Wailing for ourselves
Two writers reflect on the whale-in-the-Thames story that went on and on.
‘Why did she die?’, wailed the Mirror after the death of the 15-foot-long bottlenose that appeared in central London on Friday.
The appearance of the whale at first aroused considerable curiosity. There hasn’t been one spotted that far up the Thames for decades (a Minke whale got as far as Kew Bridge in 1961) and many people took the opportunity to take a look (1). After all, whale spotting normally involves an expensive trip abroad, but here was a chance to see one in the flesh just down the road.
However, by Saturday things had taken a turn for the worse. ‘Whaley’, ‘Wally’ or ‘Willy’ (depending on which newspaper you read) was clearly not well. Disorientated by the noise of boats and helicopters around it, and unable to swim against the strong currents in the river, the whale was too confused or too feeble to save itself.
Still, this was perfect material for rolling television news: noble animal fights for its life, live and direct. There were experts to talk to, worried whale-watchers to vox pop, desperate race-against-time plans to be poured over. Sky News and BBC News 24 could barely race through their coverage of regular news fast enough before giving us the ‘London Whale Latest’.
As Saturday afternoon wore on it was clear that a last-ditch rescue attempt would be necessary, but poor old Whaley/Wally/Willy died on the barge that was taking her (she turned out to be female) out to open water.
Now the recriminations could start in earnest. Tory MP Roger Gale was quick to blame the military. Blasting exercises took place on Friday along the Kent coast, and Gale demanded: ‘Did they contribute to the death of the whale?’ Others blamed the small flotilla of boats that followed the whale during its last 24 hours, an accusation rejected by Tony Woodley of British Divers Marine Life Rescue – an organisation said to have spent £100,000 attempting to rescue the animal.
We weren’t always so sentimental. As The Times (London) notes, London was once home to a thriving whaling industry. Now we look down in disgust on countries like Norway and Japan who persist in hunting whales.
The media seemed to be trying to engender a shared experience around the whale’s suffering. At times, the underlying message seemed to be: look at this innocent gentle animal, lost and confused, struggling to swim in this river of tears. It’s a surprise that nobody thought to call the whale ‘Diana’.
In the aftermath, the newspapers have jumped on any passing bandwagon to show how much they care. Whatever happens, we are told, the whale won’t have died in vain. While the Mirror has adopted a whale (‘Our whale Ben is a real show-off and enjoys leaping’), the Sun has started ‘a £10,000 appeal to save Wally the Whale’s bones for the nation. We have teamed up with experts and conservationists to help preserve the skeleton for crucial scientific research. We also want to provide a lasting tribute to the whale that captivated the world by swimming up the Thames into central London.’
The tale of the whale shows how every story today is seen through the prism of individual emotions. Even when more important stories aren’t squeezed out in favour of such Disneyfied nonsense, big issues are reduced to individual tales of suffering, particularly the feelings of the reporters themselves. Like the whale, ‘news values’ are suffering an upsetting demise before our very eyes. Fin, as the French would say.
The brave blue bottlenose is dead. This is despite the considerable efforts of a team of would-be rescuers. A crowd of 3,000 people at Albert Bridge in south London had cheered and applauded as the whale was tethered to a sling and lifted by a crane on to the barge Crossness, lent for the purpose by the Corporation of London. Rescue crews were heading toward Margate, on the southern English coast, where they hoped to let the whale back out to sea. In all, the operation cost some £100,000.
Of course, there is much to admire in these animals, and the chance to see one in the Thames is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We all wanted the whale to escape back to freedom. But it seems like an obscene waste of money to try to rescue one whale. Did people watch the rescue in Africa, where £100,000 could do many more constructive things? Abroad, this story could be seen as a demonstration of British eccentricity, as curious as the advertisements for donkey sanctuaries below headlines about starving children.
What was far more disturbing than the demise of Wally the whale was the human reaction to the story.
One of the ugliest spectacles in nature must be the sight of hordes of parasites feeding on the flesh of a freshly dead creature. And so it was with Wally the whale. Conservation groups immediately took advantage of the unfortunate whale to attack human civilisation – the generic bad guy of our times. The naturalist David Attenborough decided that this was a good time to remind people that eating tuna sandwiches is wiping out the albatross. The Independent hoped that ‘most people understand that the suffering of individual animals should prompt us to ask wider questions about human threats to the environment’.
‘Wally’s tragic end could do some good if it helps us face the responsibility we bear to the creatures who share our world’, stated the Sun. A spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said: ‘Whales around the world face deadly threats – from whaling by Japan, Norway and Iceland, pollution and habitat destruction, and increased noise in the ocean. We hope the whale which visited the UK Houses of Parliament can act as ambassador for all whales, and that its death won’t be in vain.’
We seem unable observe what is in fact a natural – though rare – occurrence, without loading it with human meaning. Increasingly, animals like whales are understood as individuals. There are dramatic attempts to rescue whales, be it from whaling ships or from natural disasters, which seem divorced from a sensible plan to preserve the species. For instance, Greenpeace aggressively attacks Japan, Norway, and Iceland for hunting Minke whales, despite the estimate by the International Whaling Commission’s estimate that there are nearly three-quarters of a million of the animals (3). The phrase ‘beautiful and intelligent’ creatures is commonplace when describing cetaceans (Wally the whale, however, was not quite intelligent enough to avoid swimming up the Thames).
These responses are based on a sentimental view of nature, permissible in prepubescent girls, perhaps, but disturbing in anyone old enough to know better. Children can be relied upon to collectively coo ‘awwwww!’ at the sight of baby animals. Now, it seems, this babyish sentimentalisation of nature is regarded as a social attribute.
This is a misunderstanding of nature and the place of humans within it. Nature has no regard for individuals. Nature dictates that the small, the weak, the slow, and the sick must suffer immensely painful and slow deaths. In nature, the most successful species often wipe out species less adept at taking advantage of their environment. If human beings were a part of nature, they should not be concerned with less successful species. If they transcend nature – as I think they do – they should enjoy the savage and spectacular wonder of nature, preserving species but not worrying inordinately about individual animals.
Animal rights sentiment grows because of an increasing infantalisation of British society, an inability to deal with the cold, hard truths like the fact that animals – sometimes even cute ones – die. It is time for us collectively to grow up and get over it. After all, it may have been for the best that Wally the whale died before it could breed. In the meantime, we should just enjoy rare spectacles like these.
spiked-issue: On animals
(1) London’s whale history: We weren’t always quite so sentimental, Sunday Times, 22 January 2006
(2) London’s whale history: We weren’t always quite so sentimental, Sunday Times, 22 January 2006
(3) Population estimates, International Whaling Commission
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