What makes a shark attack victim fight for sharks? Interview with a survivor

There are plenty of reasons to be disappointed in humans, as a glance at any day’s headlines will show, but if we have cause for hope, it may rest on the curious tendency of some humans to care for other species even when we don’t directly benefit from them. And that tendency may be illustrated nowhere more powerfully than in the shark-attack victims who lately have taken up the cause of sharks.
My colleague Scott Bowen wrote about these remarkable humans at The Noble Savage when they appeared on Capitol Hill earlier this month to lobby for a ban on finning, the practice of slicing the fins off of live sharks to use in shark fin soup. The helpless, maimed sharks are often tossed back into the sea or left on a beach to suffocate and bleed to death. The defenders of sharks who went to Capitol Hill suffered comparable wounds–terrible bites or the loss of limbs–but they believe nonetheless that sharks must be preserved.
The organizer of that lobbying group, Debbie Salamone, suffered a ghastly shark bite to her foot in 2004 at the Canaveral National Seashore in Florida, but she now works in the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Shark Conservation Program. She told her story as a guest blogger on Discovery News today, but her story left me with a question: what switch had to be flipped in Salamone’s psyche to turn her from shark victim to shark advocate? So I called her and asked her.
The answer she gave may help save the planet. But first, her story:
A shark tore into my foot as I waded in waist-deep water off Florida’s east coast in 2004. I kicked furiously to break its fierce grip, but it only bit down harder. Waves of terror ripped through my body as I collapsed into the pounding surf.
“It’s got me! It’s got me!” I screamed. As I desperately tried to escape the breaking waves, the shark let go. I collapsed onto the shore and had the courage to look at my mangled and shredded foot only once. My Achilles tendon was severed and my heel torn loose.
It was a long recovery – both physically and mentally. I loved the ocean and was a committed conservationist before that day. But during months in a cast and my struggles to walk again, my zeal for nature waned. Save sharks? Ha! I made plans to eat shark steaks…
But in my quiet moments alone, I was consumed with the question: Why did nature betray me – one of its biggest advocates?
I knew the shark had confused me for its prey and was only following its instincts. But on a deeper level, I came to realize that perhaps in some way this was testing my resolve as a conservationist.
I called Salamone this morning and asked her to tell us more about that deeper realization. How did she get from craving shark steaks to saving sharks’ lives?
I always knew that this shark was doing what came naturally to it: it was searching for prey, and I knew it mistook me for a fish, (but) I turned sort of against the whole environmental thing, and I thought, what have I been thinking all these years? Why have I thought that nature’s so great? I had always liked being outside, and I was sitting in my wheelchair, and I didn’t want to go outside anymore, and I didn’t think trees and plants were beautiful anymore. I remember being driven to my doctor’s office one day, and I was looking out the window at the streets and buildings, and I thought to myself, I like pavement.”
Nature was not done with Debbie Salamone. After surgery, her recovery took six months, and while she was confined to her wheelchair, two hurricanes passed over her Florida home. It was hot, humid and hostile, and it would take years for Salamone to recover her love for nature.
It was when Salamone was alone with her thoughts that she began searching for a reason for the attack she had suffered. Only about 65 of the world’s 6.7 billion people are bitten by a shark each year, so those 65 are naturally motivated to ask, why me? Salamone always tended to seek reason in nature–“sometimes I think things are random, but I always have thought that things do happen for some kind of reason”–and that search for a reason led her, slowly, back into the sharks’ corner:
I started thinking, maybe there’s no reason. But the longer I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that this was some sort of message to me, and I needed to figure out what the message was. What’s the message? There’s got to be a message. After months of thinking about it, I just thought, this is a test of my resolve, and I don’t like to fail tests. I wanted to see if I could overcome these feelings and feel like I felt once before.
She enrolled in an online master’s program in environmental science from Johns Hopkins University, and this January she joined Pew to work on fisheries conservation. Soon after she arrived she learned Pew was planning a global shark conservation campaign. She suggested organizing shark attack victims for sharks, and she had little trouble finding other victims who were willing to defend their attackers: “I think a lot of people who get attacked by a shark are in the ocean because they are outdoors-, environmentally-friendly people to begin with.”
Salamone’s recovery included not only the healing of her wounds, but the recovery of her conservation instinct. And that raises even more questions. Are some of us born with a broader notion of kinship, or can we all learn to respect not only other kinds of animals but even those animals who try to eat us? Is our respect for nature linked to our search for reason in nature?
Salamone craved shark steaks in the wake of the attack, she told me, because “it was going to make me feel like the powerful one again.” Her experience, her loss of love for nature following a traumatic attack, may mimic our experience as a species. Certainly we suffered millennia of trauma that drove us to tame the natural world and build civilization. Like Salamone, we came to love pavement. Can we, like Salamone, rediscover our kinship with the natural world before we pave it and ourselves to oblivion?

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