Animals & Money: Do shark attacks and other exotic deaths go down in a recession?

The number of humans bit by sharks declined in 2008 and the leading shark attack researcher blames the recession. George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, says sharks bit 59 people around the world in 2008, down from 71 the year before.

Sharks bit fewer people not because they evolved in any way or some new shark repellent was deployed, but, Burgess says, because people worried about money took fewer vacations to places where they might find themselves in the water with sharks. I think Burgess is right. His theory should also make us reconsider the various hysterias over other kinds of animal attacks, animal-related car accidents and animal nuisances in human territory. Are the animals causing the change or are we?

Look at all kinds of recreation-related deaths, you see a bit of a slump since 2005. According to the latest figures available from the National Vital Statistics Report , the death rate fell from 826 per 100,000 in 2005 to 810 in 2006. The diseases were pretty constant. It's the accidental deaths that fell slightly. As we did less and risked less, we died less. About 750 fewer people died in car accidents. Only 777 died in the accidental discharge of a gun, down from 789 in 2005. About 100 fewer drowned. (Some kinds of accidental deaths, like falls, were up.) Because vital statistics lag incredibly--for something so vital--we don't have more recent figures. But my guess is they continued to fall. If sailing, yachting and golf had fatalities I'd bet they'd really be down.What's really interesting about the statistics is that when our activity increased and certain kinds of deaths went up, we didn't look to our increased incursions into shark waters for the blame. In 2008 the story was "Sharks Decline But Attacks Rise." The Guardian blamed global warming for an increase of shark attacks.

In 2008 the Department of Transportation showed we had a huge decline in the number of car deaths--about 10% fewer people died. That's about 3,000 Americans alive today because they didn't take a road trip. And some states showed even bigger declines: road deaths were down 29% in Massachusetts. We only drove 3.6% less. And the DOT only cited their own "focus on safety."

When people move to the exurbs, then complain about the wildlife, they don't get a lot of sympathy. But we tend not to take into account our own incursions into animal territory. We've been hearing how deer and moose populations are on the rise and are causing a rise of car crashes and deaths. All of that is true. But, the hysteria usually blames the deer. Are deer putting you at risk? one MSNMoney article asks--and blames them for $1 billion in car damages annually. Pro-hunting groups like the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies say that without hunting, there would be even more of these accidents. Friends of Animals says the accidents go up in deer season, especially on the first day. Kansas did a study and found--in addition to higher populations--higher speeds and traffic volumes were to blame. I wonder how often we're blaming animals when really we're the ones changing our behavior.
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