Animal choices

Beached whales in New Zealand. Photo: APA rather insensitive YouTube video that has been doing the rounds Down Under concerns a beached whale with a New Zealand accent. It may not have been the creator’s intention but Beached Whale does have a more serious side that we would do well to ponder. This clip brings to light not only the plight of cetacean mammals stranding themselves on the shore, but also the fact that whales have their own accents.

Studies on dolphin and whale calls by Hal Whitehead and colleagues reveal that there can be dialectical differences between different killer whale pods, and the same goes for distinctive sperm whale codas.(1) There is more than a grain of truth in the video featuring a sand-logged, Kiwi-speaking whale as distinct from one with, say, Canadian accents.

The more science we have available, the more we have come to recognize the possession of conscious and mental states in dolphins, whales and primates. With new data we need to also draw new conclusions about their rights and our relationships with these animals. At the forefront of such concerns must be the right to die. Shocking as it may sound, it may be best for us to leave whales on the shore rather than herd them back into the water. Let us see why by examining some of the issues behind the phenomena.

Why do whales and dolphins suicide? We can guess at some of the reasons, and human intervention features prominently: ships and submarines using sonar, polluted waters or accidental collision with a boat’s propellers. Even so, many hundreds of whale and dolphin strandings also occur “naturally” due to the pain of carrying shark bites, infectious fungal or lung diseases, trauma associated with loss of a companion or even sheer starvation. We cannot know all the reasons for such behavior and perhaps it is really not our job to do so. What matters is that they have their reasons; they are conscious beings possessed of their own mental states, and we should respect the autonomy of their choices.

By all means lobby the government for a more humane approach to fishing, navigation and submarine warfare if that will make life easier in the ocean, but don’t adopt a paternalistic attitude to end-of-life decisions. Greenpeace, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and Sea Shepherd do an admirable job in countering overt human aggression, but what role are they playing in supporting animal choices against do-good sympathizers who impose their own wishes over and above the whales’ wishes?

Have you never seen on TV a porpoise that has lost its sense? Some smug faced “rescuer” will herd the animal against its will back into the deep water with a feeling of self-satisfaction and a job well done. Hours later the same creature will be back on the shore again. We may not understand exactly what a whale is “saying” through its calls, but we can tell what its intentions are through its actions. Whales want to beach themselves. Why be so all-knowing as to deny a conscious animal its choice?

Let’s call a harpoon a harpoon: the more people intervene in nature, the less Green they really are. We cannot decide what is best for other species. We may aim at some form of empathy with a sea-faring creature – we can hold our breath underwater in the bath tub or let the waves of the surf wash us in to the shore - but we can never really know what it is like to be engaging in a sonar and krill existence. If the sea holds no further adventures for Moby’s mates then the time may well have come to furnish the seagulls with rich pickings, and the soap factories with raw materials. Hiding behind the shield of their own version of environmentalism, rescuers and their ilk are proactive in breaking the rules of Mother Nature by being judgmental and taking away the gift of free will from the whales.

Where is the Sea Shepherd organization when whales are being forced back out to sea? Why will PETA not stage nude protests on the beach? Why does Death With Dignity run for cover?

This article represents not so much a loss of faith in Gaia as disillusionment with human institutions that are selective in their pursuit of the ethical treatment of animals. The actions of “good environmentalists” that are harming the animals we love, and the institutionalized silence of Green groups on this issue, should make us ashamed to call ourselves Greenies.

Dr Richard Umbers is a Catholic priest with a New Zealand accent. He lectures in philosophy in Sydney.


(1)Whitehead, H, et al, "Culture in whales and dolphins," Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2001) 24, 309–382


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