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Chris' Shark Story

Growing up on a farm in PA, I learned a lot about animals. When I was about ten we started to spend several winters in the Florida Keys.  Each year we would borrow a large Airstream trailer from a family member and that became our temporary home in Key Largo at a campground.  I went to school but there was a lot of time to explore the woods around the campground and I spent hours looking into the dark waters nearby with a head lamp, catching shrimp, crabs and other creatures. I didn’t get an allowance, so if I wanted extra spending money I needed to get a job. The job available to me was collecting the bags of trash left behind by campers leaving at the end of the weekend. On Sunday evenings I would walk behind a trailer being pulled by a Jeep and throw the black trash bags onto the trailer. 


One hot Sunday I was walking up to the next pile of black bags and something caught my eye. As I got closer I could see it was a shark! Someone must have caught this four foot nurse shark, brought it home to show others and then tossed it into the trash. I carefully picked it up, it was dry and sandpaper-like. It didn’t seem right to toss it directly into the pile of trash bags so I placed it off to the side of the trailer. When I set it down it almost seemed like it flinched a little. I thought I must be imagining any movement, after all this poor shark must have been out of the water and in the hot sun for hours if not nearly all day. The trash pickup continued on, winding through the entire campground and then we went to the main office where I had to throw all the bags we collected into a big green dumpster. When the time came and the last bag was tossed, I just couldn’t bear to throw the shark into the dumpster, maybe it really HAD moved a little. I wondered if I carried to the other side of the campground where a brackish water lake was, could I possibly recusitate it? Worth a shot I figured after all it was already dead. 


I remember the struggle of carrying the rubbery shark nearly as big as I was that far on the uneven crushed coral roads. When I got to the lake, I tried moving the shark through the water like I had seen somewhere on tv, probably watching Jacques Cousteau. After about ten minutes I thought I felt another twitch, like the shark got a slight electric shock. This was encouraging. It took me the rest of that hour to start to really see any reactions. Eventually, the tail started to sway beyond the movement I was invoking. After another thirty minutes I felt it was time to see if the shark could balance and move. It did! I gave it a few extra long trips through the water but this time let it move away from my hands. I wasn’t sure how much of its forward motion was from it swimming or the momentum from me pushing it.  After a few minutes more moving it through the water with longer and longer strokes this time I let go and it slowly swam on its own. I watched it swim about ten feet and rest on a ledge.  About ten minutes later it swam off into the depths of the lake.  Though I looked for it many times I didn’t see it again before we had to leave and head north. I didn’t know this would be the last time we went on our winter visit.


About 8-9 later, when I visited the keys after college I heard that people had talked about the shark in the lake. Evidently it would feed near the sides of the lake where it could rest on the shallow ledges that lined this former quarry.  When campers took a stroll around the lake they would spook the shark and it would make a big splash as it took off. I was so happy that I took the time to give this shark a second life and eventually that lake was expanded, canals were dug and it was connected with the sea. I’d like to think the shark made it back where it belonged -swimming freely.  


The selfishness and cruelty of whoever caught that shark -how disposable they thought it was, to choose to keep it, bring it home, and then just toss it in the trash, has always stuck with me. This extreme example of disregarding an animal’s life changed how I looked at all my interactions with animals to this day. 

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