Chuck Anderson of Summerdale, Ala., listens to Al Brenneka, Spring Hope,… (Kevin Clark -- The Washington…)
Chuck Anderson is in Washington today to save the thing that bit off his arm.
It happened in June 2000, when he was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico off Alabama. A seven-foot bull shark came up from underneath, knocking him out of the water. It snapped off four of Anderson's fingers, chomped at his belly, then ripped away his right arm below the elbow.
The attack almost killed Anderson, 54. It also turned him into an advocate for one of the most fearsome fish in the sea.
"They're vicious, and they're mean," Anderson said. "But, you know, I don't have any right to be angry at the shark."
Anderson is in town for what could be the largest gathering of American shark-attack survivors to date -- and certainly one of the oddest lobbying blitzes ever on Capitol Hill. At least nine survivors plan to press the Senate to put new restrictions on fishing for sharks, some species of which are in deep decline. Thirty-two percent of the sharks and rays that live in the open ocean were classified as "threatened" this year by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Scientists fear that ocean ecosystems could be knocked out of whack by the loss of their "apex" predators.
The nine shark survivors offer a wildly counterintuitive story. For them, the terrifying seconds they spent as prey have created a forgiving, even admiring, bond with the ocean's great hunters.
The tiny group was organized by a survivor who works for the nonprofit Pew Environment Group. She began calling others like her to see whether they might offer their unique perspective and lobby for protections. Some balked but several signed on, and Pew agreed to fund their outreach.
"We'll finally be heard," said Al Brenneka, 52, who lost his right arm to a seven-foot lemon shark in 1976. "Who should speak up for the sharks, better than the people that the sharks have spoken to themselves?"
Shark bites are rare in the United States: Since 2000, there have been an average of 43 per year and a handful of fatalities. At last count, the Florida-based International Shark Attack File calculated the odds of an attack as 1 in every 11.5 million beach visits.
At the same time, sharks have been devastated by our desire to eat them -- in soup. The trade in fins for shark-fin soup, a delicacy in Asia, has been blamed for heavy fishing of many species. Others are slaughtered for the rest of their meat or killed accidentally by fishermen setting out nets or hooks for tuna and marlin.
Because of all this, it is often said that sharks have more to fear from us than we from sharks.
That's true only most of the time.
"I just figured, I'm done," said Mike deGruy, 57, a marine biologist who was bitten by a grey reef shark while diving in the Pacific Ocean atoll of Enewetak in 1978. Spewing blood, deGruy paddled to his boat through shark-filled waters for 25 minutes, speculating calmly about where the next one would hit him. "If I thought I might have made it, then I would have panicked."
DeGruy reached the boat and, eventually, a hospital in Hawaii.
"I still, to this day, do not understand why I was not eaten," said deGruy, who lost some function in one hand. "I must taste like crap."
Other survivors tell stories with similar elements: a sudden, stunningly muscular attack, lots of blood and little pain, and a mind cleared by adrenaline or fatalism.
"I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is supposed to hurt.' But there was no pain whatsoever," said Anderson, a former high-school football coach who was training for a triathlon when the shark hit him "like a fullback." It was on its fourth pass that the shark bit down on Anderson's right arm, he heard a pop, which was the shark taking his arm, and he was free.
For Anderson -- a naturally upbeat person who has returned to triathlons with a customized paddle on his elbow -- forgiveness came easy. He says he knew the risks of swimming in the sharks' habitat. "If we want to go out and swim in a safer environment, we can go to the YMCA."
But for others, hatred and fear came first.
Brenneka, whose attack made him go from a righty to a lefty, took his anger out on the animals directly. He would go deep-sea fishing and use a "powerhead" -- a bullet fired from a long tube -- to kill the sharks he hooked. He saved the jaws and ate the meat.
But then, Brenneka said, he went diving to see sharks, did research on them and concluded that the one that attacked him was not at fault. The journey took years, he said, and was slowed down by the anti-shark mania that followed the release of "Jaws" in 1975.
"They're only doing what comes natural," Brenneka said. In 1988, he founded a group called Shark Attack Survivors. Many victims seek meaning in their attack by trying to understand sharks better, and come to respect them. "It is just something that you have to face, is 'It was my responsibility,' " he said.