Psst... The Happening wasn't real

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Growing up I spent a fair amount of time watching cheesy b-movies, mostly "revenge of nature" stuff. There was the walking commentary on the a-bomb known as Godzilla, the parable about dumping biomedical waste in Alligator, a mercury-created walking salami in The Prophecy, and many others, but the take home message was always "Don't mess with Nature." It's usually a rehash of the misunderstood Frankenstein mythos, offending "Mother Nature" instead of breaking the boundaries of "what God intended," and the atrocious film The Happening being only the latest installment in the genre. What I didn't expect, however, was for the Telegraph (warning: there's a graphic shot of someone who gave a hand to a crocodile) to start eying little lambs with suspicion and expecting angry 'possums to start coming after us in our sleep.

The article jumps into the nonsense pretty quickly;

But it's now widely accepted that the relationship between humans and animals is changing. One of the world's leading ethologists (specialists in animal behaviour) believes that a critical point has been crossed and animals are beginning to snap back. After centuries of being eaten, evicted, subjected to vivisection, killed for fun, worn as hats and made to ride bicycles in circuses, something is causing them to turn on us. And it is being taken seriously enough by scientists that it has earned its own acronym: HAC - 'human-animal conflict'.

Widely accepted? By who? Members of the Telegraph editorial board? Sparingly little detail is provided in the article to support the idea that animals are attacking people with increasing frequency; we are just supposed to believe it because the mass media goes nuts every time there's a shark attack. From the way the above paragraph is written it seems that the author (whoever they may be; I didn't see a name), believes that representatives from every species get together every week to discuss the latest atrocities committed by humans. There have always been animal attacks, particularly in poor areas where large predators or even large herbivores have not been eliminated by people, and it is more likely that apparent increases in attack frequency have to do with 1) people encroaching on habitat, and 2) better reporting of attacks.

But wait, it gets worse. Check out this paragraph;

It's easy to see why some suspect revenge. The theory that the animals of the three elements are conspiring against us gained popularity in 2006, when the Australian television presenter Steve Irwin was speared through the heart by a stingray off the north Queensland coast. In the aftermath, the phrase 'freak accident' was used in news reports. When, just six weeks later, the same thing happened to James Bertakis, of Miami (he lived only because, unlike Irwin, he didn't pull the barbed sting out), people started wondering. Then, in March this year, Judy Kay Zagorski was boating on the Florida Keys when a stingray leapt from the water and fatally struck her in the face.

Could it just be possible that newspapers didn't pick up on people being hurt by stingrays because stingrays didn't kill anyone famous until recently? That the death of Steve Irwin made people more sensitive to such events and that there's no shocking increase in stingray attacks at all? I think that is precisely the case, but the author of the article is too busy flailing around in hysterics. Many fish jump out of the water, particularly some fish that are hooked, and it is not surprisingly that every now and then someone is going to be standing in the wrong place when a stingray leaps out of the water. It is an unfortunate coincidence, but a coincidence nonetheless.

The ravings go on to assert that elephant attacks are something new. This is patently false. As neat as I think elephants are I definitely wouldn't want to meet one face to face on the ground, especially by surprise. They can be very dangerous animals. Further, the increase in agriculture in Africa has caused problems in that elephants will come in and raid crops (again, not anything new). As more people settle the more they come into conflict with animals who live in the area, particularly if those animals are after what you planted. (See Cynthia Moss' Elephant Memories, particularly the last chapter, for some discussion of this.)

I do not want to be too dismissive, however, as elephants are highly intelligent and emotional animals. The effects of culls and traumatic experiences may very well cause them some psychological problems, resulting in some problem animals that have a habit of killing rhinos for no discernible reason, for instance. Still, this is a phenomena that can be understood by knowing the life history of the animals (i.e. that they were orphaned and may have been adversely affected by this when young) and is not an indicator of a world-wide attack on humans.

So what's the real reason for the culling of humans by animals? The author writes that animals are much more emotionally and intellectually complex than many people previously had supposed, something I agree with. We are a part of nature, not separate from it, and if we evolved we should not be surprised to see glimmerings of our own emotions and intelligence elsewhere among animals (particularly highly social mammals, from baboons to dolphins to hyenas to elephants). The author takes this one step further, however, and suggests that all animals have the capacity for revenge. I'm willing to accept that some animals, like elephants, primates, cats, dogs, etc., have a capacity to remember suffering or pain inflicted upon them by a person and act more aggressively to that person (or people in general), but the idea that we're being killed by animals because of the centuries of wrongs we've committed is absolutely absurd.

The closing page of the article is slightly more rational than the two that preceded it (which almost makes me think someone else was writing it) but it comes in as too little, too late. Anywhere that people, particularly the poor, border "wild" areas there are going to be conflict. That goes for people trying to grow crops where elephants live in Africa, the slums of Mumbai that border leopard-haunted parks, and even places in the U.S. where people want to protect predators but do not know how to safely live with wildlife. In this country, in particular, people want to protect cougars and bears (which is good) but they still think they can sleep with their doors wide open and leave their reeking trash on the back porch. Rather than "living with" wildlife too many people are all for protecting wildlife while hoping it doesn't show up on their front porch. A more responsible perspective is needed, both for our safety and that of wildlife, and all the Telegraph story does is rabidly roll off some paranoid nonsense.

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I don't personally read the Telegraph, but I had always thought it to have a good reputation at stating the facts and not sensationalising science like the tabloids do, but I guess some reports slip through the editor's net from time to time. I see/hear things like "new shark discovered" and it turns out not to be a new shark, but the Megamouth which has been known a few decades, but the paper needed to fill a quarter of a page so they went for something the public would like. If there's one thing that gets me angry it's peddling ignorance to the masses. Because people will believe that animal revenge story and it will remain in their minds, until the next random story comes along!

The author is Will Storr. I don't know anything about him other than he's previously written a book about ghost hunting.

In Canada, particularly in the mountain areas, there are a lot of attacks by bears and cougars (or mountain lions, if you prefer) on hikers and locals. However, instead of this being revenge killings by mountain animals working on concert with Australian marine life, it has more to do with 1) tourists not taking proper precautions, and; 2) human habitation encroaching on predator habitats. This has nothing to do with revenge, but just with bears and cougars coming into contact with humans moving into their home ranges. The more we spread out (and up the sides of mountains), the more this kind of thing will happen. Bears and cougars attack humans every year, and those attacks have been increasing in number as these animals come into contact with expanding human habitats. But revenge? Come on. This is just a reaction that any predator would have to a threat or a perceived threat by someone invading its territory.

Brian,
Another great article. I'm new to your blog and really enjoy it.

Regarding the vengeful animals, it seems quite likely that this author(s) is harboring some massive guilt about his and our collective treatment of animals and this has manifested itself into his crazy hypothesis for which he has no evidence save for circumstance and undocumented anecdotes. The standard evidence bag of an ignoramus.

my question to you and the others is, why are so many people so willing to believe anything that pops into their heads without even thinking it through?

Capt. John Smith of the Jamestown colony was seriously injured by a stingray in 1608 - obviously an attempt by nature to stave off the coming British invasion.

Stupid shit to be sure, but it is true that the animals are eating us more than they have in a long time in many areas, owing in some cases to equally stupid conservation and education practices. But still, they hardly eat any of us. H. sapiens can easily handle a much higher predation rate without any serious problem.

The science editor of The Daily Telegraph left to become editor of New Scientist earlier this year, and I saw a comment (possibly from Ben Goldacre) that all the science staff had left.

The squirrels are out to get us, though.

Reminds me of a book called '2007' by Robyn Willams (no relation), host of the (Australian) ABC Radio program The Science Show. I don't know about The Happening but it might well have been partly ripped off from 2007.

By John Scanlon, FCD (not verified) on 12 Aug 2008 #permalink

> a mercury-created walking salami in The Prophecy,

Not fair. Adrian might not be the most attractive person on earth, but a walking salami?:)

The best thing about this cheesefest is the poster, wich really scared me when I was a child, even (or because) it was a clear Alien rip-off. The rest of the movie doesn't live up to the poster's promise, however. At least this is the overwhelming majority opinion. The one exception is German Wikipedia wich, for some reason, has called the movie "majestic".

#10 - Bob's correct. Since Roger left, the Telegraph has seen a remarkable slide to the very bottom of UK science journalism. Where, presumably, crocodiles are lying in wait.