Bite Back: Direct Action by Animals Around the World
By Pattrice Jones
“ Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...”
According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) “the 1990s
had the highest attack total of any decade and the first decade of the
21st century likely will continue that upward trend.” That’s
not surprising. As the ISAF notes, continued human population growth
means more people in the water every year. At the same time, continued
human pollution means less habitable water for sharks. In 2004, when
the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was particularly large, there were
three shark attacks off the coast of Texas, which had seen only 18
attacks in the previous 24 years.
Sharks typically attack fewer than 100 people per year, killing fewer
than 20. Meanwhile, people kill millions of sharks each year, for their
flesh, their fins
or, as the BBC puts it, “purely for sport.” Between 26 to 73 million
sharks are killed for their fins alone, according to a report published last
October in Ecology Letters. In that context, sharks have behaved with remarkable
Nonetheless, every time an unfortunate bather is bitten, the mainstream media
teems with depictions of excessively aggressive sharks. We learn which beaches
to avoid and how to fight back if attacked. Nobody ever asks: What might we do
to prevent those attacks? What can we do for the sharks, who surely would prefer
to be swimming in clean water brimming with their natural prey?
We can’t know what the sharks are thinking, although we can imagine how
it might feel like to swim into a dead zone or to find oneself adrift in strange
waters filled with unfamiliar animals. Are the few sharks who do attack people
hungry? Angry? Confused?
The motives of our closer relatives are easier to detect. “Monkeys are
very furious,” said Ujagar Singh in 2004, speaking for the Patiala district
in India, where pink-faced Rhesus monkeys have uprooted lawns and trashed houses.
They’re not the only ones. If the frequency of mainstream media reports
is any guide, direct action by animals is on the rise. They’ve never agreed
with people about who belongs where and who “owns” what. Now, pushed
to the brink by unchecked human expansion, animals who don’t have anywhere
else to retreat have begun to push back. More and more frequently, new housing
developments, cash crop plantations, and other incursions into animal habitats
have been disrupted or destroyed by nonhuman opponents of human sprawl.
Baboons are taking matters into their own hands and elephants are voting with
their feet. In 2004 in South Africa, baboons broke into new houses not only to
steal food but also to wreak havoc, tearing clothes from closets and urinating
on them. In 2001 in Indonesia, elephants returned again and again to the same
plantation to destroy genetically modified cash crops.
Sometimes animals literally fight back. In 2004 in Sierra Leone, people tried
to move back into an area that had been reclaimed by animals during a recent
war. Elephants resisted the reconquest, chasing people away and killing those
who did not flee. In India, elephants have killed hundreds of people in recent
years, sometimes accidentally but sometimes evidently purposefully. Panthers,
bearsb and even deer have attacked hunters who were trying to kill them as well.
Survival of the Richest
Is this violence? Recalling the hundreds of extinctions due to habitat loss,
not to mention the countless individual animals who have starved or otherwise
perished when their homes have been invaded or polluted by people, the concept
of justifiable force in self defense comes to mind. Certainly, when animals confront
hunters, they are literally fighting for their lives.
But, often, the people who die are not those most responsible for the animals’ predicament.
In India, indebted farmers kill hungry elephants to stop them from raiding
the food crops on which their own survival depends. The elephants fight back,
retaliate, violence escalates, and nobody wins.
Whether they are growing their own food or cash crops to sell at deflated prices,
indebted farmers need land. But the best land is controlled by rich landlords
and corporate farms. When poverty forces destitute farmers into places inhabited
by animals, then tragedy is sure to follow. One way or another, somebody who
doesn’t deserve to die is going to end up dead. People in the aggregate
already have more than we need but, because resources are not shared equitably,
starving people end up competing with starving animals on the outskirts of
The reason for the increase in human-animal conflicts is clear and unambiguous:
habitat loss. Sometimes the conflict arises from animals’ efforts to
find food. In other instances, destruction, defacement or occupation of structures
and locations claimed by people appear to be purposeful efforts by animals
drive out the invaders and reclaim their homes. And, sometimes, frustrated
animals seem to be simply expressing their discontent using the only methods
them. Clearly, animal liberation cannot be achieved in the context of economic
What can we learn from all of this? First: We are not the “voice of the
voiceless.” Animals have their own voices. Whenever we can, we need to
listen to them. That means paying attention to where and when animals express
their desires and distress by attacks on property or persons and then planning
our own campaigns accordingly.
Second: We are not the leaders of the animal liberation or environmental preservation
movements. We are (or ought to be) the allies of animals seeking their own
liberation and partners with animals in the effort to ensure that beings of
have adequate homes and access to clean water and healthy food. Again, that
means heeding the animals’ own often very clearly expressed ideas about
what ought (or ought not) to be happening in the places where they live.
Finally: We need to show the same solidarity to activist animals as we show
to our own comrades who are harassed, imprisoned or threatened by execution
In India, Maneka Gandhi has stood up for “terrorist” monkeys who
have been jailed for their insurgent activities. Similarly, despite the pleas
of authorities, people in New Delhi bring bananas to the monkeys who regularly
break into the offices of the Defense Ministry (and who once prevented Donald
Rumsfeld from giving a press conference).
Here, too, we can take our cue from animals, who often show solidarity with
each other—and with us. Many Satya readers may be familiar with the story of
the South African ecoterrorist elephant called Nana, who in 2003 broke the latches
of the gate of a stockade in order to allow captive antelopes to escape. I’m
also inspired by the Ethiopian lions who, in 2005, rescued and guarded a 12
year-old girl who had been abducted into a forced marriage. And then there
were the three
dolphins who, in 1996, rescued a swimmer from sharks!
If we can figure out how to show the same kind of solidarity, maybe it one
day it will be safe to go back in the water again.
Pattrice Jones is coordinator of the Eastern Shore Sanctuary and Education Center
(www.bravebirds.org) and the author of Aftershock:
Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, A Guide for Activists and Their Allies (Lantern
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