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April/May 2007
Sharks Bite Back: Direct Action by Animals Around the World
By Pattrice Jones

 

“ Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...”

According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) “the 1990s had the highest attack total of any decade and the first decade of the 21st century likely will continue that upward trend.” That’s not surprising. As the ISAF notes, continued human population growth means more people in the water every year. At the same time, continued human pollution means less habitable water for sharks. In 2004, when the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was particularly large, there were three shark attacks off the coast of Texas, which had seen only 18 attacks in the previous 24 years.

Sharks typically attack fewer than 100 people per year, killing fewer than 20. Meanwhile, people kill millions of sharks each year, for their flesh, their fins or, as the BBC puts it, “purely for sport.” Between 26 to 73 million sharks are killed for their fins alone, according to a report published last October in Ecology Letters. In that context, sharks have behaved with remarkable restraint!

Nonetheless, every time an unfortunate bather is bitten, the mainstream media teems with depictions of excessively aggressive sharks. We learn which beaches to avoid and how to fight back if attacked. Nobody ever asks: What might we do to prevent those attacks? What can we do for the sharks, who surely would prefer to be swimming in clean water brimming with their natural prey?

We can’t know what the sharks are thinking, although we can imagine how it might feel like to swim into a dead zone or to find oneself adrift in strange waters filled with unfamiliar animals. Are the few sharks who do attack people hungry? Angry? Confused?

The motives of our closer relatives are easier to detect. “Monkeys are very furious,” said Ujagar Singh in 2004, speaking for the Patiala district in India, where pink-faced Rhesus monkeys have uprooted lawns and trashed houses.

They’re not the only ones. If the frequency of mainstream media reports is any guide, direct action by animals is on the rise. They’ve never agreed with people about who belongs where and who “owns” what. Now, pushed to the brink by unchecked human expansion, animals who don’t have anywhere else to retreat have begun to push back. More and more frequently, new housing developments, cash crop plantations, and other incursions into animal habitats have been disrupted or destroyed by nonhuman opponents of human sprawl.

Baboons are taking matters into their own hands and elephants are voting with their feet. In 2004 in South Africa, baboons broke into new houses not only to steal food but also to wreak havoc, tearing clothes from closets and urinating on them. In 2001 in Indonesia, elephants returned again and again to the same plantation to destroy genetically modified cash crops.

Sometimes animals literally fight back. In 2004 in Sierra Leone, people tried to move back into an area that had been reclaimed by animals during a recent war. Elephants resisted the reconquest, chasing people away and killing those who did not flee. In India, elephants have killed hundreds of people in recent years, sometimes accidentally but sometimes evidently purposefully. Panthers, bearsb and even deer have attacked hunters who were trying to kill them as well.

Survival of the Richest
Is this violence? Recalling the hundreds of extinctions due to habitat loss, not to mention the countless individual animals who have starved or otherwise perished when their homes have been invaded or polluted by people, the concept of justifiable force in self defense comes to mind. Certainly, when animals confront hunters, they are literally fighting for their lives.

But, often, the people who die are not those most responsible for the animals’ predicament. In India, indebted farmers kill hungry elephants to stop them from raiding the food crops on which their own survival depends. The elephants fight back, villagers retaliate, violence escalates, and nobody wins.

Whether they are growing their own food or cash crops to sell at deflated prices, indebted farmers need land. But the best land is controlled by rich landlords and corporate farms. When poverty forces destitute farmers into places inhabited by animals, then tragedy is sure to follow. One way or another, somebody who doesn’t deserve to die is going to end up dead. People in the aggregate already have more than we need but, because resources are not shared equitably, starving people end up competing with starving animals on the outskirts of so-called civilization.

The reason for the increase in human-animal conflicts is clear and unambiguous: habitat loss. Sometimes the conflict arises from animals’ efforts to find food. In other instances, destruction, defacement or occupation of structures and locations claimed by people appear to be purposeful efforts by animals to drive out the invaders and reclaim their homes. And, sometimes, frustrated animals seem to be simply expressing their discontent using the only methods open to them. Clearly, animal liberation cannot be achieved in the context of economic inequality.

What can we learn from all of this? First: We are not the “voice of the voiceless.” Animals have their own voices. Whenever we can, we need to listen to them. That means paying attention to where and when animals express their desires and distress by attacks on property or persons and then planning our own campaigns accordingly.

Second: We are not the leaders of the animal liberation or environmental preservation movements. We are (or ought to be) the allies of animals seeking their own liberation and partners with animals in the effort to ensure that beings of all species have adequate homes and access to clean water and healthy food. Again, that means heeding the animals’ own often very clearly expressed ideas about what ought (or ought not) to be happening in the places where they live.

Finally: We need to show the same solidarity to activist animals as we show to our own comrades who are harassed, imprisoned or threatened by execution by authorities. In India, Maneka Gandhi has stood up for “terrorist” monkeys who have been jailed for their insurgent activities. Similarly, despite the pleas of authorities, people in New Delhi bring bananas to the monkeys who regularly break into the offices of the Defense Ministry (and who once prevented Donald Rumsfeld from giving a press conference).

Here, too, we can take our cue from animals, who often show solidarity with each other—and with us. Many Satya readers may be familiar with the story of the South African ecoterrorist elephant called Nana, who in 2003 broke the latches of the gate of a stockade in order to allow captive antelopes to escape. I’m also inspired by the Ethiopian lions who, in 2005, rescued and guarded a 12 year-old girl who had been abducted into a forced marriage. And then there were the three dolphins who, in 1996, rescued a swimmer from sharks!

If we can figure out how to show the same kind of solidarity, maybe it one day it will be safe to go back in the water again.

Pattrice Jones is coordinator of the Eastern Shore Sanctuary and Education Center (www.bravebirds.org) and the author of Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, A Guide for Activists and Their Allies (Lantern Books, 2007).

 

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