As many on this blog know, I am a huge advocate for animal rights and environmental protections. Indeed, I was recently thrilled to go to the Gulf Shores to watch sharks. However, I am afraid that I do not see the value of the call for researchers out of the University of Sydney to get people to stop calling human-shark biting incidents “attacks.” The University of Sydney’s Christopher Pepin-Neff has called for dropping the “A-word” in favor of shark “interactions” or “negative encounter.” It is not likely to take hold: I do not see people running down a beach screaming “shark negative encounter, shark negative encounter.” To paraphrase the movie “Jaws,” we are going to need a bigger [dictionary.]”
Sydney Morning Herald reports that University researchers are concerned that the term “unfairly stigmatized as a deliberate killer.” There is truth to this objection. Most shark encounters do not result in injuries. However, those are indeed encounters and few people would say that they were “attacked” by a shark that swam by them in the ocean. Indeed, on our recent trip to the Gulf Shore, we swam within a 100 yards of shark feeding areas within an incident.
The move Jaws did impact shark protection efforts and prompted many to stay on land — the same way that The Exorcist sent many to church.
It is also true that shark attacks were matters of popular and artistic expression (and exaggeration) for centuries as shown in J.S. Copley’s Watson and the Shark (shown above). That painting was an artistic rendering of a shark attacking 14-year-old Brook Watson in the Havana Harbor. Watson was an orphan who jumped out of a skiff for a swim and was attacked repeatedly by a shark. He was eventually dragged under by the shark. The painting caused a stir in London in 1778 — much in the same way as the movie Jaws did. The London Evening Post wrote
“The beautiful Boy, just disentangled from the ravenous bloody Monster, which had tore away one of his Legs, cries for that Assistance, which every one of the honest Tars hurries to give without Loss of Time.”
[“Jack Tar” was a common expression for sailors — a reference to Watson’s mate who were part of a crew with him on a ship anchored in the harbor.]
The valid concerns however raised by these researchers do not translate into a valid response in attempting to stop people from using an obvious descriptive term. For example, we refer to “dog attacks” as well as dog bites — much like we do shark attacks and shark bites. We also refer to “bear attacks” despite such incidents remaining very rare.
This type of article does not improve efforts to educate people on sharks. Rather, it undermines such efforts by portraying such debates as another woke campaign.
The fact is that Hollywood exaggerates many natural threats from Piranha to Bees to Birds. It is the task for the rest of us to educate the public. For example, it turns out that sharks do not often attack from the air in Sharknados. Accordingly, there is no need to refer to any such incident as a “Shark airborne encounter.”