WThe intensification of mass movements of wild animals may seem like a refutation of the disastrous news we hear, daily, from our natural environment. We know that they are threatened, in their very choreography, but in their sight, the eternal optimism of the human spirit is encouraged to think that all is not lost.
Over the past few days we have seen moving stories of massed Southern Right Whales feeding off the coast of New South Wales. Only then, bitterly, to be presented with the Dantean alternative, in the piles of bloody dolphin carcasses on a dock in the Faroe Islands.
As of Sunday, 1,428 marine mammals were killed en masse as part of the island’s “Grind” tradition. A particularly harsh word, to English-speaking ears, for an excessively harsh vision: wild, social, intelligent, intuitive creatures, particularly loved by human beings, dropped and slumped out of their element like so many sardines.
As moving as these scenes from the Faroe Islands are, and as fierce as the public and media reaction to them – not least from some islanders themselves, who claim that the white-sided dolphin superpode of the Atlantic who died this week is not a traditional part of the hunt – there are deep cultural contexts for this slaughter.
There are many accounts of native hunting still in progress, from Alaska to the islands off Indonesia and the Caribbean. In Taiji, on the southeast coast of Japan, the annual dolphin hunt began on September 1, conveniently coming after this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games and avoiding any possible boycott: a sort of bloody game, with a potential quota. of 1,849 cetaceans of nine species.
Whales and dolphins are hunted ashore, expressing their pain as they die, in remote places. This vocalization being the height of distress for animals who live almost entirely in a sound world, intimately linked by it, the auditory and sensory expression of their community. Sound is their place, just as other cetaceans are their “home”.
But maybe the Faroe Islands incident hit harder because the islands seem to be our responsibility. Geographically too close; too “European”? In fact, the Faroe Islands, despite being part of the Kingdom of Denmark, have placed themselves outside the reach of the EU. They did not find it in their best interests to be a part of this project.
We humans set arbitrary limits in our hypocrisies and daily plans. Necessarily. Wild birds slaughtered over Mediterranean shores or abandoned dogs cause sadness. But every minute of the day, we are slaughtering countless animals for food. We consume animals as units without a thought. What is the difference if a thousand or more dolphins die?
Is it because of our relentless anthropomorphism? Whether we are projecting our physical or idealized selves onto animals? When do wild animals become our pets? Dolphins appear as our alternative selves: perfected, Edenic versions, antediluvian humanoids. Innocent people who left the land before we spoiled it, carelessly playing in the sea, freed from our needs.
What do we want them to be? Artists in dolphinariums, prisoners of our entertainment, paid in fish to play a role? Millions of tourists spend money each year to keep that pleasure – the pain of thousands of these animals held in lockdown around the world, from China to Europe and the United States – to be ignored. Animals that have a culture – as we now know cetaceans – are assimilated into our culture. It is their destiny, and ours, even as we realize that we must refer to them as a “who”, not a what; as individuals, not a collective mass of otherness.
We put them to work for us, whatever we do. And even. Are we not ourselves beautiful humans because of our faults? For all our venalities, our pity, imperfect though it is, is to be admired. And if we can’t cry over other species, how can we expect to cry over ourselves?