Do we needlessly fear sharks and spiders?
20 February 2012
When and how do animals 'become' dangerous? In Australia, neither sharks nor spiders were considered serious hazards to human life until almost 100 years ago and we've been trying to quantify, control and exterminate these beasts ever since.
Such efforts are often in line with cultural sensitivities rather than biology. Few of us, for instance, consider the venomous traits of the cuddly platypus, while the howl of 'shark' empties a beach within moments.
'Dangerous animals? A history of snakes, sharks and spiders in Australia' is a free seminar this week, drawing upon cultural theory, biology, history and public policy to explain the aversive aspects of human-animal relations.
"Why is Australia's venomous platypus considered cuddly while furry funnel web spiders provoke disgust?" asks Peter Hobbins, whose PhD is on the history of venomous Australian animals.
Early explorers discovered that the male platypus has a spur on its hind foot, which delivers venom capable of causing severe pain to humans, making it one of the few venomous mammals in the world.
Despite this, "you never hear people declaring a terror of platypuses," says Hobbins.
"The historical comparison is that until the 1920s our spiders, including the funnel-web and redback, were also not considered dangerous."
Christopher Neff, currently completing his PhD on the politics of shark attacks, will reveal the secret history of sharks in Australia and how they came to be seen as dangerous.
He says the first stories of Australia's shark danger came with the First Fleet, when new arrivals told tales of waters infested by man-eating sharks in order to prevent convicts from escaping.
Christopher says folklore about the dangers of sharks often had more to do with controlling the prison population than proven shark behaviour.
What: Dangerous animals? A history of snakes, sharks and spiders in Australia
When: Tuesday 21 February, 4.30 to 6pm
Where: Macleay Museum, Gosper Lane, off Science Road, Camperdown Campus. See map and directions
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