by Whit Gibbons

September 7, 2008

How did 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.

Situations 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.

Divergent 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.

1. Humanistic: 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.

2. Scientific: 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.

3. Environmental 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 genes.

4. Aesthetic 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.

5. Utilitarian: 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?

6. Hunting: 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.

7. Annoyance: 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 as aggravating.

8. Management: 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 the issue.

9. Indifference: This self-explanatory attitude toward wildlife and environmental issues is a common one, even when dealing with the disposition of a baby whale.

A helpless 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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