| The rare shark attack provides good, scary stories to
tell, but the really frightening story is how we justify
the mistreatment of animals based on the musings of
our uneducated imagination.
The mystery of the monster
Story by Mitchell Gray
Imagine strolling a coastal path on an idyllic Nova Scotian midsummer’s day. Bees spiral past in search of nectar while your dog sprints through beach grass pausing
only to sniff the air as a small herd of deer browse in the mottled shadows. Then you spot
a shark fin in the water, and another. Your head swivels around, surveying the scene, and
you realize how ominous it has become. You’re scared, and your instinct to flee kicks
in. Suddenly, you run, splashing out into the water. You breathe a sigh of relief as you
bob gently in the waves.
The last thing most hikers would do in that situation is run into the water. However, statistically
speaking, it is probably the right thing to do. In general, bees, dogs and deer all represent
a greater threat to humans than sharks do. But this fact receives much less attention than
stories of shark-mangled surfers. Most of us would rather take our chances on shore, because
our cultures have woven a mythology of fear around sharks.
"Sharks actually pose a very small threat to humans," says Alexia Morgan, a researcher
for the International Shark Attack File, based at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Worldwide, there are typically fewer than 70 shark attacks each year, she says, and people
swim in shark-inhabited regions every day. And, for the past few years, there has been fewer
on average than four shark-related fatalities annually. "There are many more attacks
by domestic dogs every year than there are from sharks," Morgan says, "and many
more fatalities from vehicular collisions with deer." And yet, it is the sharks that
cause the imagination to run wild. "People think they’ll attack you no matter
what, but it’s very rare that something will happen, and most of the attacks are minor."
"People’s reactions to situations are often out of proportion to the real danger," says
Sheila Woody, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and
an expert on fear and anxiety. "All the stories we tell in our culture pass along a
certain feeling about an animal," she says. Whether a fairy tale, an urban myth, or
a television show, the better the narrative, the more powerfully it shapes perceptions. "A
more dramatic story will capture our imagination and get passed on," Woody says. "You
don’t see bee sting victims on Oprah." Accounts of shark attacks on television
are usually horrendously vivid, and people gain irrational levels of fear vicariously from
the televised victims. "It’s a very normal response to avoid a situation that
has caused problems for another member of our species," Woody says. The reason a fearful
tale about a dog attack may not affect people in the same way, she says, is that most people
have also had many pleasant experiences with dogs. With sharks, we do not have the sort of
pleasurable counterexamples that reduce our fears.
Sharks are disadvantaged not only by the stories we tell about them, but also by their
appearance. "When we perceive the gap between ourselves and other species to be large,
we often treat those species with either indifference or a degree of negativity," says
David Fraser, a professor of animal welfare at the University of British Columbia. Certain
physical traits, such as fur and infantile qualities like large eyes and heads, make us sympathetic
to animals, he says, but sharks are "slimy," have big teeth and small eyes. "Sharks
are not drastically different from dolphins in physical terms," says Fraser, "but
we see dolphins as akin to ourselves due to what we know of their mental complexity." Before
we knew much about whales, he adds, we valued them only in economic terms. Now that research
has exposed their high level of intelligence, as displayed by their communication and care
for their young, many have become "horrified" of using whales simply for commercial
As researcher Alexia Morgan points out, sharks are in an especially tenuous position, because
the level of negative feelings toward them makes it difficult to raise money to study them
and to gain the knowledge required to shift perceptions. As a result, dangerous overfishing
of shark populations is largely ignored in many parts of the world, she says, as is the accidental
death of sharks in non-related fishing operations.
The rare shark attack provides good, scary stories to tell, but the really frightening
story is how we justify the mistreatment of animals based on the musings of our uneducated