SHOULD WE DO WITH A BABY WHALE?
by Whit Gibbons
September 7, 2008
you feel about the whale that was euthanized last week in Australia? In
case you missed the news story, a 14-foot-long baby humpback whale, abandoned
by its mother and weakened from not nursing, was trying to nurse on boats
passing by. Eventually Australian wildlife officials tranquilized the
youngster and gave it a lethal injection. Protests were launched in some
areas by people insisting it be force-fed and kept alive.
with big, helpless animals like stranded whales and dolphins or road-injured
hawks, owls, and deer evoke a variety of emotional responses from people.
Several years ago Yale Leiden and I engaged in an interesting exercise
to categorize the different attitudes people have toward such wildlife
situations. Knowing that people's basic views can differ dramatically
from each other is instructive in understanding the difficulty in resolving
some environmental issues.
views about wildlife are the underlying cause of many environmental conflicts
because no single sentiment is necessarily right to the exclusion of the
others. A further complication arises because most people's responses
include a combination of two or more attitudes. In addition, the same
individual might respond differently at different times. The following
attitudes are the most common ones that people have toward wildlife. Some
are not mutually exclusive whereas others are in direct conflict with
each other. The baby whale serves as an example in each case.
A nurturing response is common especially toward large charismatic wildlife
like whales. The humanist seeks some means to save the animal's life,
which with the Australian baby would entail feeding it milk. Imagine the
size of the bottle. This attitude, which conflicts with some of the others,
would be held by those who protested euthanizing the baby whale.
This characterizes someone who wants to study the creature, to find out
things about it. The true scientist, as objective and impartial, would
question several things. How did the whale get separated from its mother?
Does it have an inner ear parasite that caused disorientation? Perhaps
we should dissect it.
or ecological: People with this view believe the animal has a place in
nature as a species but usually place little significance on the individual.
Some ecologists might even think if this whale's mother was dumb enough
to lose her baby, it will be better for the species not to pass on those
or artistic: Having such a magnificent animal on the harbor shore, even
dead, could be a pleasurable experience. A few photographs or an oil painting
would be appropriate. Perhaps a poem would be in order.
What good is this newfound commodity? Perhaps charge the scientists to
study it and the artists to photograph it. On a broader scale, could a
whale's body harbor a cure for cancer?
Wildlife is to be pursued for sport and sustenance, to practice ancient
skills in the struggle of man against beast. The true hunter, realizing
the kill has already been made, might want to discuss the most practical
way to clean and cook a small whale.
Almost anyone might think wildlife is a nuisance in some instances. Who
enjoys providing blood for mosquitoes and ticks or wants raccoons in their
garbage? But for some people, almost all wildlife is annoying; a whale
getting media attention and costing taxpayer money would certainly qualify
Some people want to manipulate, control, and manage all aspects of their
environment. The consummate manager would probably want to take measures
to ensure that mother whales will no longer lose their babies in Sydney
Harbor and might set up patrols during baby whale season to deal with
This self-explanatory attitude toward wildlife and environmental issues
is a common one, even when dealing with the disposition of a baby whale.
baby whale isn't an everyday occurrence, but the example serves to highlight
the complexity of environmental attitudes. One charitable line of thought
is that we should accept the views of others, even when we disagree with
them. This is not always easy when someone's views directly oppose ours--but
it's something to strive for.
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