The other day I
saw a television programme about a killer whale that had been separated from
its pod at a very young age and had turned to humans for friendship. Killer
whales, like humans, are social creatures, and one of the ways they cement the relationships that form their group is through body contact.
This young whale
would hang out at the harbour, approach fishing and other boats, big and small,
to play with the boats themselves and to be scratched and caressed by eager hands. When the whale was really happy it would turn on its back and 'rest' alongside the boat it had come to greet. Of
course many of the humans were delighted with this whale who would let them pet
it, who would frolic alongside, and sometimes gently push their boats around,
or play with the equipment—taking a water-filled hose in its mouth and spraying
anything within reach; scratching its back on the small second engines called
'kickers' that sport fishing boats carry for trolling, and a multitude of other activities.
As the whale grew,
however, some of the its play began to damage equipment and to anger some of the
boat owners. The marine mammal protection agency then proceeded to act with
extreme stupidity. First it forbade whale watchers or any other person to get
near the whale or to play with or touch it. The agency even forbade people to
look the whale in the eye, although visual contact is very important, even
essential to a whale's well-being. The damage only got worse. Then the agency
decided to capture the whale, to try to find its pod or to place it in an
aquarium. This plan enraged the local people, especially the indigenous tribes,
who regarded the whale as sacred: their recently deceased chief had foretold
that he would return as a whale, and this one had appeared the week he died.
A tussle began
between the marine officials and the people who supported the whale's need for
social contact: the indigenous peoples took to the water in their long canoes
with a drummer, and, singing and paddling, they led the whale away from the trap. The
marine officials countered by luring the whale back towards the trap with their own small boat. This
confrontation went on for days to the exhaustion of all involved. At one point the whale was in the trap but for
some mysterious reason, no-one closed it.
Wiser heads than
those at the marine mammal agency realised that the whale needed human contact, to fill the gap in its life created
by the absence of others of its own species. People began to volunteer to keep
the whale occupied during the day and applied for the appropriate permits. The
marine mammal agency would have none of it. It stuck to its guns, even in the
face of a scientific marine mammal expert who said, 'I normally quantify
everything in my work, but this situation is beyond all quantification.'
So people began to
take matters into their own hands. Disobeying the order to leave the whale
alone, they would go out and entice it away from the boat traffic it was
upsetting and play with it. People were willing to go out in shifts. As long as
the whale had someone to play with, and to look in the eye, it did no damage at
all. But as soon as the whale was left alone, it resumed its mischievous behaviour.
inevitable happened: the whale swam into, or was sucked into, the the powerful
propeller of a log-sorting tug. During the tug captain's radio transmission to
the coast guard reporting the bad news, he made no effort to conceal the fact that
he was weeping. The indigenous people held a funeral ceremony for the whale,
which a lot of non-First Nations people attended as well.
The death of the
whale could be laid directly at the door of the so-called marine mammal
protection agency, which, with extreme stupidity, had forbidden the resolution
that had been staring it in the face. The whale had offered friendship across
the species barrier, but the agency, even in the face of all the evidence
(however non-quantifiable) had refused to recognize the whale as a subject
capable of complex emotions, a consciously thinking, lonely, yearning social
Many of the people
who were interviewed during the whale's lifetime spoke of how much it meant to
them that the whale so obviously wanted to cross the species barrier to
interact with humans, how the privilege of close contact with the mysterious
other that was the whale had not only made them see nature with more respect,
but how the whale had somehow mirrored something of what it meant to be human, even
while never losing that otherness.
By the end of the
film I was blubbering. I don't cry easily, but this time I completely broke
down. I thought of all the whales I'd known in Alaska, some of which have been
described earlier in this blog; I remembered how the same pod of white-sided
dolphins would come and play with my boat on most occasions when I crossed a
certain patch of water. I remembered seeing a horse, a dog and a raven playing
together—a game instigated by the raven, of course. And it was the thought of
Raven, along with the Alaska that I had known, which no longer exists, that
made me weep the hardest.
It is now a
commonplace that as we scorn relationships with animals and as we fail to protect the environment, we scorn our own
humanity. We have only to look around us to the wrecked ecology to understand
how thoroughly this is the case. We are not just destroying the environment, we
are destroying our selves. As the oceans become acidic, as the temperature
rises and the climate warms—all due to heedless human agency—we move farther
and farther away from our own truth as a species.
One morning we are going to wake up
to find that we have passed the tipping point—if indeed we haven't already
done so. The oceans will be too acidic to support shellfish or coral reefs; it
will have been fished out. There are already areas in which oyster farms have had to be
moved because the water is too acid. In consequence of all these
changes, the marine mammals will have died. And on a larger scale, the change
in the oceans, which have such a profound impact on our weather, will bring
catastrophic consequences for us humans, not only in the magnitude of storms,
or the loss of species in their own right, not only as a source of endless
beauty and wonder, but also as a resource for food and pharmaceuticals.
Back in the late
sixties, when I was living in New York City, starved for wilderness, when the
knowledge of environmental degradation was just beginning to have impact, I
wrote a folk song called 'Extinction'. The chorus went like this:
The eagle and the tiger and the great blue whale
gave us the knowledge to prevail:
they showed us our selves by form and act—
not even God can bring them back.