I know nothing about surfing or fishing. My ignorance about boats is profound. So I shouldn’t say anything about the recent fatal shark attacks, except to state how appalling they are for the families of the men killed.
Since records started in Australia in 1791, there have been about 220 fatal shark attacks or about one each year. There were nearly 1300 motor vehicle accident deaths in 2011. But each shark attack gets media headlines.
I can’t help remembering that during the Middle Ages, animals that killed people were brought to court and tried. They were led into the court room on a leash. If they played up, further charges of affray were laid against them.
They were always executed: pigs and dogs that attacked their masters whatever the provocation, frightened horses that had trodden people to death, circus animals that escaped and ate for hunger.
It was a farce, of course. Magistrates could not take into account the animal’s intentions. If the animal had responded to one too many whippings, there was no charge of justifiable homicide. If horses trampled people because there were no exits in a crowded barn, the court didn’t care.
But the people probably felt better when the animal was killed. The taking of the animal’s life satisfied somehow the outrage at the human death. Old Testament justice was served: ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life.’
We no longer bring animals to trial. We look back at the medieval practice with amazement that people’s thinking could be so defective. Animals don’t form criminal intentions. And even if they do, they cannot defend themselves in a human court. They can’t talk, you know.
Proposals to punish sharks that that take human beings by killing individual sharks or culling sharks generally are not so different from medieval animal courts.
Firstly there seems to be a problem of identity, being sure that you capture the shark that did the killing. Without that certainty why kill any shark that happens to be nearby? Even if you are certain that this shark killed a man, killing the shark certainly guarantees that that individual will not kill again. But scientists know little about the reasons for shark attacks. Is there a reason to think that this shark will attack again if left alive?
Neither can we know enough about bonds between sharks to know whether killing one shark will provoke a family member to kill in retaliation.
Scientists say they do not know why sharks kill. They do not have a clear picture of how many great white sharks there are around the south and west coasts of Australia. They do not know how they interact with top predators like orcas off Bremer Bay. Our ignorance is great. So we can have little confidence in the effectiveness of any intervention. We simply do not know what effect any of our actions will have.
We do know that the ocean is the sharks’ home. I object to a worldview that claims first place for human beings whatever the cost to other species. It seems to me to be arrogance to demand that the oceans be safe for human beings. We are responsible for own actions. We know the ocean has dangers, and it falls on us to take prudent precautions if we enter the sharks’ habitat.
To drive sharks out of the ocean for our comfort is to change the ocean into something with less value, and may have unintended results of changing our environment into something less liveable for all creatures – including ourselves.
So by all means let’s grieve appropriately for those taken by sharks, but let’s also pause before behaving with the same muddled logic as our medieval forebears and executing sharks for murder, because that’s all the sense I can make of polices of ‘capture and kill’ and culling.