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Carl Wernicke: What Helping Animals Says About Us


   Mahatma Gandhi is famously quoted as saying that, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” By that standard, the United States often falls short, especially if you judge us by the factory farms providing so much of our meat.

But good and evil are often neither black or white. As in most judgments, you need to exercise some, well, judgment.

In that light, some recent actions by the uber animal – us – have put us in a pretty good light. At least, it bodes well for the people involved.

In December national media attention was drawn to the effort by federal officials, private individuals and a non-profit group to rescue pilot whales stranded in a remote part of the Everglades. About 50 of the whales had wandered into water so shallow they couldn’t swim out. At the peak of the effort to lead them to deeper water 25 people and five boats were involved. CNN and other media covered the story.

In 2012, a group of human rescuers spent 7 hours successfully freeing a young gray whale from an entangling net in Pacific Ocean waters off California.  The whale was dragging 50 feet of net that also held a dead sea lion, sharks and other marine life. The rescue was conducted by private individuals, including a man who works for a company that gives dolphin tours. A federal agency provided assistance.  Pon being freed, the rescuers said the whale spent the next hour rolling, breaching and jumping in the vicinity of their boat, in what they believe might have been an exercise in sheer joy, if not also a thank-you to its rescuers.

And earlier this month, teams from state agencies in Georgia and Florida worked with a federal agency to free a young Atlantic right whale from commercial fishing rope. With only 450 right whales estimated to still live on earth, saving one was not an insignificant event.

What most impresses me about these rescues is that each one cost the people, the organizations and the governmental agencies involved both time and money. And when whales are involved, there can also be physical risk. I’m especially heartened to see governmental agencies willing to use their time and resources to help rescue wild animals.  There are always individuals willing to help animals in need. But it says something about us that the agencies that operate in our name, and on our dime, are willing to jump to a wildlife rescue that brings them no revenue, that interferes with whatever else they were doing, and might even bring risk to the people and equipment involved.

But this sort of thing has deep roots in the American psyche, doesn’t it? Because isn’t the rescue of a whale at sea simply the writ-large version of the fireman rescuing a kitten from a tree? The iconic picture of a burly fireman handing a rescued kitten to a smiling child strikes a chord back to a simpler time when no one questioned the value of using the fire department to save a child’s pet.

Now, I imagine today that getting a fire truck dispatched to pluck a kitten from a tree might run into budgetary restraints.  But it’s good to see that we will still send a boat to save a whale.