Frequently asked questions about Rosie O’Donnell killing an endangered shark for fun

On Friday afternoon, Slate published an article I wrote about Rosie O’Donnell killing an endangered hammerhead shark. Since that time, there has been an active discussion about the article and the surrounding issues on twitter (follow me here) and Facebook (like my page here). Some of the same questions keep coming up, so I decided to gather these questions, and their answers, in one place.

1) Why are you writing an article about this instead of going to the police / isn’t this illegal?

Since January 1, 2012, it has been illegal to kill great, smooth or scalloped hammerhead sharks in Florida state waters. They must be “immediately released, free alive and unharmed.” Rosie killed this hammerhead before 2012, so it was not illegal at the time. I never said it was illegal.

2) If it wasn’t illegal, what’s the problem?

“Not illegal” is not synonymous with “there are no negative consequences to this action, and it is above reproach.” There are lots of things you can do that are legal but bad. There are some things that are illegal but are not bad. “Legal” and “ethically acceptable” are different thing. I do not think that it is ethically acceptable to kill an endangered species for fun and then yell at conservationists and scientists who criticize this action. Also, if the best you can say about an action is “it wasn’t technically against the law when I did it,” you may want to reconsider the ethics of your hobbies.

3) Hammerhead sharks were not endangered at the time she killed one, so what’s the problem? 

It wasn’t illegal to kill a great hammerhead in Florida state waters at the time, but they absolutely were considered Endangered at the time by the IUCN Red List, a well known international organization of scientific experts that determines the conservation status of plants and animals. Christie Wilcox explains this well with her post “Endangered- you keep on using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means!” 

4) Why are you so upset about someone killing one shark?

It was at least twice, but the larger issue is that an influential media personality engaged in ethically troubling behavior and then acted horribly to conservationists and scientists when called on it. Even now, with this issue in the news again, she refuses to apologize. So far, the best we’ve gotten is “I get that it offends some,” which has been described as “barely expressing understanding or empathy” by the author of this post on how to apologizeThere’s no doubt that there are larger threats to sharks out there, but “there are larger problems” does not mean “this is not a problem.”

5) How was she supposed to control what she caught when she was fishing?

One of my many marine conservation pet peeves is fishermen who spend thousands of dollars on specialized equipment and training so they can catch exactly what they’re trying to, but somehow “can’t control what I catch” whenever they kill a protected species. Rosie (more than once) hired Mark the Shark, a charterboat captain who specializes in catching large sharks, including hammerheads. According to my research, there are almost 200 charterboat captains in Florida who offer shark fishing trips, and Mark the Shark is one of two who doesn’t always or almost always practice catch and release when fishing for sharks. So yeah, you have some responsibility for killing a hammerhead when you hire someone who targets hammerheads and doesn’t practice catch and release.

6) This incident happened years ago, why are you upset about it now?

Rosie was recently brought on to be a co-host of the View, a choice made at least partially because one of the last co-hosts to be let go, Jenny McCarthy, had opinions about autism and vaccines squarely on the wrong side of public policy. Rosie clearly has some troubling opinions about the conservation of endangered species, an issue very important to me. Additionally, as I wrote earlier this year, we’ve had an epidemic in Florida of people illegally killing hammerheads for fun (and the resulting media coverage that doesn’t point out that the law has been broken). Maybe, just maybe, if an influential media personality like Rosie O’Donnell had apologized for her actions, come out against this practice, and educated the public about it when the story first broke, things would have been different.

7) Isn’t writing this story libel against Rosie O’Donnell?

No. It is not libel to criticize someone for engaging in ethically troubling activities when there’s absolutely no doubt that they did it. She admits killing the hammerhead, and there are photos. It is not libel for me to criticize her for killing the hammerhead.

8 ) Lots of people are being particularly vicious and personal in their criticism of Rosie O’Donnell

I have explicitly condemned this behavior several times, and will happily do so again here. It is entirely possible, not that hard even, to criticize Rosie killing an endangered animal for fun without making fat jokes, threats, or anti-gay slurs.

9) “My family fishes, get over it.” 

While neither “frequently asked” nor a “question,” I wanted to respond to this silly defense that Rosie made of her actions. No one is criticizing her for fishing, we are criticizing her for needlessly killing members of endangered species. This is like saying “I hunt, get over it” in response to being criticized for shooting a rhino. As there is a difference between hunting an overpopulated deer to eat and hunting an endangered rhino to get a trophy, there’s a difference between fishing for largemouth bass or mahi-mahi and fishing for great hammerheads. There’s also a difference between fishing for food and fishing so you can say you killed a big individual and get your picture taken with it.

10) But Rosie is a role model and does good things!

Doing some good things does not “balance out” doing bad things.

 11) What should she do about it at this point?

Rosie O’Donnell should publicly apologize for killing an endangered animal for fun, as well as for her horrible response to conservationists and scientists who objected to this action. She should also use her position of influence to educate the public about the important conservation issues associated with the ocean, including but not limited to sharks.