Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Setubal - Speeches 1 - Introducing the Welfare Workshop


Following below is the speech that I gave in the opening of the workshop on marine mammal rescue.

This was meant to help set the scene for the presentations and discussion to follow. It was also meant to be a little provocative. [I have added a few extra words and comments in square brackets to help it make better sense.]

I welcome comment and am happy to discuss the issues raised here.


Ladies and Gentleman,

Good morning and welcome.

The issue of marine animal rescue sits within a historical spectrum of often diverse and sometimes starkly contrasting  philosophies and approaches.

As an issue, it has been far from static over time (even during very recent history) and attitudes and approaches to stricken marine animals still vary greatly today between different cultures.

In this part of the world (by which I mean Europe) a stranded whale would at different times have been seen as
  • a monster as shown by this ancient Dutch engraving with the people running away [from a mass stranding event of sperm whales in 1577], or a
  • godsend – providing food to communities that might not otherwise have survived.

The light and lubrication of the industrial ages was provided by ‘mining’ whales and other marine mammals. The developing middle classes were only able to venture increasingly safely out in the dark evenings and read books into the night (about, amongst other things, whales) because whale oil was burning in their lamps and lubricating their steam-driven book presses.

Here a ‘charming’ illustration from a very popular book of this time about the romance of whale hunting [the illustration showed a rather graphic whale hunt and would have been included to help make the book more attractive.]

So, our culture is built on what we now know to be the cruel deaths of tens of thousands of whales; the deaths of animals that we now regard as sentient and who were not just likely to experience their own pain, but also that of their offspring and the rest of their families, who were often slaughtered around them. (Are there analogies with how one invading human culture treated another?)

The whales were  perhaps fortunate in the short term what we discovered how to exploit fossil fuels – whether they and the rest of the planet will remain fortunate in the face of addiction to petrochemicals remains to be seen.

Animals cannot go to court to legislate for their welfare or complain about their treatment. They don’t yet have treaties established to protect their rights, but cetaceans in Europe are at least among the most highly protected of animals… in theory. And pinnipeds perhaps for their perceived piscivorous ‘sins’ sit on a less protected pedestal.

A whale found lying on the shore – or seen close inshore in unusual circumstances - still provokes strong emotions. The burgeoning human population now typically calls for rescue – sometimes even when no rescue may be needed.  An inshore whale may appear ‘unusual’ but also may be perfectly fine. Our perspectives and experience today has been shaped by the actions of our ancestors and the removal of near-shore sub-populations of some whales (and in one case at least, the loss of a whole species – the right whale) leading to the expectation that whales should not be seen close to shore and the associated perception that dolphins are best found in Florida (perhaps in dolphinaria).

Hence, managing public understanding and expectation has become an important consideration.

And this of course is mediated entirely via the sometimes manipulative lens of the media. The media has its own urgent needs. It is a large and voracious animal in its own right: it needs fresh news;  which increasingly needs to be novel news and for this to be provided in brief mouthfuls; it likes original angles (people rescue dolphin, is far less interesting than dolphins rescue person; or - better yet - dolphins attack person); and increasingly it leaves no time for lengthy prevarications about the possibly benefits or dis-benefits of certain rescue approaches – no – we must swiftly show what is happening with the minimum interpretation and sometimes with the reporter’s own views overlain.

This is the age of the news-bite, as with the ‘Thames Whale’ an event when millions of people [worldwide] were able view a high profile rescue attempt [via BBC and Skye Digital Channels, live.

No pressure there then Paul. [A reference to Paul Jepson, who was in the audience, and who was the vet in charge of this animal as it progressed on a barge along the Thames towards the North Sea with the eyes of the world on it/him]

The media’s favourite delicacy is controversy. This it is fed for example by disputes between nations (as currently in the Korean Peninsula, where news people are palpably delighted to have so much to talk about; wheeling one pundit after another into sight to comment) or disputes between ‘experts’. Hence recue efforts are subjected to scrutiny as never before. Perhaps the take-home message should be ‘if you cannot defend what you are doing/or not doing, don’t do it’!

A popular line from some commenting on rescues relates to the philosophy of non-intervention and specifically that what is natural and nature should be allowed to take its course.

From the strandings data collected around the UK it is clear that many animals coming ashore are coming to the end of their lives. It is also clear from data from around the world that many mass strandings results from navigational errors. Such navigational errors have been occurring long before we filled the oceans with loud noise, our industrial scale fishing activities and thousands of tonnes of lost nets and other plastic crap (further benefits of fossil fuel). There is [really] no dispute that some of the stranding events that we as a community of people have to respond to are the result of natural events.

My personal feeling is, whether or not a stricken animal is the result of a human activity or not, once we have become aware of it, we have a responsibility to act – including, potentially, not intervening. It is possible that my view is coloured by the now old-fashioned Christian ethic of humans having dominion over other animals (although there is even a potential conflict in even this simple statement as I doubt the biblical sources viewed humans as animals).

I subscribe to the notion that being compassionate is part of what qualifies us as human and that compassion can be expressed for all living things.

(But that is more than enough about me – fascinating though I am.)

There is a possible clash of philosophies between conservation and animal welfare. Politically ‘conservation’ often appears to be the stronger; and conservation science the better recognised, although I am sure many could argue (and I would agree) that welfare science is a perfectly well-formed and important academic topic. It is not coincidental to this that we are meeting in the halls of the ‘European Cetacean Society’ with its focus on conservation. But these two things do come together. For example, the introduction of a diseased individual back into the sea may have both welfare and conservation consequences if its presence threatens [wild] population with infection.

Often stranding responses become as much about managing the various human parties involved as it does about responding to the marine animal in extremes  In the UK we have faced disputes between groups about jurisdictions and approaches, we have attempted public outreach to stop untrained people harming animals by behaving towards them in a well-meaning but poorly informed manner and we have evolved our approaches over time as knowledge had improved.

Hundreds of years ago lost whales coming up the Thames were slaughtered for their meat; latter London was one of the great whaling ports. In 2006, thousands lined the banks of the river to watch this rescue attempt [and cheer them on]. 

But times change Now [based on the latest veterinary understanding that such an animal would have been fatally wounded by the stranding process], we [the UK rescue network] would probably be trying to euthanize such an individual as swiftly as possible [to end its suffering…. Now we are in discussion with the military about how to hasten the deaths of some whales under certain circumstances using shaped explosive charges… all things which are difficult – but not, I hope, impossible - to explain to a caring British public.

So I have pointed to some issues and now I can rest and you can resolve them.

[and here I sit down]

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