Movies, Stereotypes and Myths around Wildlife

Indian Rock Python on a tree. Shot in Karnataka, India.

“What is your favourite animal?”

I receive this question on a weekly basis. Since I spend much time writing, studying or photographing wildlife, people often wonder what my answer would be.

Now when I ask others this question, I get a host of responses. Many say the tiger and lion, some the elephant, and every so often, I’ll get the odd eagle. 

But animals like snakes, sharks and frogs rarely make the cut.

Why? Why are some animals the obvious choices, while some the obvious discards?

Animals like the tiger and lion are charismatic. Written into lore, they are portrayed as strong and symbolising all that is wild. Conservation efforts use their widespread appeal to rally public support, promoting their causes through the media. This constant exposure to them, glorified in every respect, has earned them a special place in people’s hearts.

Tiger walking away. Shot in Karnataka, India.

I too, am in love with these animals. Seeing a tiger for the first time was a transformative experience for me, one I write about in my article – Encountering a Tiger.

But animals like snakes, frogs and sharks don’t get the same attention. And when they do, they are shown in a bad light. Sharks are rendered as murderous fish prowling beaches, snakes as revenge-seeking, cold hearted reptiles. Frogs are overlooked entirely; they are thought of as “gross and slimy” (exact words of one of my friends when asked the question above).

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I’ve spent numerous days in the field, just observing their curious reptiles. Not once did I feel I was in danger, for I knew these animals had better things to do than bite me. 

Just take a look at our vocabulary. Sayings like “crocodile tears”, “cut the head of the snake”, “nurture a snake in your bosom”, “slippery as a snake”, “shark baiter”, and “jump the shark“imply that these creatures are devious. The list is virtually endless. By dint of their uncharismatic nature, these animals are rendered disgusting in our collective consciousness. Every time we use such idioms, we reinforce these baseless stereotypes.

Media further cement these notions. Movies like “Jaws”, “Snakes on a Plane” and “Anaconda” perpetuate beliefs that these animals actively seek out humans to attack. They showcase bloodthirsty animals trying to kill every person in sight.

Such behaviour could not be more different in real animals.

Sharks do not see humans as natural prey. They feed on fish, rays and other marine animals. Bigger sharks go for seals and sea lions. The few instances of attacks on humans are cases of mistaken identity. Under poor visibility, surfers appear like seals. 

Picture of a shark by S.hilbourne, a photographer I admire.

Yet the media hypes up every odd shark attack, instilling fear in the public. Statistically, you are more likely to drown, get killed in a bicycle accident or even fall coconuts than be killed by a shark. (Moreover, for every human killed by sharks, 25 million sharks are killed by humans! Who’s afraid of who?)The simple truth is that sharks do not perceive us as food. (Jonathan Bird breaks down shark attacks in a very informative video – check it out!).

Moreover, sharks play an enormously vital role in maintaining their ecosystems. As the apex predator, they keep fish populations in check, making sure no one species grows beyond its ecological limits. Our underwater landscapes would be barren and devoid of life if it weren’t for sharks (read more)

Sharks are such intelligent animals, far more than what we give them credit for. I have dived with dozens of sharks, almost bumping into some in the strong current. Not once did I ever feel scared for my safety. These elegant fish regarded me with indifference as I passed by them. If only we could see them for what they truly are – beautiful and innocuous.

Snakes are regular targets of the public’s outrage. Painted as creatures out to bite anyone who steps near, these animals suffer a fearsome reputation. As a result, they are often killed on-site. Superstitions are myths woven into this animal’s legacy, not for the better.

What about snakes? People think most snakes are venomous and seek out humans to bite. Both are untrue. Less than 10% of the world’s snakes possess venom fatal to humans. So the likelihood of being bitten by a venomous snake is much lower than you’d think.

Moreover, snake bites occur by accident and can be easily avoided. The most common scenario is that the snake is camouflaged and unwittingly trod upon. An experiment by Romulus Whitaker (one of the world’s foremost snake experts) and the BBC showed that snakes try to avoid biting as much as possible, fleeing when stepped on. It’s a dire minority of cases when they strike. (watch their video demonstrating their experiment)

Indian Rock Python. Shot by Ishan Shanavas
Indian Rock Python

Large constrictors, like pythons and anacondas, do not hunt humans. They prefer rodents, ungulates and other wildlife that live in their domains. Movies like the Anaconda showcase events that do not occur in the wild.

Snakes play a hugely important role in the ecosystem. They keep the populations of other animals in check. Lizards and rats would multiply unchecked if it weren’t for snakes. Farms and granaries would be overrun if rat snakes and cobras did not hold the rodent population under control. Therefore, saying “the only good snake is a dead one” is an unfortunate statement.

I’ve been captivated by snakes for the longest time. From tiny kukri snakes to large rat snakes, these creatures move me beyond words. I’ve spent numerous days in the field, just observing their curious reptiles. Not once did I feel I was in danger, for I knew these animals had better things to do than bite me. 

Venom is a precious commodity that takes enormous resources (time and energy) to produce. Snakes need venom to catch and digest prey; thus, it does not make sense to waste it on humans. If you respect their boundaries, these animals just go on their way. (I spent hours sitting a few feet away from a King Cobra, the world’s longest venomous snake), and never felt I was in danger. They are much more perceptive than they let on.)

Read about my time tracking Vine Snakes in the rainforests of the Western Ghats, India.

Rat Snake Fine Art Shot by Ishan Shanavas

On many occasions, I’ve had to rescue snakes from belligerent crowds that were hell-bent on killing them. The mere sight of snakes puts the fear of god in some. A snake in a house sends alarms jangling, calling for pest control to kill the unruly reptile. If we could educate people on the importance of these peaceful and elegant serpents.

Snakes and sharks are some of the many animals that must preserve in a world bent on seeing them as ruthless. We must work to change the public’s perception of these creatures. Fortunately, public opinions are fluid and hold the potential to change. If we can get more people to champion the causes of these animals, we can expect them to thrive.

So the next time someone asks me this question, I’ll answer, “My favourite animal is the one I am thinking about or engaging with at the moment”. All animals are equal in my eyes, and I want to give each one its fair share of attention.

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Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am a young adult, interested in nature, photography, art and culture. An aspiring polymath, I share my learnings through my blog. I also include insights from my favourite books.

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