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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Jumping the Shark (Week)

"I couldn't write Jaws today.  The extensive knowledge of sharks would make it impossible to create, in good conscience, a villain of the magnitude and malignity of the original.  Current theory holds that, with rare exceptions, sharks do not intentionally attack human beings."

- Peter Benchley

Compared to zoos, aquariums have relatively few "rock star" species.  There are the marine mammals, of course, as well as penguins - aquariums that house these species usually find that they are the star attractions.   People like octopuses (octopi?), they like sea turtles, but for the most part, fish, to the average aquarium visitor, are... fish.  With one glaring exception, of course.

People love sharks.

Well, okay, maybe not exactly.  A lot of people hate and fear sharks.  But love or hate or fear them, many people are fascinated by sharks.  Sharks are the stars of virtually every public aquarium in the world.  They are featured prominently in the media - books, TV, movies.  One of the most famous examples of such exposure is the weekly Discovery Channel special, "Shark Week."

What a load of bulls--- (and no, I'm not trying to say "bull shark").

At the risk of sounding like the crotchety old man that I am deep down inside (and probably always have been, back since grade school), "When I was younger, there were actually animal documentaries on TV."  Now, instead of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and Jacque Costeau (or even Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin), we have the ridiculous fiction that Discovery and Animal Planet put out.  Just looking at Shark Week, it's ridiculous.  Here's a hint... if you have to use actors to portray scientists... or lie to the scientists you do get in order to convince them appear in your program... you might be doing something wrong.  SO what can we look forward to?  "Documentaries" about magic sharks, or savage sharks which stalk humans, or, heaven help us, the Megalodon, an enormous prehistoric relative of the great white shark, now long extinct... or is it?  

(The answer is yes... yes it is... and has been for a very long time).

Commonly exhibited in public aquariums (this one at the now-closed National Aquarium in Washington, DC)  - the leopard shark is one of many species of shark that poses little threat to humans

Sharks are awesome enough without making stuff up about them.  There are already lots of great stories to be told about them.  When you share stories that are patently untrue, you discredit not only yourself, but every other attempt to make an educational nature program... anywhere... by anyone.  You're saying that the animal isn't good enough without someone coming up with a Hollywood backstory for it.

The folks at Discovery would doubtlessly say that they're just trying to drum up interest in sharks, and that can lead to more interest in conserving them.  They say the bloody man-eater stories are just the bait (or chum?) to get viewers hooked.  Not buying it.  Look at Blue Planet... or Planet Earth... they manage to feature sharks prominently, including their predatory powers, without turning the animal into a caricature of itself.  Lions, tigers, polar bears, wolves, and orcas are all powerful predators (orcas prey ON sharks for Pete's sake!), yet we can tell their stories without turning them into monsters.

What Shark Week is really doing is portraying sharks as monsters that the world is better without.  How are we supposed to feel the need to conserve sharks when they're portrayed as indestructible killing machines?  You want a blood/guts/gore story to get visitors?  Try telling about shark-finning... that'll keep people up at night.

A sand tiger shark cruises its enclosure at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium

If the good people at Discovery Channel can't come up with new, original, and, above all, accurate programs to share about sharks, maybe it's time they give Shark Week a rest.

Just don't replace it with Snake Week or Spider Week... they've already got enough problems as well...

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