New Mexico’s lone shark attack

Colorado governor’s joke raises questions about an encounter with a sand tiger’s prolonged teeth in the high desert

By: - Friday October 15, 2021 5:00 am

New Mexico’s lone shark attack

Colorado governor’s joke raises questions about an encounter with a sand tiger’s prolonged teeth in the high desert

By: - 5:00 am

The sand tiger shark’s pointy teeth protrude from the mouth, meaning puncture wounds on thin-skinned humans can be a complete accident. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

The sand tiger shark’s pointy teeth protrude from the mouth, meaning puncture wounds on thin-skinned humans can be a complete accident. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

New Mexico has had one shark attack since 1900, a glaring statistic considering it’s one of the few landlocked states with an incident.

It all started with a tweet.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis published the innocuous post on Monday from his personal verified account that has more than 112,500 followers.

His message is tongue-in-cheek. It’s even missing a word to complete a full sentence and is accompanied by a data graphic showing shark attacks in each state. It reads, “Colorado is tied for state with the least shark attacks! (shark emoji).” Colorado is one of 23 states with no reported shark attacks since 1900, according to the aptly named website sharkattackdata.com. 

New Mexico is not one of the 23.

ABQ BioPark Aquatic Conservation and Operations Manager Kathy Lang said New Mexico’s ecosystem could never support a shark in the Rio Grande, or any lakes or acequias, meaning a shark attack could never happen here in the wild.

A diver in the ABQ BioPark Aquarium on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

But an attack could and did happen in the controlled environment at the city’s aquarium on March 12, 2005.

Diver Ken Pitts was wrapping up a feeding with the sand tiger sharks, and he was taking off his aquatic suit. 

“So now he’s not paying as much attention to what’s beneath him,” Lang described. 

One of the animals bumped into him causing two quarter-inch puncture wounds five inches above his wrist on the forearm. Pitts’ wounds were minor, requiring six stitches, and he was back diving in the tank shortly after the incident.

That’s why New Mexico doesn’t show up on the map with a clean record for shark attacks.

Sand tiger sharks commonly swim with their mouths slightly agape, exposing their prolonged teeth, Lang said. The one that nicked Pitts was no stranger to a human presence in his environment.

A sand tiger shark in the ABQ BioPark Aquarium on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

“A resident of the tank for 11 years, he was used to divers being in the tank,” a report of the incident from the BioPark reads. 

The sand tiger sharks are the only animals in the tank that have their teeth exposed outside their mouth so bumping into that area could incidentally cause harm, Lang said. 

Because the shark lived in the aquarium, it was considered captive, so any incident is considered a provoked attack even if it was an accident, Lang said. “The shark did not bite the diver nor display any aggression,” the report states. “The fish was apparently dozing and simply bumped into him.”

The shark is no longer alive. Pitts has also passed. Neither loss is related to the run-in. 

The BioPark still has two sand tiger sharks, quite notable because their teeth give a somewhat unflattering appearance compared with every other fish in their tank. 

“The different species have different teeth,” Lang said, “so we can tell if it’s a sand tiger by their teeth. Their teeth are actually quite pointy.”

Lang said protocols for the dive teams did not change after the incident. The sharks are fed three times a week in a specific area in the tank. That’s done to give them a trained response for dinner time. Divers never make direct contact with the sharks. They feed them mackerel with poles and wear dense gloves so their skin never goes under the surface in the water.

“One thing about these sharks in particular is that they’re well-fed, honestly,” she said. “So they’re not going around hunting, looking for opportunity to go for something.”

Even if they were, they're not going to go for a human, as big as they are. Yeah, they're gonna go for something that's smaller, and maybe it looks weak for some reason.

– Kathy Lang, ABQ BioPark aquatic conservation and operations manager

Because they cull smaller, weaker fish from the schools, the sharks tend to keep the fish populations healthy, she said.

Lang argues the negative reputation sharks have as being aggressive is unfounded. She says the misconception can even lead to inhumane poaching practices, because hunters treat sharks as aggressive beasts. 

“But most of the time, the shark’s primary prey is not going to be a human,” Lang said. “They’re not that blood-thirsty.” 

The numbers back up what Lang’s saying. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File, 129 instances of human-shark interactions were reported in 2020. Worldwide, 57 unprovoked attacks were reported, down from the five-year average of 80 attacks each year between 2015-2020. Unprovoked attacks happen in a shark’s natural habitat when there is no effort on the human’s end to entice a shark to attack.

Ten people across the world died from shark attacks in 2020. By comparison, mosquito bites result in the death of 1 million people annually, according to the World Health Organization.  

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.

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