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  Shark's off at Oxford black-tie ball
The principal of Somerville College, Oxford, has told students to drop plans to display a live shark in a tank as entertainment at a ball next month.

Eight days after students and former students of the college wrote imploring her to "prevent any live animals from being used at the ball", and a few hours after the Guardian published details of the row, Dr Alice Prochaska last night reversed her previous decision to allow the stunt to go ahead.

Twelve students at the college, whose alumni include Lady Thatcher, had written to her imploring her to "please use your authority to prevent any live animals from being used at the ball", which is jointly run by Somerville and Jesus colleges, and is held in the former's dining hall.

Some students had threatened to boycott the party if the plans went ahead. In an email seen by the Times, Prochaska wrote that she had "pulled the plug on the shark", citing concerns about "risk to the reputation and personal safety of researchers at the university".

The cheapest tickets for the sold-out, black-tie event billed as "one night of decadence, debauchery and indulgence" cost £110.

The protesters said that when the Latin name for nurse shark, Ginglymostoma cirratum, appeared on posters for the 4 May event, followed by the instruction: "You should really go look that up," many took it as a joke. But in February Clare Phipps, who graduated in 2011 and is studying for a PhD in London, emailed the ball committee chair, Sam Levin, a second-year biology student, to find out.

Levin and his committee were apparently unwilling to reveal more details, and several more emails were exchanged before Prochaska confirmed that a nurse shark was indeed part of the plans. Anyone objecting was offered a refund.

Following the decision to drop the shark plan, Phipps said she was "delighted Somerville College has led by example and made the right and ethical decision although it is concerning how long it took for this decision to be reached. We hope people organising similar events in Oxford in future will think a bit more carefully about the messages we send to the outside world."

Matthew Hawkins, the history graduate with whom she organised the protest, said: "This is fantastic news and sends an important message, especially as it comes in the wake of the government's announcement that the use of live animals in circuses will be banned by 2015. The mainstream view is increasingly that nature is not just ours to play with."

Phipps, Hawkins and 10 others wrote to Prochaska, asking her to intervene. Hawkins said an Oxford college should not be party to animals being used for "an extravagant, gaudy show".

The college had said staff were working with students to ensure "the highest standards of safety and ethics", and had insisted that the shark be housed in a quiet area and accompanied by a handler.

When contacted by the Guardian, Levin declined to reveal the source of the shark or the cost of hiring it, but said it had been with the company, which also supplies animals to the film industry, for five years. The area around the tank could be quickly cleared if the fish became distressed, he said.

He added that the idea of having a shark at the ball had come from Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film Romeo and Juliet, in which the star-crossed teenagers meet while gazing through a fish tank.

Levin said: "As someone who cares a lot about animal welfare, I think we've ensured this shark is looked after. It will have a guard and caretaker with it at all times to look out for signs of stress, and we're keeping it there for only a short time. I feel confident that the shark will not suffer."
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