have not moved beyond our primitive ancestors who often had to compete with other animals for food and also had to defend themselves in order not to become food. This idea is so foreign to most of us today – it plays in our minds like a comedy instead of the tragedy it is.

Plumwood points out that human predation of animals is usually based in culture, whereas animal predation on humans is based in nature. Our ability or even desire to eat animals is based in culture and quite often cruelty. Oysters are alive when the lemon is squirted on them, ducks are force-fed to enlarge their livers, marine turtles are placed on large fires to be cooked alive and sharks are finned alive. Plumwood came very close to being food for a crocodile in Kakadu many years ago when she was grabbed and rolled three times before escaping to safety albeit with bad injuries. She recounts the feeling of being watched by eyes unknown and of the knowledge that she had been preyed upon, that she was prey.

When a shark or other predators prey on us, there is no cruelty involved, thus no culture. It is usually swift, to avoid the animal expending much needed energy, and thus humane (in a strange inversion of the term). Sharks don’t ‘play’ with their food as so many marine mammals do. They don’t toss them about like frisbies or torment them. Cruelty is a uniquely mammalian trait. Sharks bite and then eat.

The idea of cruelty is so engrained in the human consumption of animals and has been for so long it is difficult to separate it. We have been shown what we do to animals and most of us don’t like it. Many reject the idea of factory farming live animals; battery hens, foie gras duck liver, veal, live seafood…the (usually urban) marketplace consumer is often reflecting public sentiment and supermarket chains are beginning to listen and respond with more responsibly sourced products.

This is happening more because the chasm between us and the animals who become our food is thankfully being shortened and we are becoming more aware of what is happening to animals who become our food before we eat them – they are being brought closer to us and so is their pain and suffering.

However, out on the shimmering horizon where wilderness and nature live, particularly marine animals, the public is not always aware of what is happening to these animals we share the planet with. And when people are aware and sound their disapproval, their voice is often not being heard.

Case in point is the shark culling in Australia where the majority of the public oppose any killing of sharks and yet the governments of NSW, Queensland and WA continue on this path of slaughter at a very high environmental and financial cost.
According to Leah Gibbs & Andrew Warren in Killing Sharks: cultures and politics of encounter and the sea (2014), the $6.85 million dollar WA Shark Hazard Mitigation Strategy was not preceded by an impact study, and as we know, the science shows that culling provides absolutely no reduction in bite incidents. In addition, “The lethal approach taken to shark management is a knee-jerk reaction rather than informed, effective environmental policy making.” As Gibbs and Warren discovered, “UMR Research found that 82% of Australians think that sharks should not be killed and that people enter the water at their own risk (SMH 2014).

How can the governments of a democratic country be so disconnected from their electorate? Why are they so hell-bent on offering us protection from animals we do not want or need protection from? Yes, sharks are predatory animals who live in the ocean and 82% of us are willing to take the risk of encountering them when we enter the ocean. Beaches have become human realms and as such humans have forgotten that they are in fact wilderness with wild animals inhabiting them. A re-framing of these spaces is needed.

We need reminding that beaches are not pools; they are the homes of others and are wild places. They are places where we may be preyed upon and where we may become food for other animals. The literal line in the sand where the surf meets the land is a time line and when we cross over it, we are going back in time – 400 million years back in time to a realm where creatures (hopefully still beyond our control) have evolved and lived long before us and without us.

The horror and terror we are entangled in with sharks is mostly coming from the human side of the entanglement. 100 million sharks slaughtered in a year when there were less than 10 humans fatally bitten by sharks is the true terror and horror we are dealing with.

We Need to Talk About Shark Week

We Need to Talk About Shark Week

Yes, it is that time of year again, Shark Week; the Discovery Channel’s annual week of all things shark. Growing up in Canada, I was in my late teens when Shark Week began in 1987 and I looked forward to it as much as Halloween, Christmas and my birthday. My Dad and I would be riveted to the TV and we would inevitably learn something new about sharks each year. Even though they often repeated the same documentaries, there was usually something new and the old documentaries were so good, we looked forward to watching them again.
I don’t have pay TV here so I haven’t seen Shark Week for many years. I was home in Canada a few years back and caught some of it and I was shocked by the difference in tone. I remember Shark Week as being very educational with interviews with ichthyologists and marine biologists and oceanographers. What I saw a few years ago were staged re-enactments of shark attacks complete with buckets of red dye in the water and screaming people in the surf. What had happened to my beloved week of shark television?

The chatter online seems to agree with me. The programme seems to have lost its educational and entertaining edge and has instead lowered itself to a shark version of Current Affair-style infotainment complete with speculative editorialising, vilification and scaremongering. It’s not that Shark Week has become anti-shark, it’s that it has become pro-fear.

Shark Week needs to get itself back on track or risk tarnishing its 27-year history. Most of the footage now involves speculation of the existence of Megalodon or staged or actual footage of ‘attack’. I find more useful evidence of shark behaviour by watching YouTube amateur divers videos of their peaceful encounters with sharks. No fake blood or sensationalising needed.

I recently had a Skype chat with my family back in Canada and they told me that this year was particularly dire – my 13 year old nephew could see through the hype and recognised the staged settings and manipulative editing used in these so-called documentaries. I have even heard that an actor posed as a marine biologist in one show. What has happened?

We are all scratching our heads, wondering what went wrong with an institution we all loved so much from our youth. The answers are unclear and probably varied with mostly financial implications for the change. If it bleeds it leads is still front and centre it seems, even on a science-based pay TV channel. The turning away in disgust is evident by most I have spoken to and so it seems that Shark Week has well and truly jumped the shark.

Sept 13, 2014

Food or Thought?

Ideas and actions are two very different things. They can act in a cyclical way – one informing the other, and sometimes they can be very separate.
Academia seems to have a very obvious bias against western thought. Almost everything I have read so far has blamed the current poor state of wildlife, animals and the environment in general on western thinking; Judeo-Christian belief systems and its resulting actions.

This seems extremely simplistic and quite narrow. Surely not everything that is wrong with the anthropocene has stemmed from western belief systems?
It feels a bit like putting the baby out with the bath water. Slavery and colonisation are horrible realities, which we are continuing to deal and not deal with, but they are of course not uniquely western actions.
And, in terms of animal cruelty, habitat loss, pollution, deforestation, species loss and animal holocaust, these are hardly western-only atrocities. What is curious is the action towards, not the idea of animals in so called western and eastern realms.

While western thought and belief systems are being blamed for everything, actions in both realms are abhorrent regardless of idea. Sharks have been decimated for their fins for soup, bears are milked of their bile, set to fight, and have their paws amputated, monkeys are kept in cages to eat coffee beans which are prized or have their brains eaten whilst still alive. This is not fiction, these are real practices. The ‘idea’ of the animal or the belief systems surrounding them has not saved these animals from persecution, torture and in some cases, extinction.

Western factory farming is indeed abhorrent and is and should be challenged on a wide scale. The treatment of domesticated farm animals as meat in waiting without comfort, agency, freedom, dignity or peace is a very disturbing practice and a disturbing thought. Actions speak louder than words and they are certainly more powerful than ideas or systems of belief.

Yes, the western world has a very sanitised view of our food – it’s wrapped in cellophane and fluorescently lit in large halls – we are detached from the animals we eat in a disappointing and profound way.

Growing up in Canada, my uncles frequently hunted deer in the autumn for a cheaper and more environmentally friendly form of protein. As a child I would be very distressed by the whole ordeal and would frequently not be told what I was eating to avoid the histrionics.
Another uncle had a farm and my parents purchased a beef calf that lived at his farm for the year. My parents named him ‘Riblets’ and he was jet black and didn’t mind a head scratch now and again when we visited. My parents would laugh and point to the parts of him which would taste the best to tease me.
Although all this sounds sort of sick, and it sort of is for those not within the unique humour of my wonderful family, it was a good experience for me to be so close to my food. Yes, I loved patting and interacting with Riblets in his large outdoor paddock where he had fresh food and what I hoped was a carefree life up until his death, but, I can’t deny that I enjoyed eating him too.
At first I found it difficult when my family would tease me at the dinner table that I was eating Riblets, but at the same time, in hindsight, there was something finite and circular about the experience. Could I have killed him myself? Very highly doubtful. But, knowing he spent his life outside, not force-fed corn in a factory farm gives some comfort to the idea of him as sentient animal whose company I enjoyed and a source of food for my family and me. The same goes for the deer in a sense. There is no way I could imagine being able to pull the trigger to shoot one, but knowing that they were free living and as a result of being shot, didn’t have to suffer through the winter with the others for very little food, gives me a perverse and perhaps ill-suited sense of justification.
Within this realm of meet before you eat, a visit to an Asian marketplace is an assault on the senses as I have experienced a few times. I have seen12 ducks tied by the feet on a sweltering footpath in Shanghai, a large snapping turtle is in a waterless bowl smaller than its body so it could not extend its head out of its shell, a small chipmunk-like rodent in a wire cage the size of a paperback book with deep lacerations on its feet from the wire; it looked at first like it was sleeping but on closer inspection, it was near death.
These are just some of the things I saw during 10 weeks in Shanghai. The suffering of animals was profound but more importantly, needless. I hate the whole east / west debate thing, it’s boring and old and seems to be counterproductive since we are all reliant on the same sun, water, air…, but I can’t help but wonder where this anti-western thought bias sits within the present realm of animals.
The current trend of China away from shark fin soup is heartening and astounding. While people often hold up culture as a defence for animal cruelty and slaughter, and as an excuse for an inability to change, China has not only bucked the trend, it is shattering the whole idea. While some cynics may argue that it is a soft power ploy, it seems to me to be a wonderful turnaround in events. To have a nation of 1.3 billion people to think differently and most importantly, critically of its food, is an astounding achievement. Yes, the idea and impetus for the change came from the west, namely Wildaid, but the action came from the east. Now, if all countries could assess their consumptive patterns of animals in the same critical way, we will be off to a good start.
Animals are food and have been food and will continue to be food. Humans are food and have been food and will continue to be food (God willing if the sharks, vultures and maggots survive) If western thinking’s so-called human / nature dualism is putting humans above animals as seems to be the common idea, what is the alternative? I saw nothing in China that made me want to change my views on animals; it merely strengthened my concern for them.
I don’t want sharks to have their fins hacked off while they are still alive (or when they are dead). I don’t want to see wild animals in cages in zoos or in markets. I don’t want animals force-fed anything so that they taste better to humans. What does all this mean in terms of western / eastern thought about animals? I don’t know. All I know is actions are more important to me than words, ideas, belief systems, ideologies or dogma. And China’s current actions away from shark fin are a beautiful thing.

Faith, Finance and Sharks

The shared space of sharks and humans is regularly reduced to binary oppositions. Us versus them, human life versus shark life, and sharks themselves are reduced to this in terms of commodity and product or tourism experience.

Shark currency is now being argued in conservation terms. As Gallagher and Hammerschlag (2014) have stated, shark currency (deemed to be the non-consumptive use of sharks) is a global phenomena and a multi-billion dollar business. “….A similar pattern is apparent in North America, whereby the Bahamas have enjoyed over 25 years of recreational shark usage. In 2007, divers experienced an estimated 73,000 shark interactions in the Bahamas, generating roughly US$78 million in annual revenue (Cline, 2008; Table 3)”

However, all of this is based on a capitalist model in terms of financial exchange and benefit. Sharks are part of the way nature in general is viewed; it is over there, somewhere on the horizon away from us and as such it is placed on a pedestal or put on a leash or put in the bank. It is not free; it is under a man-made system that sees it at separate from itself. To quote Morton, “The point is to go against the grain of dominant, normative ideas about nature, but to do so in the name of sentient beings suffering under catastrophic environmental conditions” (2007:12).

Humans and sharks impact on each other in a diverse range of ways. Sharks are sometimes highly valued for their ecological and tourist values or are connected to complex cultural practices and belief systems. In other contexts, sharks are feared or loathed or have status attachment as commodities. China and the Solomon Islands have similar yet divergent use for these animals. The Solomon Islanders have a history of revering sharks by worshipping them as ancestor gods (Coddrington, 1881), while Asia is responsible for 52% of all shark catch for the Chinese shark fin soup trade (Worm et al., 2014). An exploration of these diverse ideas about the living and dead value of sharks and how they translate into behaviours of various kinds will be significant.

Scientists are investigating the many implications of declining shark populations and its implications on economy, ecology and even climate change but this discussion is largely held within the scientific community and is not being held in the realm of the general public. “Most large shark species play a top-down predatory role within their respected ecosystems. Although difficult to accurately assess, the problems stemming from the loss of apex predators can be incredibly complex and have catastrophic implications for the marine ecosystem” (Baum et al., 2003 cited in O’Connell et al., 2012). Boris Worm, a Canadian scientist, has put forward a strong case for a shark fishing moratorium similar to the whaling moratorium and has indicated that Asia accounts for 52% of all shark catch. He has also indicated the importance of the human-shark experience of ecotourism and its implications for conservation (Worm et al., 2013).
Furthermore, the investigation of shark currency as pointed out by Gallagher and Hammerschlag (2011) does have positive implications for living sharks as experience and tourist attraction rather than as dead commodities, however, the existence of sharks as independent agents within this interface is not acknowledged. This discussion of the universality of the shared living space of the human-shark interaction needs to be broadened to include the various untold stories of sharks around the world.

Shark, as a word, is loaded with meaning. Shark, as a story, is a prejudicial narrative. In fact, the whole idea of ‘shark’ is often distilled down to two notes of John Williams’ iconic score, ‘da dum, da dum, da dum,dum,dum,dum,” including by children who have never seen the film the music so effectively emphasises. We love our monsters so long as we can slay them, enslave them or make money from them. Their right to exist is not outside the realm of capitalist or commodification theory – it is the way all life is now measured – especially non-human life. What does this mean for sharks? They are paying the price of living in the antropocene with their lives. Their 400 million year history has shaped the way human bodies have evolved. Sharks are responsible for our ability to swallow and breathe, and now, they are what we swallow.

The forces of capitalism and colonisation have brought forth elements of control and a distinct lack of choice and lack of agency and decision-making for non-human animals. While these forces are increasing – the forces of belief and religion are diminishing and this is also having adverse affects on the non-human animal world.
Societies, which revered and protected these animals, have lost much of their faith and we are losing much of the animals. Morton (2010) has stated that ‘religion cries in a green voice’ but the voice is not being heard.

Words, Women and Sharks

Words, Women and Sharks

The phrase domestic violence is almost comical in its connotation. Say it. Then, think about it. What do you picture? If you really think about the two measly words, they don’t amount to much do they? I picture a malfunctioning toaster blasting a piece of hot toast into an unsuspecting breakfast patron’s eye. I also sometimes picture a runaway vacuum cleaner nozzle getting the better of some unsuspecting vacuuming person’s hair. I rarely think of those two words as what they really are and what it should be called – men terrorising and killing women and children in their own homes. That is what is should be called because that is what it is. It is not random inanimate domestic household appliances gone awry and causing violence. It is men terrorising and killing women and children in their own homes.

The phrase shark cull is almost comical in its connotation. Say it. Then, think about it. What do you picture? If you really think about the two measly words, they don’t amount to much do they? I picture a shark with long hair getting a hair cut by some crazy cleaner wrasse with tiny scissors. I also sometimes picture people wading into water with the bright orange batons that runway personnel use at airports to guide planes waving masses and masses of sharks who are clogging up the shores in directions away from beaches. I rarely think of those two words as what they really are and what it should be called – humans killing sharks to minimise the already miniscule chance that they may injure bathers on the coast. That is what it should be called because that is what it is. It is not a minimising of an out of control population of potential vermin that require thinning out for the safety of crops or the prevention of disease. It is humans killing sharks to minimise the already miniscule chance that they may injure bathers on the coast.

Now, before you accuse me of diminishing the death of women or sharks to the detriment of the other, bear with this argument, convoluted as it may be at this early stage.

Last year, 4 young men died from coward punches by the hands of other young men who were complete strangers. This received massive amounts of air and print time and publicity campaigns are still running to stop this scourge of despicable violence.
During the same period of time, 72 women died by the hands of men they knew and shared or at one time shared a life with. During this same time, over 100,000,000 sharks were killed by nets, hooks, knives and machetes by complete strangers who shared a commodity based relationship with the sharks who were and are not aware of this relationship.

The publicity campaigns for the coward punches and the sharks far exceed the campaigns for the violence of men against women and children. Coward punches seem to have thankfully stopped and the campaigns seem to have worked. There has not been a fatal coward punch incident since the campaign and the bar lock outs started.
The shark awareness campaigns are taking hold around the world and many cities and countries are banning shark products. The anti-cull campaign has a worldwide vocal public who continue to denounce the Western Australian government’s killing of more than 150 sharks and counting since the beginning of the cull in February 2014.
Male violence against women has not only not diminished but is actually believed to have increased.

Obviously there are myriads of issues to be discussed here and yes, they are complex and varied but there seems to be a clear message that people understand what the campaign is saying about coward punches but not sharks and not about men killing women and children in their own homes. I believe language has a lot to do with this.
The words king hit were replaced by the words coward punch. These two words speak the truth to the situation. A king is not performing the act, a coward is. Through this act of changing the words to speak the truth, the public have listened and responded. It is time to do the same for sharks, women and children. The words currently used are not speaking the truth to the situation. They are bureaucratic words couched in paperwork and wrapped up in red tape. Cull needs to be replaced by lure and kill. Domestic violence needs to be replaced, but by what? The word domestic is far too cosy and on the flip side it is wrapped up in privacy and an inability to intervene and the word violence is too general to be effective. The word coward seems to work here for all three acts. Cowards are the agents of all three acts. Perhaps the new campaign for sharks should read cowards luring and killing sharks out of fear and cowards hurting and killing women and children in their own homes.

Perhaps when we start speaking the truth, the truth will change.

September 4, 2014