I have written before about the cruel practice of men forcing tigers to fight bulls in public arenas. Here I will show how another 19th-century cross-species battle had rather more predictable and tragic results. This time the venue was the Brisbane River, and the animals were Bull Sharks and the unfortunate canine pets of unsuspecting Brisbanites.
Bridges across the Brisbane River were in short supply during much of the 19th century, roads were uncovered and shoddy, and so ferries were a popular way of getting across the river. Dogs usually weren’t allowed on the boats, and anybody wanting to take their faithful pets across the waters sometimes had to let them swim behind the ferry. Unfortunately for these dogs the waters are home to the the Bull Shark (Carcharhinus leucas), the apex predator in the river system and one of the most dangerous species of shark in the world.
|The Bull Shark (Image: Brian Watson)|
Bull Sharks are common in the Brisbane River, the adults ranging in size from 1.5–4 metres and having an omnivorous diet which includes fishes, dolphins, turtles, birds, crustaceans, molluscs and, when the opportunity presents itself, land mammals. When dogs swam behind ferry boats, the opportunity presented itself very frequently. In murky waters the splashing of a swimming land animal could be mistaken for a struggling fish. The danger is increased by the fact that Bull Sharks are fast (up to 18kph in short bursts) and very aggressive. Unlike most sharks they will attack animals larger than themselves. They hunt using what is known as the ‘bump and bite’, head-butting their prey before biting it. The Bull Shark has very poor eyesight, and uses the bump to help identify the prey. They also use their keen sense of smell to help make up for their poor vision.
The first recorded report of a shark attacking a dog in Brisbane came back in 1848, when a dog belonging to David Peattie was bitten on its side and chest while swimming across from Kangaroo Point to North Brisbane. The wounds were so severe that it died shortly after reaching shore.
|South Brisbane riverfront, c. 1868. (State Library of Qld)|
Another dog was 'fearfully wounded' in the same area the following summer, and then in 1869 Captain Knight of the City of Brisbane lost his favoured retriever near the Alice Street ferry when, as it was swimming after the boat, it disappeared under the waters and never rose again.
A rather more gory encounter occurred in December 1877 when a large black dog swimming across the river from South Brisbane was attacked by a shark. The dog apparently fought back bravely, but inevitably lost and was soon 'torn up'. Just as it was about to disappear below the water an osprey swooped down and flew away with some of the dog's entrails. Later that same month another dog near a South Brisbane ferry stop was trying to swim across but never made it:
'The current was running strong at the time, and he appeared to become exhausted when about half way across, and lay quite still on the water; but not for long. Giving a yell, he disappeared below, and when the carcass came to the surface again, some fifty or more yards higher up, the water around it was lashed into foam by sharks that were snatching at it. The fins of four or more sharks could be seen at a time, as they darted at their prey. Several times it was dragged under water, and each time came to the surface smaller than before. Finally, and with what was evidently a tough struggle between the monsters, the last of the poor dog disappeared, but left the impression on eye witnesses that the river is rather unsafe at this time.' (Brisbane Courier, 20 December 1877)
In 1881 a rather light-hearted (but racist) article in the Brisbane Courier listed dogs as the favoured food of the river sharks, 'and next in order comes kanaka as most juicy, but he is not averse even to a highly-flavoured billy goat'. As a demonstration of this taste, a black retriever dog had barely entered the water at the Kangaroo Point ferry stop in 1883 when it was grabbed by a shark and dragged under, the only trace left of it being the blood that stained the water for metres around. Another dog swimming near Customs House in 1892 had its hindquarters ripped off by a shark and had to be euthanised on the shore. A large dog that jumped from the ship Maida at the Railway Wharf in 1893 met a quicker end, being bitten clean in half by a 3-metre shark just after it hit the water.
This catalogue of carnage continued right through the 20th century and up to the present day. For example, a retriever was 'taken away bodily by one of these monsters' (as the Brisbane Courier put it) near a North Quay pontoon in 1901. Over the years several dogs were lost in the stretch of river at Indooroopilly, although improved transport, more bridges, and increasing water pollution meant that less dogs were crossing the river. Reports of the attacks certainly declined, although it was still happening, as seen when a dog was bitten in half by a huge shark a few metres away from the Balmoral riverside baths in 1927.
In 2008 a Pomerian chasing ducks in the Bremer near Tivoli was taken by a shark, and in 2010 a Brisbane ferry driver told of seeing a Chihuahua snapped up in shallow water at the edge of the river. Bull Shark expert Professor Craig Franklin said small dogs were in the range of prey items attractive to sharks, and warned against letting dogs swim in the river, especially around dawn and dusk when the sharks are most likely to be feeding. I would have to add that history shows much larger dogs are also at risk. In fact, a 2-metre shark latched onto a 500 kg racehorse in the river near Kholo in 2005, dragging it under before the horse scrambled to safety.
So there it is, a rather gruesome listing to be sure, but if you let your dog take a dip in the river during the hot summer months you could both be facing your worst nightmare.