TOP SECRET ANIMAL ATTACK FILES
Special Report filed by AAF
from The Salt Lake Tribune
author now regrets his 'attack' on sharks
By Philip Delves Broughton in Boston
Thursday, April 4, 2000
THE author of Jaws said yesterday that he would never have written the book if he had known the damage it would do to the reputation of the great white shark.
Although the novel sold 10 million copies and turned Peter Benchley into a millionaire, he now says that people should love sharks. Because of his conversion, he is doing everything he can to restore the good name of the beast that made his fortune. He said: "What I now know, which wasn't known when I wrote Jaws, is that there is no such thing as a rogue shark which develops a taste for human flesh."
Benchley is using his position as creator of the world's best-known shark to raise awareness of its decline. A quarter of a century after the film of his book was released, he is writing articles, making films - the latest of which is Great White Deep Trouble - and speaking around America to highlight the threat to Carcharodon carcharias, the "ragged-toothed" one.
It is easy to see Benchley's defence of the great white as a sackcloth and ashes moment, a mea culpa for what he did to the shark's image. But he dismissed such talk. He said: The American media has been trying to get me to apologise for everything from the Sudetenland to the tawny pipit. What I'm doing here is the expression of a sentiment which has been building for 25 years."
Benchley was 27 and had just left a job writing for President Johnson, "a job for which I was splendidly inept and unqualified", when he decided to write Jaws. He read a story about the harpooning of a 4,550lb great white off Long Island and began thinking, "what if one of these things began marauding a community?" He was working behind the furnace room of a factory at the time and struggling to support his family: the book's effect on the great white shark's reputation was not a concern.
Benchley's own love of the ocean stemmed from his growing up on Nantucket, the island off Massachussetts from where Ahab and his crew set out to hunt Moby Dick. Jaws, he said, "was a perfect amalgam of media momentum. I touched a nerve somewhere deep in the public psyche". It was some years after writing the story that he grasped why. After the book and film came out, Benchley was asked time and again to write articles and make television programmes about diving with sharks.
"Jaws gave me access to all the scientists and environmentalists and brought me closer to the ocean." He said that because of their fearsome reputation "no one appreciates how vulnerable they are to destruction". He said: "They get caught up in 80-mile fishing lines with thousands of hooks which kill anything, and in nets the size of ten 747s laid wing to wing in the ocean."
Benchley is particularly appalled by the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. He said: "It's disgusting when you see the slaughter of sharks; when the animal is brought to the surface, has its fins sawn off and is then dropped into the ocean. I've seen the ocean floor littered with the corpses of finless sharks."
But a problem remains. He said: "It's hard to rally people behind sharks. Unlike whales or dolphins, they are hard to anthropomorphise - and they occasionally eat people." However, the fear of sharks seems to outweigh their taste for human flesh. Over the past century, only 74 people have been killed by the eight varieties of sharks - out of 400 in total - that are killers.
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