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.