The shark crisis: speciesism vs. ecological altruism

In response to the shark fatality crisis, Wellfleet’s selectboard scheduled what was called by some a Shark Town Meeting. It filled the elementary school gym to overflowing, maybe half again the number of attendees as at the Special Town Meeting earlier the same week.

After preliminary statements from town officials and shark experts, the meeting consisted of a long line of people at the microphone, most making passionate pleas of one sort or another.

As one local characterized the tenor of the gathering, “half the people sided with the surfers and swimmers and half with the seals and sharks.” Calls to protect humans recreating in the surf, including killing the seals that attract sharks, or the sharks directly, were roundly applauded. But so were speakers protective of the nonhuman creatures. “They were here first, we’re just visitors.”

We were in other words re-enacting the fundamental conflict of ecological consciousness of the last century.

That ecological perspective was summed up by a speaker quoted in this paper’s story on the meeting: “I’m really appalled by this arrogant attitude that we have the right to play God given our record on this planet.” By playing God he meant to put human interests before those of the wild animals who were here first.

But really, that selfish speciesism—a creature, putting its interests first –far from being godlike is just being human, a human creature, identifying more with our own species than with other creatures, especially those that potentially prey on us.

What’s godlike is the idea that we can and ought to transcend nature and be the only creature not to favor its own kind.

Maybe a Creator has equal affection for all his creatures. But as one of the creatures we are in a different relationship to other creatures… For most of human history it’s been “kill-or-be-killed” for us, as for other species. Only relatively recently, say the last 100-150 years, enjoying the safety from predators bestowed by those acting on the kill-or-be-killed imperative, have we been free to indulge the more godlike impulses of ecological consciousness. Parks such as our almost universally popular Cape Cod National Seashore, established for the purpose of preserving the wild, are a result of such consciousness.

Of course you could argue that the cherishing and protecting of wild things, even predators, is just selfish spieciesism masquerading as altruism: it enhances human life to live in a world with wild animals doing their thing.

At this point there is great uncertainty about just how to think about our relationship to sharks.

A similar conflict played out in the newspapers when coyotes returned to our region 30 years ago and began to devour cats and small dogs and offer the occasional threat to humans. Apparently we’ve learned to share territory with coyotes, mostly by being more cautious with pets. The reward is the thrill of tuning into late night howls. But coyotes haven’t deprived us of a major form of recreation.

Maybe the conundrum of what to do about sharks (and seals) will come down to just how much surf sports mean to us and the summer visitors who make up a large portion of our economy. Just what percentage of us value play in the ocean above other pleasures of our area?We will be finding out soon if there is reduction in the demand for lodging for next summer season.

As a pond swimmer myself, my interest in the ocean beach is mostly of the walking and beach party variety. The seals bobbing in the waves (and possibility of a shark) has been part of the entertainment. But if someone reported even a not-so- great white in one of the ponds I frequent in summer for pleasure and health, it would, I admit, severely test my own live-and-let-live attitude toward wild things.

Late this past Saturday afternoon at the beach where Arthur Medici died  there were three surfers and a few seals engaging the gorgeous six-to-eight foot surf from a hurricane spinning in the mid Atlantic.


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