At Solomons Table – At it, On it, Under it
Provisioning for Animals
Provisioning is a disruptive practice in that people in positions of power (i.e.: having food to spare) are doing it for an outcome that is usually capitally driven. This is why provisioning matters and also why provisioning is such an interesting area. Provisioning for animals who are provisionally wild is interesting; it always has been.
The starting point of any discussion on provisioning should always be the endgame. Are the outcomes benign or malicious? Can they even be either of these or both? What are the ethical aspects? What are the ecological or animal health dimensions? What cascading effects can provisioning to wild animals cause?
While Donna Haraway is astute in observing that we become together with our biospheric others, I am continuously made aware in how we come apart with them as well. After four trips to the Solomon Islands, this apartness is becoming more apparent. The table has, and most probably always has been, a Maginot Line as I try to navigate the niceties of Solomon hospitality while emaciated animals cower at my feet hoping for a morsel of food and a crumb of kindness. This dilemma has plagued me on each visit. My fellow volunteers give me ‘the look’ which is easily deciphered by me as ‘don’t you dare give any of that food which these nice people, who have very little, have so kindly prepared and shared with us, to the dog, cat chicken or whatever other half-starved creature lurking under the table is begging for it.
While my human companions have one look for me, my biospheric others have another. It is a look I find much more compelling and much easier to oblige. This look is one of intense hope and longing mixed with grief and suffering. This look is ‘please’. Please comes in a huge range here. I have received it with the same intensity of my own cat at home – a gentle plead which if I refuse, will result in him going off to find something else to interest him. I have received it with much more intensity accompanied by mewls, whines, leg rubs and toe rubs. I have experienced it where exposed ribs washboard against my shins and worst of all I have received it with such nihilistic resignation that the heavily creased eyes of the street dog in questions in Gizo after giving me the look it had clearly given so often for so long it merely lowered its head back onto its bony paws and fixed its eyes on nothing. I doubt very much it lived through the night.
This minefield of etiquette and separation is always troubling and so, to return to Haraway, I am staying with the trouble as avoiding the trouble has become very tiresome.
I am a volunteer teacher in the Solomons at a remote jungle school every year. I also research sharks and the people who share this place with them. My dual role is mirrored in the dilemma of feeding or not feeding ‘the please’. I am trying to understand what provisioning sharks can mean and how it can matter yet I am also trying to understand why responding to the please of the terrestrial biospheric others is seen as such a no-no. While all of this ‘to feed or not to feed’ noise is humming away, the mosquitoes are endlessly feeding off us. We are all food for each other whether we like it or not.
I understand that throwing the scraps of recently filleted fish off the jetty to waiting fish and soon-to-be-there sharks is just good common sense. ‘Give back some of what you have taken’ is a nice new way of looking at it but in reality it makes sense to put the ocean waste back in the ocean so you don’t stink up your home area with rotting fish guts. It is simple practicality, no more or less. There is no ‘please’ to respond to because a ‘please’ has not been issued. However, giving what to us is barely a bite or two of food to an animal who is in physical distress from malnutrition does not seem such a terrible infraction. I have never once been told by any of the many Solomon Islanders I have broken bread with, not to feed the animals. I have refrained because my Australian friends are fearful I will be committing an insult upon them by doing so. I have sneakily given a piece of my own bought biscuits here and there in an answer to a ‘please’ when there has been no one there to admonish me. On this most recent visit, the school has ballooned to a healthy 76 students and as such has acquired extra kitchen staff and another teacher as well as many camp dogs – seven in total including one bitch with two pups and two small kittens. Animals are always a welcome sight for me and this was no exception. These dogs were true camp dogs; they served as sentries to the school and were invaluable pig hunters, providing the school its only source of protein besides expensive tinned tuna which has to be purchased in Seghe then transported 40mins by boat and 10kms by truck up a logging road to the school.
These dogs bore the many boar scars and were hardened by their life of near starvation and constant kicks. Despite this, they often slept on the porch in the classroom doorway close to us but not too close. Not long after we arrived the dogs all retreated to the periphery of the jungle and their yelps and fights could be heard. It reminded me of a famous line:
from the homicidal bitchin’
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
“Democracy”, Leonard Cohen, 1992
These frequent yelps and cries are often from humans just as much from fellow dogs. Everyone is fighting over scraps here. That first afternoon, two boys with bush knives and a pig hoisted between them returned to the school with three victorious and proud dogs. I did notice a lessening of rib indentations on the dogs almost right away and we all enjoyed our welcome feast and were grateful to the pig whose life had ended violently for all of us. The next morning as I walked through the endless mud to the classroom I spotted what at first seemed to be a set of false teeth. On closer examination it was a broken section of the pig’s lower mandible. I stepped over it every day for the next 10 days – a daily reminder of who got to eat and who was served.
While my annual meeting with the sharks of Marovo Lagoon was postponed for two days as we sat in Honiara during torrential rains, when we finally arrived it was worth the wait. I only had four hours of snorkel time instead of two days so I donned my snorkel as we arrived and despite the ongoing heavy showers, still managed to interact with sharks. After more than two hours, I had a full camera of wonderful underwater footage including an eagle ray and the resident Black tip reef sharks. This place is famous for them as the owners used to regularly feed them from the jetty. They were here in large numbers and were spotted right at the surface as you disembarked from the boat. After a foolish Australian tourist ignored the very clear warning sign on the jetty not to dive or jump off the jetty, he was promptly bitten on the head by one of the small usually docile resident or ‘home’ sharks. Splashing on the surface is a sign of feed being thrown in for them – hence the warning sign on the jetty.
Five years ago there were up to 14 home sharks patrolling the channel near the jetty. On this trip I could only count three different sharks. The owners stopped feeding the sharks after the tourist’s wilful disregard of the sign which brought negative attention, as most shark bites do. All accounts I have read of the occurrence in the Australian media have failed to relay this vital piece of information in the story.
The sharks in this place are special. They are habituated to people and their comportment and proximity indicate it. The only footage I have taken of sharks where their proximity fills up the frame of my camera has been there. They are not shy or fearful or curious unlike most sharks I have encountered. We are part of the landscape for them as the waters are often filled with tourists. In fact many of these sharks have never experienced the channel without people – they have been born and raised with the snorkelers and divers here. The foot long pups are often seen patrolling the shallows of the sandy sea grass lagoon while the adults are in the deeper part of the lagoon or the channel. These sharks will easily swim within 2 feet of people and rarely change direction if they see a diver approaching. This is in direct contrast to the other White tip and Black tip sharks I have encountered in other parts of the Western Provinces. These other sharks will abruptly retreat, change course and quickly vanish out into the blue if they see a diver approaching. Most of my other footage of sharks in other locations requires a bit of squinting and equal parts imagination to decipher that dark blue shadow passing out of frame is a shark.
The Uepi sharks cannot be surprised by us. We are about as surprising to them as the coral they pass by or the schools of fish they swim through. We have always been there for them. Their hospitality is ongoing while ours has been removed through the wilful act of a disrespectful tourist. Most sharks when surprised display a fear ‘shiver’. It is a visible ripple that vibrates through their skin. It seems like their mouths open slightly in surprise as well before they quickly turn and speed away in haste. I witnessed this very thing 2 years ago while snorkelling along a coral drop off. I had been following a puffer fish around a curve when I turned around to swim over a large coral bommie close to the surface. A black tip reef shark was coming up from the drop off when I surprised it by suddenly appearing in its path. It shivered and swam off before I could get it in frame to press record on my camera. Clearly this wasn’t one of the Uepi sharks.
Although these 3 remaining Uepi sharks are no longer being fed, they have still staked the Uepi Island channel as their home. The others are probably not far as reef animals are territorial and can usually be found in the same small areas. They are probably just doing what they would naturally do but on the outer edges of the reef. I am quite sure if the operators chose to resume feeding the sharks from the jetty again – there would be 14 of them patrolling the channel with a day or so. What does all this mean for us and for the sharks? Are they hungry? Are we taking more than we are giving back? What does provisioning for shark matter in a world of diminishing returns? Do we risk turning Uepi into a circus of the sea for paying tourists or are we helping a vulnerable species get a fin up in a lagoon system increasingly choked with logging sediment and depleted of tuna?
The waters of the Solomon Islands should be busting with sharks. There are 922 islands and atolls in an area of 29,785km2. There are drop offs, deep abysses, open ocean channels and shallow lagoons. In short there is every type of system to support sharks. So, where are they all? Two years ago I travelled to Langa Langa lagoon on the island of Malaita to track down one of the infamous shark callers. Not only was there not a single shark caller, there was not a singe shark. The lagoon was stagnant, full of garbage and algae and empty of any abundance of sea life. The corals had been mined to build the famous artificial islands of the lagoon. With no coral to hide in, all the fish had gone and with them, the sharks.
After the misery of Langa Langa I headed back to Honiara to connect with my friends. A week later we went to Gizo. Despite beautiful, healthy reef systems, I failed to see a single shark. My friends who went diving and saw a couple of sharks said the dive masters used a half full bottle of water which they would crunch and roll in their hands on a dive to attract sharks. The sound mimics a struggling fish – similar to the ancient coconut rattle the ancient shark callers in Langa Langa used to use. At Gizo I attempted this lure while snorkelling for over 3 hours around a denuded reef system. Not a single shark turned up.
At the school where I volunteer teach, I showed my students pictures of a White tip reef shark, a Black tip reef shark and a Tiger shark and asked if they had ever seen any of them. They had only seen Black tip reef sharks from a boat or a jetty. They had only seen the other two at the markets ‘after they are dead, before we eat them’. Whether or not this is accurate information is open for debate. All the operators I have asked over the past 4 years have never seen or heard of seeing a Tiger shark in the Solomons.
This brings us to another separation – the people and their surrounding flora and fauna. While for the first three years I believed the lack of information about the indigenous wildlife of the Solomons to be a language chasm or a cultural withhold but I have since come to understand it is a lack of understanding and knowledge on the part of the Solomon Islanders.
Many of the children’s stories have foxes, bears and dragons in them. To be fair, the Solomons have only 4 indigenous land mammals – bats, rats, pigs and cus cus, a native possum that only seem to be on some of the islands. However, it would seem to make more sense to have stories of a neighbouring island’s cus cus than a dragon which lives only in imagination. Even questions about frogs seem to bring up disagreements about what is ‘true’ or not. The students seemed to somewhat agree that there were no green tree frogs of any sort in the Solomons but some disputed the existence of a brown and white ground frog which some insisted existed. If the people have very little understanding of what animals they actually have, how can they manage to keep the few they do? In general, animals – all, seem to be mistrusted and feared by a lot of the people I have met. An idle dog or cat will sometimes receive a tail stomp or a kick by someone passing by just for being within reaching distance.
After a week of teaching at the school and hopeful visits from a small ginger and white kitten and a black and white kitten both visibly emaciated and one in a state of agitated despair, my anger increased as to why I could not offer some of my rice and tuna. When I would bring my nearly empty bowl to the water tank under cover of darkness, I’d scoop out the remaining spoonful and place it on the wood in the mud and watch the kitten greedily ingest it, its ribs on its sides straining against its skin in its enthusiasm. I do understand that feeding wildlife is a complex issue, but this was a domestic kitten that someone had brought way up the 10km mountain-logging road here to this school. Yes, it would continue to mewl and beg for food if we ‘encouraged it’. It was someone’s responsibility – it is all our responsibility. A mere touch from us to this little male kitten would make him erupt into purring which could be heard from 4 feet away. He would regularly sit in on class and sometimes fall asleep on my feet as I stood talking to the students.
The following week my friends acquiesced and when our Solomon brother Douglas brought us up a fresh snapper on the logging truck, my friend saved all of the off cuts for me to give to our little ginger and white mate. He ate his fill, his ribs smoothed out, his purring increased and he spent the whole night playing with our feet and then sleeping peacefully on my friend’s suitcase. We received a great reward just for responding to a small ‘please’.
S.E. Laight 2015