Nature’s Phenomenally Cruel Side

Not all the answers to the cruel side of nature are known.

On April 25, a great white shark attacked David Martin, DVM, UC Davis class of ’76, around 7 a.m. Dave was swimming 150 yards off shore with nine friends in wet suits. They were triathlon training in Solano Beach, Calif., not far from Dave’s house. Experts think the shark mistook him for a seal.

Dave yelled, “Shark!” before he was pulled under. The shark did not stay around. Dave’s friends brought his lifeless body to shore. Dave’s legs had deep bite wounds that severed his femoral arteries and veins. He most likely bled to death within a few minutes. This shocking attack was covered extensively in news outlets.

It made me think of other animal attacks that hit the news: the sting ray that killed Steve Irwin; the tiger shark that bit the arm off young Bethany Hamilton while she was surfing; the alligator that attacked a golfer and dislocated his shoulder; the chimp that attacked a visitor at a primate shelter; the tiger bite that ended the Siegfried & Roy show; the bear that killed one of its trainers; the zoo tiger that killed a taunting boy; and the captive orca that attacked its handler at a marine theme park.

In Africa, Mozambican refugees are being eaten alive by lions as they walk through Kruger National Park. According to investigative journalist Robert Frump, author of “The Man-Eaters of Eden,” more people are eaten by lions today than ever before.

In Sweden, the majority of animal attacks that resulted in human deaths were by horses and cattle. Rabid animals attack people and dog bites and vicious dog attacks on children and adults occasionally result in fatalities. 

People are bitten or stung by insects on a regular basis. Scorpions, spiders, bees, hornets, bumble bees and ants sting people and those who are allergic may die. Certain species of snakes, frogs and other venomous creatures, such as jelly fish and sea conchs, are dangerous.

Ten percent of the 70 types of cone snails that live in the shallow reef waters of Australia are poisonous. They inject their prey (including humans) with a venom that consists of neurotoxic peptides that act pre- and post-synaptically, causing weakness, lack of co-ordination and disturbance of vision, speech and hearing, nausea or generalized pruritus and may cause death secondary to respiratory muscle paralysis.

One wonders if there is a common denominator that might help us to understand this cruel aspect of living in the natural world. How can we deal with it? How can we avoid it? Can we solve the encroachment issues?

Many resources discuss safety around animals and common-sense management and behavior modification to avoid dog bites and to avoid inappropriate cat scratching and biting.

To start with, it may comfort us to know that most of these incidents are random. 

Generally, humans are encountering the normal behavior of animals. We, as sentient beings, can’t hold anything against predatory animals that behave as they are programmed to behave for their own survival.

We can employ safety measures and good behavior modification for the animals that are close to us. But it gets very complex when issues, chance and fate go beyond our individual control.

When people build housing developments in various terrains, they interact with the elements, the weather and the native flora and fauna that are endemic to that area.

As people gain leisure time, they want to spend more of that time in the oceans, lakes, rivers, forests, mountains and deserts, than ever before. As society encroaches into any wilderness area, the native animals flee, or get pushed, poached or hunted out of their natural habitat.

The flora and fauna that remain must adapt to the stresses of air, water and soil pollution, smaller, more remote habitats, reduced food supply, captivity or become extinct.

Society demonizes certain animals for attacking people and their property. The demonized animals become unfairly hunted, as were the wolf and the mountain lion. When certain dog breeds are profiled as dangerous, it is sad that even sweet house pets of that same breed and their families must suffer from breed discrimination laws.

The degradation of the shark population resulted from movies that demonized sharks along with the claim that ingesting shark cartilage provides anticancer effects. In reality, sharks are needed in the ocean as a major part of the food chain.

After our colleague Dr. Dave Martin was killed near San Diego, there was some talk of killing off all great white sharks. Of course, that would upset the bioecology of the sea.

Scientists say that it would take only four years for the world to starve if all the bees were to die. They are searching for reasons bees are disappearing in such great numbers. Are the bees sick, stressed or responding to interference or wrong signals?

Recently and occasionally in the past, I’ve seen tens of thousands of lady bugs swarming at the sea shore. Finding no plants and no food, the lady bugs that go to the shore are doomed to die. Why do the lady bugs go there? Why do pods of orcas beach themselves and die? Do they get mixed signals?

We don’t have all the answers for nature’s phenomenally cruel side.


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