1. Feb, 2016

Stereotyping the wild animal as a monster

Wild animals, in particular large predators like tigers, lions, grizzly bears, the extinct dinosaurs, the komodo dragon, anaconda, crocodiles, wolves and sharks (and this is  probably not the complete  list)  are often described as ferocious, blood thirsty and very dangerous for humans.  

In the distant past  our ancestors  lived in caves as a protection against the cold  winters, their (hominid) enemies  and wild animals. Animals were  killed, not only for the ancestors safety, but also to provide meat to survive. Chasing and killing a wild animal that also had the hominid on its menu was very dangerous, and often resulted  in fatal injuries.  Now in modern times when there are not many of these predators left, and meat comes from the supermarket, the instinct of our ancestors might still be slumbering  deep in our genes as a remnant of our evolutionary past.  There still are big game hunters that love the thrill to go after wild animals like elephants or lions on an Africans safari, eager to bring home that trophy  for which they probably paid thousands of dollars.   

Film makers also are aware that fear for wild animals can  be exploited to  sell their products. Some famous  examples are 'King Kong' (the tragic giant gorilla with a weak spot), 'Jurassic Park', 'Jaws' and recently 'The Revenant' with Leonard Di Caprio, attacked by  a big (fake) grizzly bear in the icy woods. There is nothing wrong with using  human fear to  thrill people in cinemas.  As long as  people  realize that the  shocking  images are the product of  the film makers fantasy.  Like  in  'The Birds', made by the genius producer Alfred Hitchcock. He borrowed the story from Daphne du Maurier, perhaps the greatest  master of horror  that ever lived.

But movies that use (real or fake) wild animals as  actors can also  have a negative side effect. Unfortunately,  many people in particular young children really BELIEVE  that these 'monsters' exist, and are not just a caricature or product of fantasy.  For example, quite some children and even  adults seem to suffer from some form of shark phobia. Without having seen a single shark in their lives. The images of  ‘Jaws’ probably reactivated  old evolutionary  fears slumbering in their  genes. 

Unjustified stereotyping has been with us for a long time and  often goes hand in hand with words that embed a negative attitude or wrong perception of people. What about wild animals?  Often we see in the papers  the word ‘shark attack’.  According to the American Elasmobranch Society (AES) this is misleading, because it may lead to the idea that sharks are more dangerous than they really are. Sometimes  a ‘ shark attack’ only  describes an event where a  swimmer of scuba diver  was approached by a shark without any physical contact at all.  And the rare event of a real  bite or injury caused by a shark means headline news, receiving much more attention than the many dog bites or poor persons killed in traffic. AES therefore has  proposed not to use  the phrase 'shark attack'  anymore, but a a 'more accurate (and less inflammatory) wording that is scaled to represent real risk and outcomes'. They propose : shark sightings (no physical contact), shark encounters (physical contact  like  a bump  or  a bite of a kajak or surf board), shark  bite (mild or serious  injury) and fatal shark bite.

See for  further details. :

http://www.southernfriedscience.com/?p=15258