Would you rather save a savage shark or an adorable panda? If you have watched Jaws or Piranha 3D, then you would probably pick the latter. Too often, the media over-sensationalizes animal appearances and behaviors for the sake of entertainment. While the cutesy birds and bunnies get to co-star with Disney princesses, the vicious and hideous critters are stuck playing the villain. These stereotypes stem from our tendency to reject what we perceive as dangerous, foreign or unsightly. In reality, these so-called monstrous creatures are important members of our ecosystems.
Few animals get worse press than piranhas; these freshwater fish became nightmare worthy after President Theodore Roosevelt claimed that they could devour a large cow in only minutes. Even worse was Piranha 3D, which portrayed piranhas as mindless killing machines.
It is not that piranhas lack the ability to strip people to the bone — because they could. The problem is that these fish and most other carnivores are not as horrible the media makes them out to be. Piranhas actually team up to protect themselves from predators. While their infamous feeding frenzies are real, they mostly pick on the wounded and weak.
Jeremy Wade managed to dispel some piranha myths with his hair-raising experiment in River Monsters. When Wade threw bloodied steak into a piranha-infested swimming pool, the fish swarmed in on the meat like a horde of angry locusts. But when he bathed in the pool, the piranhas ignored him.
While piranhas are not yet endangered, the equally infamous sharks are in deep trouble. A Michigan State University study showed that Australian and American news articles habitually portray sharks as vicious and bloodthirsty. While over 52 percent of shark news coverage is about attacks on humans, only 17 percent focuses on conservation or ecology.
Considering how often shark fin soup appears on restaurant menus, these statistics are quite disturbing. Many of us are willing to overlook the inhumane practice of finning sharks. Yet, when one person loses a limb to these fishes, we denounce sharks as evil. It is not even an equivalent exchange: humans won’t necessarily die from losing a limb, but sharks will almost certainly drown without their fins. Although our fear of sharks is not completely unfounded, we are taking our biases too far.
Our treatment of sharks reveals an unsettling truth: we tend to prioritize our own needs above those of our fellow animals.This is not unusual, considering society’s emphasis on utility and progress. But when we base conservation efforts on factors like appearance and deadliness, we risk losing some of the world’s most important ecosystems.
Meat-eating piranhas may be scary to us, but they keep prey populations in control and clean up the carcasses of dead animals. Without them, many South American river ecosystems could collapse. Such a disaster occurred when people eliminated “undesirable” gray wolves from Yellowstone National Park. With their predators gone, elk became the new pests. They quickly went on a breeding frenzy and feasted on the park’s plants until Yellowstone was practically bald. Unable to control the exploding population, people eventually reintroduced the wolves to their rightful home.
Despite the occasional success story, nature is slowly losing the battle. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently lists over 16,000 species — over a third of total the species sampled — as endangered. As we keep on wrecking the environment, this list is sure to grow.
However, disaster films like 2012 continue to hit the silver screens, perpetuating public perceptions of Mother Nature and her so-called beast hordes as hostile forces. Even conservation sites like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are guilty of holding animal beauty pageants. Their endangered species list features many cute and cuddly creatures, including red pandas and sea turtles. Absent are animals like the Australian cassowary that could make the cast of a sci-fi movie. This critter gained infamy because its raptor-like claws can disembowel and eviscerate prey. Although it won the Guinness World Record for the world’s most dangerous bird, the cassowary rarely, if ever, attack humans without provocation.
Ironically, while we are quick to vilify nasty-looking critters, we often let our guards down around equally dangerous animals that look cute or harmless. Half of the animals on the WWF’s list, including the elephant and polar bear, could easily kill, maim or eat a human.
None of these creatures manage to rival piranhas and sharks in infamy. This disparity may have something to do with familiarity. Most of the species on the list are common sights in zoos. Some zoos even allow visitors to pet and play with these animals. More importantly, these critters are more likely to show human-like behaviors, such as yawning, crying or cuddling. Because of these similarities, we find it easier to accept and empathize with these animals. It may not be a coincidence that the more alien reptiles, fishes and birds are more likely to make our hate lists.
We should not base our treatment of other animals on our own aesthetic and behavioral standards. Nor should we need to falsify or exaggerate animal facts to get people to care about them. Realistically, cute-ifying animals via toys and plush dolls might help people to see them in a more positive light. These items are somewhat based on reality; drawing fish with cat ears and kitty costumes, however, as PETA did for a conservation campaign, implies that the fish are not worth saving in their own right. If we cannot appreciate animals the way they are, then we risk basing our feelings and actions on fiction. Such tactics further reinforce the idea that an animal’s value is skin deep.