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Is It Ok to Pet a Shark?

If you are an animal lover or are interested in animals, then you have probably been tempted to touch, pet, or handle them. There are ethical implications when it comes to getting hands on with wildlife, with some animals being more sensitive to being pet or handled than others. While some people may be terrified by the idea of getting close enough to a shark to pet it, other people may wonder if it’s okay to pet a shark.

Is it okay to pet a shark?

Petting a shark will not hurt the shark, so in one way, yes it is okay to pet a shark. But it is a little bit more complicated than that. Sharks are not bloodthirsty monsters, as the media would have you believe, but they do have sharp teeth and the capability to cause some serious damage- or death if provoked.

It is generally not okay to pet wild sharks. Petting wild sharks can be dangerous for people, which in turn makes it dangerous for sharks. Oftentimes, when a person is injured by an animal, whether it was their fault or not, the animal suffers and is killed, harmed, or removed. Not to mention, if a person is bitten by a shark, it further perpetuates the idea that sharks are vicious creatures and complicates conservation efforts.

However, there are certain circumstances where it is okay to pet sharks. Some aquariums have touch tanks or exhibits with sharks that are okay to pet. These sharks are often species that are deemed as more docile and tolerant, and it only occurs in a controlled environment.

How to pet sharks

Unless you are a professional, you should not be getting close enough to wild sharks to pet them. But, if you are in a controlled environment like an aquarium or zoo, then petting sharks can be safe and accessible.

But sharks should not be pet the same way you pet a dog. Instead, you should be gentle and aware of where you are putting your hands. Most aquariums that have hands-on exhibits with sharks have signage advising you how to pet sharks.

shark pool at an aquarium | image by Matthew Dillon via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

But as a general rule, you should only use your fingers to gently stroke the back of the shark. You should avoid putting your hands too close to the mouth, tail, or belly.

Do sharks like being pet?

It is hard to say whether or not sharks like being pet because it is difficult for humans to even begin to understand what an animal perceives as good or bad. That being said, there are avid divers that frequently dive with and encounter sharks that claim that the sharks seem to seek out attention and pets.

Some people even claim that sharks are like the puppies of the sea and crave being pet. This may be true in some cases, but should be interpreted with caution. Even an individual that is typically docile and calm has the potential to be dangerous.

Why do sharks roll over?

You may have seen videos circulating the internet of scuba divers rubbing a shark’s nose, before the shark rolls over. This is not happening because the shark wants a belly rub, instead, the shark is going into tonic immobility.

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scuba diver with sharks

Sharks have very tiny sensory organs that look like tiny black dots all over their snout. If these sensory organs are stimulated by somebody rubbing the snout of the shark, then it puts the shark into a trance-like state.

This can be useful for scientists working with sharks that need to get hands on to tag them, as it calms the shark down, but should not be done by just anybody.

What happens if you pet a shark?

If you are petting a shark in the wild, there is a very real chance that you could get bit. Sharks are not inherently dangerous, but provoking them by getting close enough to pet them is not safe. Even nurse sharks, which are generally considered to be gentle and docile, have been known to bite divers and snorkelers that push their luck and get too close.

What a shark’s skin feels like

Shark skin is very rough. Sharks are interesting in that their skin is actually made up of hundreds of thousands of little V-shaped scales that are essentially very tiny teeth called dermal denticles. These dermal denticles create a very tough surface and when going against the grain, feels like sandpaper.

Which sharks are safe to pet?

There are no safe sharks to pet in the wild. But in captive, controlled settings, there are a few species that are often kept for aquarium goers to pet and interact with. These species include smaller sharks like the Epaullette shark and Bamboo shark.

aquarium whale shark
aquarium whale shark | Image by fitlove1023 from Pixabay

Conclusion

Ultimately, it is not okay to pet sharks. But this is not because petting sharks is uncomfortable or painful to them but because sharks, like any other animal, have the potential to be dangerous.

And whenever there is a run-in with a wild animal like a shark that ends in a person getting hurt, it often ends up in a witch hunt (or in this case a shark hunt) with the species being targeted and persecuted. This is bad for sharks, as they already suffer from negative attitudes towards them.

However, luckily for shark lovers, there are places where it can be okay to pet sharks. Some places like zoos or aquariums may have exhibits specifically catered to petting certain types of sharks.

In other cases, the rules are different. Sometimes these exhibits will have sharks and rays in an open tank setting where you can pet only the rays and are told not to touch the sharks because it can hurt their skin.

About Samantha S.

Samantha is a wildlife biologist with a masters degree in environmental biology. Most of her work has been with reptiles, however she has also worked with birds and marine organisms as well. She enjoys hiking, snorkeling, and looking for wildlife.