Fear of Sharks? A Comment on Aggression and Compassion in Humans and Animals

When I give talks about my study of shark behaviour, the most common question I am asked is : “But weren't you afraid of the sharks?”

Well of course, but to me, those sharks were simply wild animals. I had often been fearful, during my long history of observing wild animals, but never had an animal threatened me.

On the contrary, I learned at an early age that it was the men in the forest, not bears, not mountain lions, not snakes, who were really dangerous. When I was growing up in North America, there was one serial killer after another in the local news. Every couple of months, another girl or young woman would be found, naked, bruised, and bloody after a nightmare death, in some dark corner of the forest, to the shock of her weeping family.

Those were the monsters who lay in wait along my pathways, as a young wildlife artist and ethologist. The first time I had to run for my life, I was only four years old. At twelve, I was grabbed by a strange man while walking home through a local wood, and only escaped after a desperate struggle. Every few years, there was a terrifying, life-threatening incident, always with a man, never with an animal.

Except for one time, and that animal spared me, though it had just been mortally wounded by a man.

It happened at the end of September five years ago. I had been travelling by bicycle across France, and stopped for the night in La Forêt d'Ancenis. But I noticed that in that forest only, no birds sang.

As it grew dark, volleys of gunfire began to shatter the stillness, and with the fall of night, came an alarming crescendo—many big guns were being fired repeatedly nearby. The deafening sound went on and on, as if I was in a war.

Then suddenly an animal came crashing through the trees, and in the charcoal shadows I could scarcely make out something the size of a large dog. It veered around me. The sound of its feet striking the ground sounded like a horse running very unevenly. Perhaps one limb was useless, so it came down hard on the other. Its voice was a series of high barks, but it was not a dog. It settled on the ground nearby, where it lay yipping and crying, as more animals could be heard, crashing through the woods from the direction of the gunfire.

The night had enveloped us when a much larger creature—a different species—came crashing, groaning loudly with each step. It came right up to me and began snorting and pawing the ground in front of my face, as I gazed up into blackness from my sleeping bag, every nerve alight with terror. For long minutes it went on striking the ground, sniffing and exhaling in sharp bursts between its agonized groans—my impression was of an animal the size of a bull. Fully expecting to be mauled at any moment, I was awed when, very gradually, its intensity began to ebb. There was more time between each snort, and finally it took a step back. Then it retreated a few metres away, and lay down, where it went on moaning and crying to itself.

The two wounded and terrified creatures had settled down near me, as if they thought that they had found safety! They knew people. No such wild animals lived in that forest—no wild animal would behave like that. Wild animals would have known where to go to hide. These had no idea what to do. It was clear that they had been brought there, and likely released just before the gunfire had begun. A large gathering of men had fired at them repeatedly with big guns at close range, apparently just to terrify and hurt them as they fled into the forest.

One of them passed me at a canter from time to time, crashing through the darkness and yelling in an unearthly voice. It was not as badly injured as the others—all four legs still worked, and its lungs and internal organs were also functioning.

I called the police, but they were unconcerned. They refused to notify the hunters that I was there. It was the killers, who were in the right, according to French society. I had seen the graceful lawns of the Château d'Ancenis les Bois, which lay beyond the gunfire, swans and ducks floating on the pond in front of the castle. 

They were the nobles of society. Noble? The wounded buck, bear, or bull, whatever it was, had offered me more mercy than it had been shown, and in the morning, these cruel men would be coming with their dogs to satiate their sadism on their victims, with the blessing of the local police. I lay awake all night, listening to the groans and cries of the animals, and thinking.

You can do a lot of thinking during the black hours of a night. For a student of wild animal behaviour, the conclusion was hard to avoid. My own species was the most violent, cruel and dangerous one of all. And it was not just the activities of serial killers and recreational hunters in the balance. I had regularly witnessed irrational, violent, and cruel behaviour among individuals I knew. In families it was common, and often accepted by other family members, so from there it was a short step to acceptance in school, where bullies dominated the scene. But though they caused a great deal of suffering in their victims, the situation was accepted by other students and the teachers, so the scene was set for also accepting injustice in society, where we are expected to turn a blind eye to countless injustices and cruelties, from agribusiness to war.

Scientists have found through animal experimentation, that their lab animals are more compassionate than they are, for example, and any examination of history shows centuries of bloody conflict with no counterpart in nature.

Psychologist Bob Altemeyer, specialist in human aggression, wrote in his book, The Authoritarians, “...someone who wished you dead would have to try three or four complete strangers ... before he found someone who would hold you down and kill you with electric shocks.”

In recent decades, the study of ethology, or natural wild animal behaviour, has revealed universal tendencies that are common across the various families of complex animals. These show that our violence and aggression evolved with us from the animal state. While humanity has over-estimated the force of instinct in animals, it seems that it has under-estimated the same power in humans. Anyone can enter murder-mode given the right circumstances. 

And now, with the science fiction weapons available to us to use on those we don't like, our future safety as a species is called into question. What might have once helped us to succeed—the instantaneous and excessive violent response—now threatens us with extinction. But, this angle on humanity is only rarely mentioned.

Biologist David Carrier, of the University of Utah, was quoted recently in LiveScience as saying, "My personal opinion is that Western society, as a whole, is in mass denial about the magnitude of the problem that violence represents for the future. We are peace-loving and want to believe that the violence and transgressions of the past will not return, but recent history and current events illustrate how easy it is for humans to respond with interpersonal and intergroup violence."

Some writers speak of an "awakening" before it is too late, as human destruction threatens the very health of the planet. Such a phenomenon would necessarily involve the conscious choice of humanity to over-ride their instincts and use their intellect to make decisions. Can a species change? Perhaps that is the final test of the human spirit.  

So, to answer those who wonder about my fear of sharks, after some of the homosaps I have known, sharks were easy, I mean really simple, to deal with.

(c) Ila France Porcher 2015


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