The Pleasure is All Ours: Thoughts on Touching Wild Animals

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Burt Jones & Maurine ShimlockWe experienced a very interesting incident a few weeks back during our survey of Cenderawasih National Park.  We were there to explore sites for a new dive guide to the Bird’s Head Seascape, which will include Cenderawasih, Raja Ampat and Triton Bay. Fifteen thousand-square kilometer Cenderawasih is Indonesia’s largest marine park and, for the moment, the biggest attraction is its resident whale shark population. Yes, resident. According to fishermen in Kwatisore, a smaller bay within Cenderawasih, the whale sharks are there all year long. It seems that the fishermen believe whale sharks bring good luck, so they feed them small, anchovy-like fish called ikan puri. The sharks show up just before dawn, circling their boats for hours, almost like pets waiting for a handout.

But the largest fish in the ocean is not a pet. In fact, whale sharks are endangered and have been on the CITES Appendix II list for nearly a decade. I was quickly reminded of this when a crew member grabbed one of the Cenderawasih shark’s dorsal fin and began stroking it while the shark slurped the fish being tossed overboard.  Titus, the park ranger traveling with us, went ballistic.  I didn’t catch all of the conversation (my Bahasa Indonesia is still limited), but the gist of it was, “Are you crazy? You aren’t supposed to touch the wildlife!”

Who knew that a desire to feed and touch wildlife transcended cultural boundaries?  I thought it was only something that privileged, bored westerners wanted to do. Apparently not, but I still do not understand what is it about getting close to a wild, albeit gentle, animal that makes humans from all walks of life try to physically interact with it. What ever happened to gazing in distant wonderment?  I realize that for decades this discussion has taken up many pages in scuba publications, but to me it is still unresolved.

The way we relate to animals says a lot about us. A long while back humans went beyond the point where just observing nature was enough.  We wanted to be entertained by “wild” animals, hence diving donkeys, circuses and Sea Worlds. But, the animals appearing in these venues can hardly be called wild.  They are performers, even though they misbehave at times. I’m not a fan of shows like these. I restrain myself from staging midnight rescue missions at dolphin theme parks by rationalizing that the captive animal performers are really ambassadors, representatives of the real thing, who fulfill a valuable function by acquainting humans with creatures they otherwise might not have an opportunity to see, even if the contact is made in far from natural surroundings.

I think “see” is the operative word.  Some of us are lucky enough to spend a good bit of time in wild places and we have the chance to observe a lot of animals that live freely. People who don’t scuba dive, camp in Yellowstone, go on safari, and so forth have to get their nature fix wherever they can, even if it takes place in a controlled situation.  That still doesn’t give us license to cross boundaries.  We are ambassadors, too.

On the one hand, physically interacting with a wild animal presents a rare opportunity, mainly for us. On the other hand, these interactions probably harm the animal unintentionally, of course. I won’t go into all the reasons why: damaging their skin’s mucous layer, changing behavior patterns, and just plain old interfering with nature when we shouldn’t. If there is even the slightest possibility that our actions may hurt the animal, why do we do it?  Is it a master of the universe kind of thing, or are we just not thinking of anything beyond the one-sided pleasure of an interspecies moment?

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8 comments for “The Pleasure is All Ours: Thoughts on Touching Wild Animals

  1. Bret Gilliam
    November 1, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Fantastic article! I am totally with your sentiments. For me, interaction in the wild means non-intrusive observation and photography. Not going for rides on the backs of turtles and whales.

    For some expanded perspective, here’s a question I was asked in an interview with my reply:

    You’ve followed whales and dolphins all over the world and also worked as a photographer for a bunch of aquariums. How do you feel about captive marine mammal parks?

    Personally, I’m horribly conflicted on the subject. I’ve had occasion to work with several facilities dating back over 30 years now with mixed results. Some U. S. and Canadian based operations have done a very good job of providing a reasonable home, good safety and medical support. And they have undoubtedly raised the awareness of the general public about the real threat to these wonderful creatures in the wild due to netting, hunting, pollution or loss of habitat. Good facilities have inspired people who first came into contact with dolphins, orcas, seals, etc. through such exhibits to open their wallets and cast their important votes to protect marine mammals. That’s great and I can swallow my knee-jerk aversion to placing such intelligent species in captivity by recognizing that these animals are well cared for and help bring hundreds of thousands of our own species closer to understanding how important it is for us to preserve their wild habitat as well.

    However, it seems that for every good exhibit or park, there are just as many horror stories that include facilities that are too small, improperly designed, lack proper medical care, or fail to meet any kind of standard for sanitation and safety. Some of these “parks” that exist beyond the U. S. and Canada are nothing short of concentration camps for marine mammals and the death toll is beyond any acceptable level. Many lack even the most rudimentary oversight from legitimate marine biologists who specialize in such species. And the conditions in which the animals are kept would make most of us sign on to aid in their Great Escape. For me, nothing can justify this horrible exploitation and I am diametrically opposed to this cruelty. I’m just as pissed off at a lot of the diving press that has given them a pass since they buy expensive ads and pay for flattering articles that encourage the continued bad practices. Shame on everyone involved.

    It doesn’t take a huge amount of intellect to reasonably differentiate between the two types of exhibits. So I swallow hard and say okay to the ones who do their utmost to run responsible operations. And I wish an enduring curse of pestilence on those who exploit marine mammals solely for a quick buck.

    For me, my most memorable and dramatic encounters have always come in the wild where species can independently decide for themselves whether they want to interact. Then again, I feel the same way about half the people I meet at cocktail parties.

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  2. Rich Jacoby
    November 2, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    I agree with the Shimlocks that touching wild animals can be harmful to them, but it seems to me that prohibiting such behavior is antithetical to human nature. Of course, we touch loved ones, but we also touch pets, and, indeed, enjoy doing so. I have a 13-year-old dog whose senses are slowly shutting down – but not that of touch. She loves it. Touching a grouper, on the other hand, is entirely out of bounds – even though we have a kind of animal desire to do so.

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  3. John Bantin
    November 4, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Although I agree that we should dive with our eyes, not our hands, it’s human nature to want to caress something you love. My children loved to be caressed although I wouldn’t want anyone caressing them. (I don’t know the intention.) People have pets/horses/cows that enjoy being caressed. I wonder if the giant mantas that line up to be stroked at Socorro know that it’s harmful to them? Expired air does a lot of damage. Maybe we shouldn’t be in the water in the first place.

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  4. Chris
    November 10, 2010 at 1:41 am

    The desire to interact with wild animals is deeply ingrained in humans. The human ancestors who didn’t domesticate dogs or large herbivores just didn’t make it. Multiple domestication events of dog and horses can be traced via DNA, and even non-domesticated animals like elephants are routinely tamed and trained by cultures around the world for competitive benefit (or circuses).

    So it’s somewhat natural that the desire to feed and touch wildlife transcends cultural boundaries.

    Doesn’t make it right in every case, but understandable. We have instincts too.

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  5. David Shem-Tov
    November 12, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    I spent a week in Maldives on a liveaboard with a Russian lady who fondled, caressed and otherwise harrassed just about any creature she found underwater. She may have felt affection towards them, but it was clear that these feeling were not reciprocated. Unfortunately when an upset moray finally bit her finger, she was protected by neoprene gloves.

    I have no desire to touch animals and I don’t want them to touch me!

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  6. November 14, 2010 at 2:47 am

    I can understand your feelings especially! You’ve had more than your share of being touched! For the rest of you, David was the one bitten by the crocodile in the Raja Ampat area of Indonesia last year.

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  7. kay
    December 2, 2010 at 5:40 am

    I love to touch any animals…HOWEVER what makes you think a wild animal who perhaps has never been touched wants to be touched by you. It’s such an explosive topic these days and for good reason. I have touched wild unconditioned sharks ONLY after they have rubbed up against me repeatedly. To chase after any animal to touch it I think is a little like standing in line at the post office and having someone grab your butt, some might like it others may turn around and punch your lights out. As far as aquariums, if everyone saw how dophins are rounded up and brought to these facilities nobody would be spending money to see them. If a hurt animal is unreleasable and a facility can house them correctly and they have a qualitiy of life that is another story. People need to remember, yes even those of you with children going to Sea World, it’s still another life that was snatched out of it’s environment and home to entertain you, just seems wrong doesn’t it. The talk about an animal being an ambassador for it’s species is the way we make ourselves feel better about yanking it from it’s natural home. If people wouldn’t pay it would stop.

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  8. José K.
    January 18, 2011 at 12:21 am

    Most of the time, I am seriously a hands-off kind of guy, averse to disturbing wildlife, whether it was those chambered Nautilii off Malekula Island or tolerant elephants in Botswana. But on occasion, I have been known to succumb to the call of touch – my morning dives on the S S President Coolidge were often followed by my kneeling alone on the bottom away from the “coral garden” deco bench and being approached by Boris, the huge 200kg / 440 lb Queensland grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus), who wanted to be gently stroked under the chin. I never fed him he always loved being touched (gloveless and ever so gently) – but not the thing to try in the afternoon, as he seemed to become more irascible then. I miss Boris, and the time spent with him as my dive buddy!

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