Photo: Flickr

Now here’s an item of interest. I don’t make the claim that every piece of news rises to the level of a matter of national importance, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t get a kick out of hearing some of the odd things that happen across our nation.

Let’s play a little word association game. I’m going to say a word, and you tell me the word that pops into your mind. Ready? The word is: “Shark.” Now take a minute to think, and tell me what your reaction was.

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Did you think “sea?” Or “beach?” Or maybe “ocean?” Perfectly normal responses. Those are all places where you might expect to see a shark, after all. But if you’ll permit me a bit of educated guesswork, I’ll offer up one suggestion for a term that I believe did not jump into your mind. Are you ready for this one? Here it is: “Shopping cart.”

Confused? Don’t worry—that’s perfectly normal. In fact, the more normal you are, the more you would quite naturally be confused. Two seemingly unrelated terms—“shark” and “shopping cart”—are here being dangled in a tantalizing but mysterious manner. Is there a method to this madness, or is it just a canard? I can see that you’re intrigued. We’re not here to play games, so let me reveal to you now the full picture of the events that form the basis of this little foray into psychological mystery.

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The time: last Friday. The place: the parking lot of a Walmart store in St. Augustine, Florida. So far, our story sounds quite normal, does it not? Every day, across America, the sun rises on thousands of Walmart parking lots. In and of itself this is unremarkable. Knowing that you have responsibilities, as we all do, I wouldn’t deign to waste your time with the simple fact of the existence of a Florida Walmart parking lot on a morning like any other.

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But there’s more.

Setting: police headquarters. A phone rings. The operator answers. On the other end of the line is an assistant manager at Walmart with a surprising tale to tell. It seems that on that morning the Walmart parking lot was home to more than cars and other assorted vehicles. “What else was in the parking lot?” you might be asking yourself. I’ll tell you now the remarkable answer to that question—the very same answer that the Walmart assistant manager relayed to the police phone operator in what I imagine was a breathless, urgent tone.

There was a shark in a shopping cart.

The shark was deceased. Scientists have never found one that can survive for more than a few minutes outside of the water, and you can be sure that a Walmart parking lot is a dry area. Even if the parking lot itself were water (perhaps there was a flood?), the shark was sitting inside the basket of a full-sized shopping cart, elevated at least two feet off the ground. That shark didn’t have a chance.

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Need a minute to process this news? I’m not surprised. You’ve just been bombarded with—quite literally—a fish-out-of-water tale. It’s bound to cause some cognitive dissonance. Let’s review the elements of this mystery: 1) a shark; 2) in a shopping cart; 3) in a Walmart parking lot; 4) not in the water. It’s hard to tie the threads together. The human brain, conditioned by thousands of generations of evolution, will work overtime to devise a story to explain this situation. Where did the shark come from? How did he get there? Who captured him? Did he get into the shopping cart freely, or was he forced? Like you, I’d love a thorough exploration of each and every one of these questions. But the fact is that the Sheriff’s department deputy who found the shark in the Walmart parking lot did not perform an autopsy. He took no DNA evidence, fingerprints, or toxicology screens. In fact, we have no indication that any stakeouts were performed, background checks run, or undercover operations launched in an effort to uncover the truth. What we do know is that the shark was disposed of. He may have been born in the sea, but he met his end far, far away from the cresting blue waves—somewhere in a St. Augustine, Florida dumpster.

So here we are. At this point I’m afraid there’s little more I can add to the story. I’ve brought you the facts. Now it’s your job to put on your thinking cap. Where are the answers? Are they in a Walmart parking lot? Are they at the bottom of the ocean? I hope that the act of learning about this situation and its attendant unanswered questions has inspired you to do what you can to seek out the answers. One day, it may be possible to tell this tale from start to finish, painting a picture detailed enough to render any further puzzlement moot. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. For now, we are left to ponder the uncomfortable possibility that the real predator here was not a shark—but instead, a human being.