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Rogues: Studying Man-eaters

Ethology Comments (50)

We hear about it every now and again; people killed and eaten by animals throughout the world. Whether it is lions in Africa hunting human prey, or the occasional shark attack in the popular beaches, we hear about these cases and usually demonize the animal responsible for the death. Some say the animals should not be blamed for the killing, while others believe it is perfectly justifiable to kill the responsible predator. Others also want to know why these events occur. This is an especially interesting issue when you consider the fact that many man-eaters tend to become accustomed the human meat and soon add humans into their list of prey. Why do certain animals, which commonly show fear for humans, sometimes make such a sudden change in their lifestyle? And should they really be blamed for these attacks? We’ll cover this as we go over the information from some cases of attacks as well as the theorized causes of the changes in the animals’ behaviors.

In March 1898, the British began building a bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya. Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson led the project. They would soon encounter an unexpected problem with the local wildlife. Over the course of the bridge project, two male lions (Panthera leo) of the Tsavo variety began to attack the Indian workers. The attacks were said to occur at night. The workers were attacked in their own tents and dragged out to be devoured elsewhere. Several methods were used to scare away the two predators away, including putting up bornas of thorn fences around the camp. This wasn’t enough to keep the lions away. Patterson himself began to set traps and attempt to ambush the lions from a tree. After many nights if unsuccessful attempts, he was finally able to shoot the first lion on December 9, 1898. Close to a month later, the second lion was killed. One of the lions was a particularly large animal; it was measured at nine feet, eight inches from nose to tip of tail.

Patterson claimed to have shot each lion about 5 times before they died. According to his story, the first lion was shot in the hindquarts and then ran off. It later returned and actually attempted to stalk Patterson before the Colonel shot it four more times. The lion was found dead the next morning. The second lion was shot five times with a rifle. According to Patterson, it still tried to charge at him despite its crippled state. He killed it with 3 more shots, two to the chest and one to the head. The skins were eventually sold to the Chicago Field Museum in 1924.

One of the lions shot by Patterson. ©

There are several theories which attempt to explain why these lions would begin to take human prey. The most likely cause would have been the 1898 Rinderpest disease. The disease killed off much of the lions’ usual prey, forcing them to search for other possible prey items.

This cannot explain all cases of man-eating lions, however. A probable cause for other incidents could be scavenging; a dead person whose corpse is consumed by a predator could cause the predator to search for living people to hunt. A lion that kills a human for territorial or self-defense reasons could possibly lose its fear of people and begin hunting them. These animals can easily become a great danger to nearby villages, just as the Tsavo lions became a major threat to the bridge workers in 1898.

But we don’t tend to hear of these attacks too often. They’re certainly not as common as shark attacks, of which we hear of from time to time. Shark attacks cases make the headlines almost every summer, and the culprit is usually the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias). Among the most famous cases of shark attacks are the Jersey shore attacks of 1916.

The problems began on July 1st on Beach Haven, a resort town on Long Beach Island. Charles Epting Vansant was on vacation with his family at the Engleside Hotel. He decided to take a swim before dinner and went off to the beach with his dog. After entering the water, he began screaming. His screams continued, but the other bathers assumed he was calling out to the dog. In reality, he was being attacked by a shark. Alexander Ott, a lifeguard, swam out and rescued Vansant. He claimed the shark kept swimming after him as he pulled the victim to shore. Vansant suffered terrible wounds to his thigh and bled to death shortly after. Shark sightings were reported by sea captains who passed by the area, but the beaches remained open.[i]

At the resort town of Spring Lake, New Jersey, the second attack took place. The victim was 27 year old Charles Bruder, a Swiss bellhop at the Essex and Sussex Hotel. He received a bite to the abdomen and his legs were severed. Two lifeguards found him and took him to shore on a lifeboat, but by that point it was too late.[ii]

The next two shark attacks occurred in Matawan Creek, a rather unexpected place due to being 16 miles inland. A sea captain and resident named Thomas Cottrell claimed to have spotted a rather large shark in the area, but the town dismissed him. Later on an 11 year old local, Lester Stitwell, was attacked in a nearby area and pulled underwater. His friends ran off to find help. Local business man Watson Stanley Fisher and several other men came to the area to find the victim’s body. After diving in and searching for some time, they found the young boy’s body. The shark returned and attacked Fisher before the men were able to take back Stitwell’s corpse. Fisher was severely injured and later died in Monmouth Memorial Hospital in Long Branch. The young boy’s body was found some time later 150 feet upstream from the original location.[iii]

Joseph Dunn, 14, would become the final victim of this series of attacks. Nearly 30 minutes after the attacks on Sitwell and Fisher, Dunn experienced a terrifying moment when a shark bit his left leg. He was saved by his brother and friend after they managed to take him back from the shark in a violent struggle. The teenager recovered in Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick, making him the only survivor in the Jersey shore attacks of the year.[iv]

The attacks caused panic among locals and tourists alike. Several newspapers placed the stories on their front pages and thousands of dollars was lost in tourism. Several sharks were killed in response to this, their captures claiming that their respective catches were the culprit sharks. Eventually, a taxidermist and lion tamer named Micheal Schleisser killed a 7.5 foot great white with human flesh and bones found inside its stomach.[v] There were no more attacks in the year after the killing of this shark. The shark was caught in Raritan Bay, a few miles away from Matawan Creek. According to Schleisser, the shark nearly sank his boat before he managed to kill it with a broken oar. This shark is said by many to have been the rogue who caused the killings.

Schleisser’s 7.5 foot great white. ©

Shark attacks can be occur for a number of reasons, but there are no conclusive theories for this series of attacks. Some claimed the sharks were animals that became accustomed to eating human corpses in the German warzone, and followed German boats to the Jersey coast expecting more bodies to be found. Also, despite the capture of the great white mentioned earlier, some people said that some of the attacks could have been caused by another species known as the bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas). This is possible, as bull sharks are known for entering into streams and rivers from the oceans. A bull shark may have been responsible for the attacks in Matawan. Despite this, the attacks are listed in the International Shark Attack File as caused by a great white.

But the chances of these attacks being caused a single rogue are somewhat slim; captains were reporting many sharks throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. In reality, several sharks may have been responsible for the attacks.

The great white is commonly considered the culprit whenever a shark attack occurs. ©

So what are the common causes for shark attacks? The events sometimes seem random and unpredictable. The most common explanation is confusion. A swimmer using a surfboard may seem somewhat like a seal from a shark’s point of view. The splashing of the swimmer may resemble the splashing of seals, which certainly doesn’t help the shark to tell the difference. Another explanation is that some attacks are linked to curiosity. Sharks examine things of interest with their mouths, since they lack hands to grasp with. However, the bite force exerted by sharks is high (among the highest of all animals) and can easily cause severe injury to a person. Not only that, but the blood resulting from such a wound can trigger the sharks feeding instinct, or attract other nearby sharks to the site. Sharks can easily enter a feeding frenzy state at times like these. Many times, however, the shark will leave after it realizes that the object of inspection may not be what it was expecting. Several marine biologists claim that sharks may not enjoy the taste of human flesh and that they prefer prey higher in fat (like seals). However, sharks have been known to consume human flesh with seemingly no trouble. Schleisser’s shark had a considerable amount of human flesh in its stomach, and may have been responsible for the attacks that occurred at the shoreline. Whether these sharks developed a taste for human flesh or not is up for debate, but attacks where sharks hunted and consumed humans have occurred and there is reason to believe that sharks can indeed become accustomed to human flesh.

Many people go to the extreme and demonize sharks for this behavior. This is not an intelligent response to what should be, in reality, studied with the right mindset. They are simply animals who follow their instinct, and due to that method of living can sometimes struggle with the presence of something they are not used to seeing or hunting. As for whether the individual animal who committed the kill is to be hunted down or not, we will cover that later.

So attacks from animals which were possibly driven to do what they did from extreme starvation and attacks due to confusion or curiosity have been covered, but what about an animal which can easily attack a human for the sake of a normal meal? Few animals have been seriously given this description other than crocodiles.

Most species of American crocodilians make it a priority to avoid humans whenever they can, but attacks from the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) have occurred and continue to happen. But this is not the best example from the crocodilians. In Africa, villagers who must make a living from the Nile River are attacked and killed by the local Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus). Crocodiles are larger and more aggressive than their alligator cousin. Much like the Tsavo lions, crocodiles seem to easily grow a taste for human flesh. With crocodiles, however, there is little need for an event which takes out their natural prey in order to attempt to attack humans. According to the experiences of the African villagers as well as the Americans who were attacked by the less aggressive alligators, the animals seem to prey on humans much like any other species in their environment. This obviously proves to be a grievous problem as a crocodilian of four feet in length already possesses the biting strength to cause serious damage.

A Nile crocodile, one of the largest species of crocodilians alive today, is pictured here. Photo by Sarah McCans

Gustave is currently the most famous man-eater, mostly due to the fact that the crocodile has yet to be captured. Greatly feared by the people of his usual region (Burundi), there are claims from locales that he has killed as many as 300 humans. According to those who have spotted him, he is about 20 feet in length and possibly a ton in weight. It can be difficult to tell what is real and what is not, as many mythical tales have come and gone surrounding this crocodile, but it is certainly possible that the Nile species can attain this size. What is most important, however, is the fact that the animal is still somewhere in Burundi. Crocodilians will attack anything in site for food or defense of territory, and it is clear that humans can be on their prey list.

With these cases of animal attacks and the controversy that surrounds them at times, there is a debate over whether animals that have killed people should be killed themselves. After all, animals are not moral beings; they cannot tell right from wrong, they simply follow instinct. Even so, my answer is that the animal must unfortunately be killed. As we have seen, individual animals which have hunted humans have developed a taste for our flesh. This creates a threat for nearby locales, and we cannot assume that the animal will forget about human prey and risk another life. If the culprit can be found, it must be killed for the safety of the people in the area. However, there is also our part on the matter. Animals are just as much a part of this world as we are, and we must give them the space and respect that they deserve. There are times when we unnecessarily intrude their homes and become a problem to them. This is when a death results, sometimes for the human. And after this, the fear for people is sometimes lost in the animal’s mind. In the case of a dangerous predatory animal like the ones mentioned, this creates a real problem for others in nearby areas. So the best way to avoid these problems is to wisely avoid pointless contact with these animals and not to risk going anywhere potentially dangerous without proper protection.

We live in a world filled with beauty but also danger, and we must do our part to avoid becoming a problem or starting a problem for others. There are times when these incidents occur, and I sincerely believe it is correct to put an end to the problematic animal before it can continue on and kill someone else. Man and nature are certainly in conflict from time to time, but nature is not always at fault. However, let us not forget that we are even more dangerous than any animal in this world. We have the power to turn things around for the better, even if only slightly. That sounds like a skill that should be put to use.

[i] Fernicola, Twelve Days of Terror, pp. 1–9


[ii] The New York Times, July 7, 1916

[iii] Fernicola, Twelve Days of Terror, pp. 45–50.

[iv] The New York Times, July 13, 1916

[v] Fernicola, Twelve Days of Terror, p. 163

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» Ethology » Rogues: Studying Man-eaters
On August 19, 2010
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