This Enormous Incomprehensible Sea-Eel

Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, readers, editorial assistants, or contributors.

In “The Great Sea-Serpent,” by Hans Christian Andersen, a family of little salt-water fish “of good family” were thoroughly enjoying their idyllic ocean life when they are accosted by a “great horrid thing” that came crashing down across the ocean floor. They thought it was an incomprehensible sea-eel, but Andersen’s narrator quickly solves the mystery: “What was the thing, anyway? ah, we know; it was the great interminable telegraph cable that people were laying between Europe and America.” The fish soon realize that human thought dances across the wire, and they seek to destroy it out of fear—humans and fish, after all, share a long history of nets and hooks. When a sea cow (aka a mermaid) arrives to explain how terrible the cable is, the fish reverse their course, and declare the cable “the most wonderful fish in the ocean.” Just one of many examples of human technology having an ambiguous impact on non-human animals.

The human tendency to collect, categorize, and study, even for the most kindhearted of purposes, has a darker side. Scientists who collect animal specimens for research argue that thorough investigation of the body is the only way to determine new species, and that there is inherent value in curating collections of animals both extant and extinct. On the other side, ethicists worry that collecting specimens to be kept in a museum could cause irreparable harm to species with very few individuals. This debate came to a head a few years ago, when a scientist went out into the field in the Costa Rican jungles to capture a frog that had been thought to be extinct, only to discover that someone else had beat him to the punch. That led him to question the value in taking a live specimen over, say, a vial of DNA. The anti-specimen side still trusts in the code of ethics that biologists follow, but still wonders about whether ethical debates change out in the field, “when no one is looking — when no one is watching.”

Conservationists are now warning about some apparently unforeseen concerns with the devices commonly used to track endangered species. “Cyperpoaching” is a new threat, wherein poachers could use brute force hacking or phishing schemes (such as the attack that hit Google Docs users last month) to acquire live or recent GPS coordinates of an expensive endangered species. Armed with that knowledge, poachers would have a much easier time bagging their next victim. In Banff National Park, in Canada, a more benign example of this has already occurred: photographers realized they could use VHF radio receivers to track tagged animals, stalk them, and shoot them—only with a lens, of course—but that verb marks an uncanny, and frightening, alternative.