WE KILL ALL THE GREAT WHITE SHARKS AND ALLIGATORS?
by Whit Gibbons
May 4, 2008
capture and eliminate wild animals that harm humans? Should we immediately
put to death the individual animal that made the attack? Should we make
plans to remove the entire species from the region, or even the planet?
reports of attacks by a great white shark, an alligator, and a grizzly
bear bring such questions to the surface. These are difficult to answer
because primitive human emotions are involved. One easy answer on today's
talk shows is "No animal is worth a single human life." Such
a response is easy, cheap, palatable to many people, and, in my opinion,
absurd. We can all think of somebody who would qualify for the "not
worth his weight in coon dogs" category. If you can't, you are too
charitable toward the other contestants in the human race. Issues that
result in a face-off between human lives and animal rights are difficult
to address and cannot be resolved merely by reciting facts. Anyone with
an apparently simple answer should be viewed with suspicion. Complex questions
have complex answers.
for answers, the first consideration actually is simple. None of us should
have difficulty expressing sympathy for the family and friends of someone
killed by a shark, alligator, or bear. Our compassion and understanding
should parallel feelings we would have about someone who dies in a head-on
collision, or a hunting or drowning accident.
the difficult part begins. Automobiles can kill hundreds of people over
a holiday weekend, and no one proposes banning cars. Yet a single human
death from an encounter with a shark off the California coast results
in instant indictment of the individual animal and the entire species
that lives on animals that swim in the sea. This generally leads to a
demand for its life and sometimes all its kin. I think this has a biological
basis. Outrage toward another animal is a primitive response, albeit a
natural one. Earlier humans who were intolerant of dangerous wild animals
probably survived better than those who were not. The natural response
in a primitive society would be to eliminate or avoid any species that
threatened human life. This response is inappropriate, however, in a society
that no longer lives under primitive conditions. No animals, except other
humans, qualify as major threats to human populations. Although exceptions
exist, most attacks by large, wild animals on humans are to people who
have put themselves in a precarious situation. They usually do so because
of the exhilaration of the adventure.
alligators, grizzly bears, and a few other species have all accounted
for human deaths. But the number is small compared to deaths from other
causes, hundreds of other causes. The number of deaths from wild animals
over the last century does not come close to the number of deaths from
boat, train, or motorcycle accidents. Again, let me emphasize that I am
in no way belittling the injury or death of a person attacked by a wild
animal. The tragedy is real, even when the person did something that was
not real smart, just as with some car accidents or gunshot fatalities.
But when the cause of death is another animal, that species should not
become a scapegoat for a primitive tendency toward vindictiveness.
of this vengeful, and I say again, primitive, attitude pervades enactment
of protective legislation for some species. As far as I am aware, no state
legislature in the South has ever proposed protection for the eastern
diamondback rattlesnake, a magnificent species whose habitat is vanishing.
Although these rattlesnakes are clearly disappearing from most of their
natural geographic range in the East, no one wants to champion the cause
of a snake that can kill a human.
as sharks, mountain lions, alligators, bears, and rattlesnakes exist,
a few will occasionally engage in unacceptable acts, often in defense
of themselves or their young. Although our natural tendency may be toward
reprisal, we should remember that the species themselves are part of natural
communities and merit our protection. We don't seek vengeance against
an automobile that kills or maims. Let's extend the same logic to our
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