Carnivores in film

Half the battle of conservation is how we as humans value certain animals. It can be hard to appreciate a shark compared to a big cat, or a snake compared to a bird of prey. 


In a world where we get a lot of our information via the internet, film and tv, it’s not surprising that we are influenced so heavily by what these mediums tell us. Let’s be honest, how many of us have read a news story and just taken it at face value. Most of us would not actively go on to fact check each part of it, we simply don’t have the time or even want to. This means that we subconsciously accept what is fed to us as true and as a media fed society we don’t always question what we should. 


There have been many films that include a narrative around carnivores, I bet you have already thought of some. Jaws, Snakes on a plane, Piranha, Jurassic Park. 


Most of the movies based around carnivores are in the horror/thriller genre.  The art of being scared for entertainment is not new but how damaging is it to our real life fears?


The movie posters themselves is enough to form an opinion about a certain animal. They are often featured with snarling teeth, or looking menacingly at a human. A basic google search on films involving carnivores will give you an idea. (There's even a horror film about slugs!).

Film Reel

As human beings we do have deep set fears of carnivores, this is what historically has kept us alive, knowing what animals to avoid and when. It’s something we have inherited, no baby is born with a fear of snakes but the emotional response from others has an effect as that child develops and grows. As adults we have the ability to analyse risks so therefore fear is inherent.   Fear is not a bad thing, it’s what protects us from danger, it makes us think of the worst possible outcome from a situation and so tells us to run, to hide or to fight back. The problem occurs when these fears cause us to have extreme reactions and actions towards certain species outside of any incident. 

For example, the release of Jaws in 1975 made $470 million at the box office, it was the film that launched Steven Spielberg but also did a disservice to sharks around the world. 


From it’s release, the tagline of the film was “You’ll never go in the water again.” The movie poster showed an image of a large shark with its mouth a gape showing dagger like teeth and staring up at a swimmer. Notably a naked young woman, but that’s a whole other story entirely (I guess it was the 70’s).  Already we are being suggested to, that there is this fearsome creature lurking in the sea below just waiting for it’s next human meal. Although Great Whites use this technique to surprise their prey, humans are most definitely not on their menu and we now know that any interaction with a great white is usually out of curiosity rather than a desire to attack. They are not the ‘man eating’ predator they are often described as. It has been thought that they are actually giving us a warning to leave as they might see us as potential competition for food. 


"Jaws" by wnyyqjje26 is licensed under CC0 1.0

Jaws was a book inspired by a series of attacks in 1916 where several people died in New Jersey from suspected shark bites. It was written by Peter Benchley the year before it was adapted into a film. The film itself depicts a Great White shark that terrorises humans and will not rest until it kills any human in it’s path. The sway of the narrative suggests this shark is acting out of revenge or is just such a monster it can’t help but viciously attack humans. 

After the release of the film the damage to sharks was measurable. Fishermen actively went out to trophy hunt sharks and George Burgess (director of Florida Program for shark research) suggested that shark numbers fell by 50% along the east coast of North America. Dr Julia Baum, a research biologist suggested that between 1986 and 2000 there was a decline of 79% in Great White Shark numbers in the north Atlantic ocean along with other shark species. 


This sharp decline in shark numbers however, did spark interest with scientists. It was realised that very little was known about sharks and so funding started to activate research which has aided the protection of these species. 

Image by Gerald Schömbs

Image by Gerard Schombs on Unsplash

The author of Jaws, Peter Benchley since regretted this negative impact on sharks and he actively dedicated the rest of his life to their protection and became an ocean advocate. His wife Wendy is also a global voice in conservation and is involved in ocean policy and environmental issues on land and in the seas. 

Jaws is an easy example to mention and although at first the perceptions from the audience around sharks was negative, we have to salute Benchely and his wife for the work that they went on to do in addressing these perceptions. However, these types of films are still being made and while they are ‘entertainment’ we must measure how this affects our attitudes towards certain species. 


There is nothing wrong with being entertained for a few hours with a film containing a narrative around human/ wildlife interactions. What we would like to see is the balance addressed. No one can help what they are afraid of, a fear of sharks is not irrational but our response to that fear can be and can have devastating effects to that species and the habitat they thrive within. We can all be more responsible as consumers of media. 




Some facts about sharks and why we should protect them-


  • There are over 500 species of shark, all different shapes and sizes. 

  • Most sharks eat fish or invertebrates. Larger sharks may eat seals or dolphins but some are filter feeders and eat plankton like the Whale shark. 

  • There were only 5 human fatalities from shark attacks in 2019.

  • 100 million sharks and rays are killed on average every year by humans. 

  • You are more likely to die from a cow falling on you in a field than a shark attack. 

  • Sharks are still hunted for ‘shark fin soup’- often this involves the sharks fin being removed while alive then the shark is thrown back to the water where it will slowly drown. 

  • Sharks are essential for the health of the oceans. They remove diseased animals, they prevent over grazing of corals and ocean beds. 

  • Sharks are slow to reproduce so numbers will take longer to recover when persecuted. 

  • The increase in human populations enjoying the sea the more likely there will be shark/human interactions. 

  • Sharks could hold some of the answers to cancer treatments and limb regeneration as well as other diseases. 

  • Sharks store a large amount of carbon in their bodies, when they die naturally they are eaten by other ocean dwellers. When they are hunted they are taken out off the ocean carbon cycle.  




How to manage a fear of sharks-

  • Check what type of sharks might be found in the water you are about to swim in.

  • If there is a warning or a presence of sharks don’t go in the water. Check which time of year sharks are most likely to be in that area. 

  • Avoid swimming at dawn and dusk as this is when sharks are most active. 

  • Swim in clear water where you can see clearly. 

  • Only swim where there are life guards.

  • Read up or watch documentaries to find out more about sharks.

  • Remember the likelihood of you being in contact with a shark is extremely low. 

  • Shark attacks are rare and very few are fatal. 

  • Sharks will mostly only attack if provoked. 

  • Remember sharks depicted in fiction are often exaggerated for dramatic effect. 

Swimming with Shark