Sharks, Snakes, and Airplanes

As you may or may not know, I’m a fan, supporter, and lover of most animals but I have a particular fondness for the reptile. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember and while they’ll never replace the family dog or cat, I still promote many of them as fantastic pets. As the owner of two snakes, I’m regularly faced with the phobia and fascination people present when they learn of my affinity for what most still associate with the devil. Thanks a lot, Bible. It got me thinking, though, about the irrational fear many people have with regard to snakes and why? Then, as my thoughts often do, they multiplied. Two other popular villains emerged in my mind as inspirer’s of equal or greater irrational fear – the shark and plane crashes. While there are literally hundreds of legitimate phobias I could have chosen to explore, I picked these three based largely on the fact that the number of people who suffer from these fears are so completely disproportionate with the odds of having an actual negative experience. There are hundreds of thousands of individuals who have phobias about snakes, sharks, and flying that it should be easy for you, my reader, to hopefully identify with one of them. Fear, as we all know, is a powerful emotion that can cause us to act irrationally in order to preserve our lives. Fear can be a good thing in this regard. It acts as a catalyst to trigger our fight or flight response and hopefully help keep us safe. The irrational fear, however, of something that has little chance of ever happening is still quite puzzling to me.

First up, Sharks.

There have been less than 200 fatal shark attacks since 1900. That’s a little over 1.5 fatal attacks per year worldwide. Now let’s put this into perspective, shall we? There are currently 7 Billion people on the planet. The ocean covers 71% of the Earth’s surface and comprises 97% of the planet’s water. If we took a half of a percent of seven billion, we’d get 35,000,000. Even if sharks killed .5% of the world’s population each year, statistically speaking, your odds of being on that list would still be pretty low. The reality is far lower than a half percent of the population. There are a little over 1.5 fatalities per year and yet people are still afraid to get in the ocean.

I’ll admit, I love them and find myself equally as awe-struck as the rest of the world, but I can’t for the life of me discern the reason for it. What is it in our brain that draws us to these prehistoric beasts? Why do we devote a week of cable programming to these toothy bastards every summer? (http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/shark-week/) Is it the primitive fear of being eaten by an animal? Why no Bear week or Lion week? For some bizarre reason, people love being afraid of sharks. Whether or not Peter Benchley had ever written Jaws, I’m certain the fascination would still exist. We see paintings and read stories about ancient mariners facing off with this terror of the ocean and we’ve even heard tales of sharks attacking entire boats. Perhaps it’s the fact that when we’re out on the water, we suddenly drop to the bottom of the food chain? We’re out of our element and if faced with an unfortunate encounter with this top predator, we’re pretty much done for. The reality is that, depending on your definition and view; Mosquitoes are responsible for 781,000 deaths each year worldwide. Yes, the bacterium a mosquito injects is the actual killer, but were it not for the mosquito as the delivery mechanism, the bacteria would be far less likely to enter the bloodstream. Additionally, bees, hippos, and the most dangerous animal of all – human beings, account for more deaths than the shark could ever claim in a thousand years.

I love that these majestic animals are now receiving a good amount of positive attention and that global conservation efforts are helping to preserve one of our ocean’s top predators. Still, even in spite of the increased awareness, the fear-fascination persists. Whether it’s the curious bite of a boogie board or the mistaken identity of a human leg dangling over a surfboard, one graze of the tooth or underwater fly-by still makes headlines around the world. The craziest part of all is that you will read this post, gain a new logical perspective based on math and statistical reality, and still warily dip a toe in the ocean. We simply can’t help it. The odds are long yet somehow; every day we swim in the ocean and avoid an attack will still feel like a victorious game of Russian roulette. Swim, my friends. Dive, ski, surf, fish, and cavort in the waves, but don’t forget to watch where you step and keep an eye out for that fin slicing toward you.

Next up, Airplanes.

I flew to Las Vegas last week for a trade show. Before you even ask, the answer is yes; I lost all the money I brought to gamble. Anyway, I’m a seasoned vet when it comes to air travel and have experienced my fair share of crummy flights. Turbulence, bad weather, and the ever-popular threat of a terrorist attack are unfortunate realities in today’s air travel climate. The global weather patterns are changing. We’re experiencing more severe weather now than it seems we have (at least in my lifetime.) Life post 911 has given rise to a new fear in the air and with good reason. Security is tighter than ever and Air Marshall services keep me more at ease at 37,000 feet than I would be without them, but the fact remains that the smallest outside chance or even slightest possibility mean increased anxiety for passengers. Let’s not forget that today’s airline industry is in a pretty shitty state. I used to enjoy flying. Now, I just endure it like everyone else. I suffer through the long security lines, I show up my requisite hour and a half before takeoff, and I make damn sure I don’t have any liquid over six ounces in my carry-on. I lost a bottle of hair gel last year because of this. Now, some jackass working the check-in has some well coiffed hair thanks to my donation.

Anyway, back to my flight last week. I honestly can’t remember that last time I had a nice, smooth flight from takeoff to landing. It’s literally been a dozen shitty flights in a row now, so I was pleasantly surprised when we ascended smoothly out of Cleveland, cruised for 90% of the flight bump-free, and looked like we were going to have a smooth landing. The string of bad flights was about to be broken and I was feeling all sorts of all right. Then, as you might expect, the pilot gets on the overhead and tells us to buckle in for what will be a “very bumpy landing.” Unbeknownst to me, Vegas is windy as shit in the spring. The pilot advised that we would be descending in 40mph winds with gusts reaching 50. As you might imagine, I was pissed, not because I had to hang on for dear life and get thrashed around like the red headed stepchild of the airline, but because my streak of bad flights wasn’t going to be broken. I took it as a sign that my luck was already bad before even stepping foot into a casino. The landing sucked but I wouldn’t even rate it as one of my top three worst. As I bounced and dropped all the way down, I wasn’t worrying about crashing. I was more concerned that I’d be sick. I wasn’t. I don’t believe anyone threw up, which was nice. The pilots did their job and got us safely on the ground. It was then I chuckled, watching people hug each other and breathe a collective sigh of relief. A guy three rows ahead of me was sweating more profusely than a woman in her final stage of labor. He looked like what I pictured Sonny Flowers to look like in my book during his crummy flight. The wave of relief and the joyful expression by many of my fellow passengers only further reinforced the irrational fear. Sure, you could argue that a bumpy landing lends greater justification for increased anxiety, but the facts are the facts and the stats are the stats.

Airline             Number of flights            Number of fatal accidents

Southwest        15,000,000                                                 0 

American          25,000,000                                                 13

United               22,000,000                                                 11

US Airways       18,000,000                                                 9

For additional information and statistics, visit: http://www.nationalaviationlaw.com/aviation-info-and-stats/

Right now as I type, Southwest has 309 planes in the air, American has 255, United/Continental has 347, and US Airways has 163. That’s every day all day. That’s 1,074 planes in the air right now. Let’s say there are 100 people on each flight. That’s 107,400 people in the air right now. There is still no denying that flying is by far the safest way to travel.

The bizarre thing to me is that we know it’s safe, but anxiety still persists for so many. It could be because people aren’t naturally meant to fly. Falling from 30,000 feet is a scary proposition, and we aren’t the ones behind the wheel. We have no control. We’re packed like sardines in a big, heavy, tin can that looks like it has no business defying the laws of gravity yet it somehow does exactly this.

Oddly enough, the place where we have total control, where we’re very grounded, and where we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be is the single most dangerous place for we humans to place ourselves – our cars. The wheels are planted firmly on the ground and we control where we go and how fast we get there. We have laws to protect us from point A to point B, yet accidents still happen and people still die. 1.2 million people died worldwide in 2007 via motor vehicle related accidents. Between 30-50,000 people die each year in the United States in car accidents. Just to offer a frame of reference, 50,000 people died in the whole Vietnam War. We feel safe and comfortable in our cars and sweat bullets in an airplane. It defies logic, but then again, when have we humans ever been logical? Fly, my friends. Eat your peanuts and enjoy your beverages. Thank your flight crew and shake your Captain’s hand. Rest easy knowing that you will arrive safe at your destination but just in case, you’d better stay awake and pay attention to those safety instructions!

Finally, Snakes.

The serpent holds a very special place in the minds and hearts of people around the world. Americans, who are largely Christian/Catholic, have heard the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Other religions like Hindu, revere and respect snakes as a symbol of power. They are, indeed, animals to be admired and respected, but rarely are they to be truly feared. The idea of coming face to face with a giant squeezer or a venomous viper lives in the nightmares of many. The odds of it actually happening, though, are pretty slim. Like our friend the shark, snakes are easy to vilify. They are slimy, they don’t have eyelids, they slither, they stalk, they flick that wicked little tongue, and they have teeth. Well, while some of those things are factually true, their physiology probably contributes less to the collective fear than you might think. Snakes are not slimy, by the way. Let’s see what the numbers say?

In the United States from 1999 – 2005, there were 44 venomous snake related fatalities. Of those 44, 38 were bites in the wild, and 6 were bites that came from captive venomous snakes (data collected from www.rexano.org)

From 1990- 2008, there were 8 fatalities by a captive constrictor snake in the U.S (constrictors are non-venimous) None of the deaths were the result of the snake being unsupervised off the owners property. (data from www.rexano.org)

Now, let’s look at people’s favorite domestic companions as a comparison. 

Over the last 7 years, there has been an average of 30.4 dog-related deaths per year. So over the same timeframe as the venomous snakes where 6 captive deaths occurred and 38 wild deaths occurred, there were 213 people who died from dog related injuries (source: http://www.dogsbite.org/dog-bite-statistics-fatalities.php)

Additionally, the same site reported that each day, about 1,000 U.S. citizens require emergency care treatment for dog bite injury.

I’m not against dogs or dog ownership. I’m a dog lover. I’ve owned, raised, rescued, and trained many breeds. I’m simply trying to keep things in perspective because all too often, politicians and government try and gain sympathy through public outcry when a rare injury from a snake or other exotic animal is reported.

The sad reality for snake and reptile hobbyists like myself is that the industry is becoming very tightly regulated and restricted by our government – go figure. In 2012, four constrictor snakes were banned under the Lacey Act by the Federal Government (www.fws.gov/…/Final_Economic_Analysis_for_4%20species.pdf) Their rationale was that Burmese Pythons were becoming established in the Evergaldes as an invasive species. While this may be true, More than 50 species of exotic mammals have been recorded in South Florida, at least 19 of which are self-sustaining including dogs, pigs, cats,and rats. Wild animals native to other parts of the U.S. have also been established including nine-banded armadillos. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_invasive_species_in_the_Everglades

There are invasive birds, mammals, reptiles other than snakes, clams, fish, and a bunch of plants, yet the snakes get the press and get the federal ban. Even before the Lacey Act, Florida required permits and microchipping of all large constrictors. The media paints a picture of private owners releasing pets into the everglades, but the research shown so far indicates that he more likely introduction happened after hurricanes destroyed captive breeding facilities, allowing the animals to escape. I don’t harbor ill will toward Florida for trying to get the issue under control, but why punish the whole country? Florida’s issue is isolated. A Burmese Python would not thrive in an environment outside the everglades here in the US. They would be prey for other animals or suffer the effects of winter. Here in Ohio, we’re facing the same issue at the state level with Senate Bill 310. http://www.bizjournals.com/prnewswire/press_releases/2012/03/29/DC78703  The state is trying to pass aggressive legislation to limit exotic animal ownership. This was largely due to an incident last fall where an unstable guy let a lot of wild animals loose on his property and then killed himself. The story is here: http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2011/10/18/Wild-animals-loose-in-Muskingum-County.html

There weren’t any reports of reptiles in the incident, but they somehow got lumped into the legislation even though they pose little danger to the public. As always, when the government steps in and tries to take control, they usually make problems worse. It’s politics as usual.

So I say tiptoe through the tulips, my friends. You’ll be hard-pressed to step on a slithery serpent, but if you happen to meet one, leave him on his merry way. If you cross him and feel the sting of his bite, pray it’s a squeezer and not a rattler.

Hopefully this was an enjoyable read and gave you some relief, perspective, and comfort knowing that it’s not the shark, snake, or plane crash that will probably get you. If you need to be afraid of something, fear your morning commute to the office.

 

Thanks for reading

Jim














 

 






 




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