On the National Geographic website today I saw a post about a shark photo that has gone viral – it was taken by a school teacher, Amanda Brewer, in a cage off the coast of South Africa. The story asks whether or not these close encounters are dangerous for the sharks. Will they start to associate the smell of bait fish with humans, thus becoming less fearful of us and perhaps more aggressive? Will our actions change the natural behavior of a species? And if it happens with sharks, does it happen in other circumstances too, like when tourists swim with dolphins or manatees, or in areas with frequent whale watching boat tours?
That made me wonder… can we be so interested in seeing and learning about a species that we ultimately cause its demise? I’ve heard stories about people loving an area until it’s ruined – a popular hiking trail through a forest can become so degraded by too many people using it that the reason why people came there in the first place is destroyed. It’s easier to envision a specific location becoming degraded, but think about the behavior of an animal in a zoo. I can recall trips to the Pittsburgh Zoo in the early 80s, when the bears and other large animals were still behind bars and visitors would feed them popcorn and other junk food. Those animals no longer acted like their wild counterparts… they would pace back in forth in front of the bars, or sit up and beg for scraps. Unfortunately there are still non AZA-accredited “zoos” in the U.S. that look like that (I’ll be nice and not name names… at least in this post).
That is a very confined scenario, with thousands of human-animal interactions, so looking at it from a nature standpoint isn’t a one-to-one correlation, but I think there could be some parallels. People flock to certain places in Florida to swim with manatees. If you do a quick Google search you’ll find many companies there that offer the opportunity. The list of rules shown below is from the VisitFlorida website. How likely do you think people are to obey all these rules, or do some visitors bend them? Manatees are gentle, slow moving mammals. If they become habituated to the presence of humans the worst thing that will happen to them – and it’s bad, no lie – is that they could have more collisions with boats, possibly resulting in their injury or death. But if a great white shark becomes habituated to people, the tables are turned… it may be us that are at greater threat of death.
I love manatees, dolphins and even sharks. I love pretty much any animal I can think of, although some more than others certainly. But I can love them at a distance. If I’m going to see a manatee in the wild than I expect it to act that way, wild. The same goes for any wild creature. Let’s not love a species so much that it becomes unnatural. We have our domesticated animals for that.