People who like sharks say sharks aren't so bad. Sharks are simply misunderstood, they say, like mass murderers.
In an exhibit that opened yesterday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, the largest and most comprehensive show ever assembled on sharks, scientists attempt to expose the lies that have clouded our minds about these graceful torpedo-shaped ballerinas of death.
Come on, the exhibitors say, open your minds and give sharks a chance. Forget all about that Hollywood smear job, "Jaws." Forget the scene at the beginning of the movie when the little vixen goes swimming at night and gets what she deserves.
For instance, the exhibit points out that sharks are not mindless eating machines. That is totally incorrect. Sharks are intelligent eating machines.
Somehow, though, this is not a great comfort. If there is anything worse than a mindless eating machine, it's an intelligent and resourceful eating machine, prowling through its own environment, in the dark, at night, in murky water, among nude and drunken bathers who are floundering like wounded mullet.
The exhibit quite rightly notes that sharks are reviled, loathed, feared, cursed, hunted down and slaughtered and clubbed to death by blood-crazed sports fishermen. Their fins are whacked off and tossed into soup pots. Their skin is peeled off and made into foppish cowboy boots. And their oily innards are extracted and made into -- is there no shame? -- Preparation H ointment.
One almost begins to feel sorry for sharks. But every time that happens, the exhibit presents some new and more disturbing scene.
For example, there is a big diorama of a great white shark. The same poor misunderstood species, by the way, whose actions and motivations were so misrepresented in "Jaws." Anyway, in the diorama, the great white is shown in classic shark position, its immense mouth is flung open, its serrated steak-knife teeth bared. Of course, it is about to eat something. And guess what it is about to eat? A baby seal. The little terrorized fur-ball is frozen in time, swimming for its life. Because in the next millisecond. Snap! Down the old gullet.
So open your minds. Sharks aren't so bad. For example, the curators have collected all the things found in the stomachs of tiger sharks. There are sneakers, hubcaps, license plates, jewelry, fur coats and a suit of armor. What a person was doing swimming in furs and jewelry, no one knows. Perhaps they got what they deserved.
Speaking of swimming with sharks, it is clear from the exhibit that scientists don't have a clue why sharks eat us. Some scientists guess that maybe sharks make mistakes. Sharks are intelligent, but not perfect. Maybe sharks like us because we twitch like injured mullet. Maybe sharks are just plain hungry.
Regardless, as the exhibit stresses, there are ways to prevent an attack. For starters, don't swim at night. Sharks prowl at night. Also, don't swim in murky water. Sharks become confused in murky water. Namely, they confuse humans for mullet. Also, don't swim when cut or bleeding. And whatever you do, don't wear brightly colored clothing in shark-infested waters. Brightly colored swimming adornments, such as swim trunks, appear to drive sharks stark raving mad. Avoid them or risk provoking an attack, which could not be blamed on the shark, which would be innocent.
Of course, the exhibit shows how professionals swim with sharks. First, they swim in shark cages. Second, they rarely enter the water without their "Neptunic Dive Suits," which are basically suits of mail. Maybe the guy in the armor was experimenting with a similar suit.
Anyway, even if you break all the rules, the exhibit points out that more people are killed by pigs each year in the United States than by sharks. (But you don't see blood-thirsty butchers carving up pigs, do you?) And you sure as heck don't see that shark-baiting propagandist Steven Spielberg making a smear job movie called "Snout."
As the exhibit notes: Your chance of being audited by the IRS is 1 in 66. Your chance of being killed playing soccer in Britain is 1 in 6,000. Getting killed by a tornado is 1 in 450,000. Killed by falling airplane parts? One in 10 million. Attacked by a shark? One in 100 million. That's about 100 shark attacks each year worldwide. And even if you are attacked, it doesn't mean you'll die.
As the shark show's curators explain, "Usually the shark takes one bite and swims away." At least, this is what happened to the director of the National Museum of Natural History, Frank H. Talbot. Indeed, the dapper Talbot was killing sharks on a reef off the coast of Zanzibar as a youth when he encountered a shark that wasn't entirely dead.
"I felt a hard thud," Talbot recalled on a walk through "Sharks: Fact and Fantasy." He thought his dive buddy had kicked him with a flipper. Talbot said he was rather surprised to see his right nipple and surrounding musculature missing. But still, in keeping with tradition, the shark swam away after one bite -- just like the scientists said it would.
The museum director knows they call him "One Teat Talbot" behind his back. Talbot still maintains: "Sharks are marvelous creatures." Another Smithsonian scientist, Victor Springer, who with Joy Gold authored the popular book "Sharks in Question," agrees. Springer, on a tour of the exhibit, said it was the best traveling show the museum has had in years. Springer should know. He and Gold wrote "Sharks in Question" after answering millions of questions asked by people who watched "Jaws."
Talbot said he likes the exhibit, which was produced by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, because "it gets away from the horror show of sharks and gets down to how interesting these animals really are."
No kidding about horror shows. This one runs through Jan. 20.