After the passing of Australia’s controversial shark culling policy, we reflect on the hysteria which surrounds the animal.
Last night I had a terrifying dream about two sharks. They were enormous, they were hungry, and I was stuck in a deep reservoir of cold, dark water with them. As I didn’t hear about Australia’s culling policy until today, I consider the dream a strange coincidence. Furthermore, as someone who is outraged by the culling of innocent creatures, it frustrates me that, circling somewhere in the depths of my subconscious, are the kind of fear-mongering images which instigated this policy in the first place.
Jaws, a 1974 book by Peter Benchley and 1975 film by Steven Spielberg, is often seen as the source of our fear of sharks. While we might attribute this fear to their sharp teeth, dark eyes and apparent need to bite things, it seems that there is something more at work here. After all, even puppies have sharp teeth, dark eyes and a tendency to bite things. It is well documented that death by shark is far less likely than, say, death by falling coconut or death by drowning. We are more likely to be bitten by another human than by a shark.
It is clear that our shark hysteria is down to more than just physiognomy. The animal has become symbolic of a number of other, very human, concerns: they are the unknown, invisible until the moment of attack; they are voyeurs, watching us flail, scantily clad, on the surface of the ocean; they are the animal, the unpredictable, the instinctive. It is a dull cliché to assert that our fear of ‘monsters’ masks a fear of something in ourselves, but in this case such an assertion rings true. Perhaps sharks are a reminder that we simply can’t take control of everything on the planet – including whatever dark instinctive drives lie beneath our civilised personas.
In light of these thoughts (and I really am sorry for how sketchy they have been), Australia’s culling policy becomes a desperate attempt to uphold human dominion over what we deem ‘animal’. It doesn’t matter that the ancient species has no notion of right or wrong, in the human sense. Nor does it matter to Australian authorities that the sharks were there first (I’ll refrain from any substantial mention of the country’s aboriginal inhabitants). The great white colony fights the great white shark.