Hello all! I'd like to share a podcast, “Animal Minds” (Season 7, Episode 1) from WNYC’s Radiolab. If you have time to listen it’s a super interesting episode. If you do not have time I’ll give a brief rundown. There are a few stories in the podcast, all of them interesting. The one I am going to talk/ask about is the whale story beginning at around (4:00). A group of divers gets a call that a humpback whale is tangled in crab buoys and traps. On the scene they find fishing devices completely wrapped around the wale, dragging her down, inhibiting her mobility, and impairing her breathing. The divers work for hours, sawing away at the ropes, until they finally unbind the whale. She disappears for a moment, and then barrels back to the divers. As she approaches, one diver thinks she will ram into him, but instead she nudges the diver on the chest several times. She continues to each diver present, looking each in the eyes, letting the divers touch her, as she nudges them. The divers “leave the whale” as the whale does not want to leave them. The team thinks she came back to thank each diver, and even the boats!
What do you think is going on here? Is the whale saying thank you? Are we even able to tell what is going on with this individual? Is this an example of humans using a whale to elevate their sense of importance? Is it as Animal Psychologist Clive Wynne says: that attributing this reaction to the whale is demeaning her by saying that all animals in the world can only have human emotions? Or is it an instance of authentic connection between human and whale? For me, as a listener, I want there to be a communion between these creatures. I want it to be an instance of the removal of the barrier of language; so true trans-species communication can ensue. But I am inclined to agree with Wynne, what we “don’t speak whale” and cannot truly know what is happening in the whale's mind (also, is attributing a mind to the whale human-centric?).
If the whale is not saying thank you, maybe establishing a connection (even in human terms) can be a benevolent action in our dealings with other animals. Something not addressed in the podcast, but that is a striking part of the story, is the human implication in the whale’s entanglement. If we humans see our fishing activity as detrimental to whales, and if we see whales as having human-like emotions, we may be motivated to stop polluting the whale’s habitat. In this way I think something positive can come from this anthropomorphizing. That said I am sure there are arguments to the contrary! What do you think?