Shark as “other.”

Why is the shark, and especially the great white shark, so relentlessly “other,” more other than perhaps any other animal? There is nothing cute and cuddly about sharks, true. On the other hand, most humans throughout history have not been cute and cuddly (only their young are). In fact if you think about it, it is the very young, the newborn, the 8 week old pups, of just about any species, our own included, that occasion the oohs and aahs, and the endearments and the desire to pick up and kiss and hold and fondle. Adults may inspire respect, awe, curiosity, but rarely do we see a full-grown wild animal we wish to pick up or lie down next to. And even baby sharks look like adults; indeed they have the size and the teeth that go with maturity even when they are newly born.

Sharks kill far fewer people than do hippos or elephants; yet our fear of the former is by an order of magnitude greater than our fear of the latter. So what makes an animal “other?” Obviously one thing is their desire to do us harm. Even if it is accidental, when an animal can do us serious damage, we tend to be wary of them. And yet there is the elephant. When aroused they can and often do stomp a human into the ground. Sometimes we ask for it (by hunting them) and sometimes we just happen to be there where we shouldn’t. But we don’t take it quite so personally as we do with sharks. Perhaps we feel that if push came to shove, we could reason with an elephant. We could make her see that we mean no harm and have intruded where we should not be by mistake. We might not expect a gracious apology, but we feel, rightly or wrongly, that we could convince an elephant of our innocence. Not so a great white. Yes, they may have bitten into you by mistake. But do they care? Nah. Can you hope for any kind of understanding on the part of a great white shark? Not many would believe such a thing possible (I include myself here). So it may be prejudice, it may be deep-rooted, it may be due to ignorance or lack of experience, but when most of us see a fin heading toward us in the ocean, we feel primeval, primitive dread.

About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
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6 Responses to Shark as “other.”

  1. Julie H says:

    You might already know this but after writing Jaws, Peter Benchley became a shark conservationist 🙂

  2. elisa says:

    Thanks for a thought provoking piece.

  3. suzanne beer says:

    I wonder if the movie Jaws has anything to do with it or the fact that most of us feel more in control when on dry land than in the water?

    • Yes indeed, Jaws did have much to do with it, and as the next comment points out, the author was very sorry and spent the last years of his life fighting for the conservation of sharks. It shows how much power a piece of fantasy can have over a public predisposed to think the worst of apex predators, even while we are the only apex predator that routinely kills millions of its own members!

      • Well, sharks and other fish are cold blooded, and seem to belong to a quite different order of animal life than us mammals, so we don’t feel the answering presence of a kindred intelligence there, as you suggest. Most of us don’t, anyway: I may wish no harm on snakes, for example, but I have always felt that there is something rather sinister about people who keep snakes as pets (which involves feeding them live rodents, of course), and I doubt that they feel the same kind of personal connection with them that dog and cat lovers feel for their pets. Probably their relations with their fellow humans are similarly reptilian.

  4. wildwoman says:

    Hola,siempre tan interesantes tus artículos,me hace pensar en “lo siniestro” referido por Freud,sobre la sensación que nos despierta lo no familiar.Creo que algo de esto se aplica al tiburón,justamente el contraste con lo que nos suele provocar la imagen de un oso,que tendemos a ver como tierno,suave,etc.No hay peluches de tiburones para nuestros niños,no?Un poco la propaganda en contra ,y otro poco,las características físicas más que sus hábitos de alimentación son las que lo hacen muy “otro” Un buen ejemplo para pensar cuánto nos cuesta amar y respetar no sólo al semejante,sino especialmente,al diferente.Saludos desde Argentina!!!

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