Strange Appetites: Bay Area Animals Get Drunk, Vaguely Political

In a week that saw long-delayed recognitions of mutual personhood, marked by nuptials and by people dressed in rainbow socks, assless underwear, and various types of wings, there was a strange subcurrent of tension, here in the Bay Area, between humans and the animal kingdom.

On Tuesday, June 25, a kayaker fishing near Pacifica State Beach was attacked by what he reported as a great white shark. It came up under his kayak, gnawed at it for a bit, and went on its way. The kayaker, Micah Flansburg, was not harmed, but responded the way people generally do nowadays to events for which they have no previous lived experience, but plenty of media context: "It was just like the Discovery Channel where you see the eyes roll to the back of the head and the pink gums and his teeth bared," he told ABC News.

Media coverage (ahem) of shark attacks tends to inflate their significance, considering just how rare shark attacks actually are. But the timing is certainly interesting: This week sees the enforcement of a statewide shark fin ban, designed to curb the practice of "finning": cutting off a shark's dorsal fin and throwing the animal back to die. Shark fins are culturally significant to Chinese communities, who consider shark-fin soup, per a lawsuit filed last July by the Chinatown Neighborhood Association and Burlingame's Asian Americans for Political Advancement, "a ceremonial centerpiece of traditional Chinese banquets." The lawsuit claims discrimination, though so might the sharks.

Even as the ban percolates through the state, the federal government continues to be unsympathetic. Last Friday the National Marine Fisheries Service rejected environmental groups' petitions to list the great white shark as an endangered species because, the fish-feds say, the low numbers don't take into account shark populations in Southern California.

If you squint really hard, the Pacifica attack could be seen as a kind of protest, Occupy Kayak or some such.

Meanwhile, a day after the attack, wildlife rescuers were scrambling around a backyard in Bernal Heights, trying to catch a yellow-bellied marmot that had apparently hitched a ride under a car from its home in the Sierra Nevadas. Marmots, it seems, are terrific antifreeze addicts, gnawing through engine hoses to get at that good old ethylene glycol. This has been a dirty little secret in the squirrel family for some time, as an ecologist quoted in a 2001 issue of Sierra magazine was "boggled by the marmots' ability to consume antifreeze, a substance that would kill humans and most other animals. ... All it does for marmots, apparently, is give them 'a bit of a high.'" As of press time, the marmot was still running the streets, looking to score.

It would be a mistake to lose these stories in the excitement of other national recognition. A shark's timely press blitz and an alcoholic squirrel (now with a Twitter feed): How like us they are!

 
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