On The Human Intervention of Dolphin Stranding

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By: Enterprise Staff
Published: 01/20/12

The following editorial "To The Rescue, Here We Come" appeared in The Enterprise Newspapers on January 20, 2012

Dozens upon dozens of dolphins have come ashore on the Cape Cod Bay shoreline in the past week in what is one of the largest mass strandings in recent years. On last Saturday alone 40 dolphins stranded on beaches from Dennis to Wellfleet.

Scenes of the struggling animals, breathing laboriously, the life fading from their skin tone, are heart-rending. Majestic animals they are, a reminder of the glory of life on our planet, even under the ocean beyond our view.

The urge for humans to intervene in such a dramatic scene is completely understandable. But that does not mean it is right.

Is it self-evident that we should “rescue” these dying animals? That our humanity should drive us to marshal a grand effort, to bring to bear our technological and medical prowess to save those that we can and put down those we can’t? We don’t think so.

This is a complicated ethical, moral, and environmental question, but important to understand is that we are involving ourselves in a process that by all accounts has been occurring since well before the human imprint on Cape Cod was set so deep. Dolphins and whales have been stranding here and around the world’s oceans for hundreds of years and likely more.

According to information from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the organization that leads the Cape Cod Stranding Network responding to calls about marine mammal strandings around the Cape, Islands, and South Coast, approximately 7 percent of strandings documented in recent years “suffered from some kind of human interaction.” Such human interaction includes entanglement, harassment, and vessel strikes and is more likely to be the cause of single strandings than mass events. Disease is the leading cause of death among stranded animals.

Exactly why more than 200 animals strand on Cape beaches each year is not clear, but scientists say it is likely a combination of several reasons: flight from predators, difficult-to-navigate topography, weather, and tides. Some are sick. Some may follow a lost leader who tragically draws them all to their end, a lemming-like scenario.

Our collective reaction to these strandings is a curious thing and does not have a clear parallel in our reaction to other animals. Dogs and other domesticated animals are in our care and present a different predicament, so let’s focus on wild animals. Do we respond the same way when we see a deer hit by a car and dying by the side of the road? What about an injured bird or bunny? If we see a coyote that looks malnourished and ill? Do we intervene when we see a predator winning the process of natural selection against its prey?

The stranding scenario is extraordinary: the animals are stuck and cannot move, they are intelligent and humans have a strong bond with them. It makes us feel good, helping these grand creatures in plight.

Now we are not questioning the need to protect animals and nature more broadly from the heavy hand of mankind. The National Marine Fisheries Service flights along the Eastern Seaboard, spotting the presence of right whales and recommending alterations in shipping lanes in order to ensure the safety of the highly endangered species, make total sense to us. But there we are protecting animals from a clearly defined human impact.

Demanding limits on development and changes in land use in order to protect habitat for threatened species, from the New England cottontail to the piping plover, the broom crowberry, and the Pine Barrens bluet dragonfly are necessary to preserve biological diversity and what is left of nature as it once existed.

Intervening to remove a wild animal from a developed space, like capturing raccoons or coyotes or wolves, and releasing them where they will be less at risk from humans and humans will be less at risk from them, is humane.

We do not question the need to occasionally ask for hardships and sacrifice among people to avoid the ruination of other species.

But there is a difference between protecting nature from the destruction we inflict on it and an impulsive intervention in a natural process that we have little to do with other than seeing it in plain sight on our shared beaches.

For we may be able to destroy nature countless ways, but fully understand its infinite, intertwined causes and effects we do not.

What if there is a reason for them to be stranding that we don’t realize? What if these dolphins are sick and putting themselves into a kind of quarantine? What are the impacts of removing the stranded animals that would otherwise provide food for predators and scavengers and even habitat for smaller creatures?

Every intervention serves to change nature from her course, no matter our intentions.

There are limits to our advocacy of this hands-off approach, too. Studying stranded marine animals for science has yielded great advances in our understanding of certain species and of contaminant loading in the ocean and its inhabitants. We support fully such an endeavor.

Making every effort to save a stranded or cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is a noble undertaking. The sea turtles are critically endangered because we have developed their beachfront spawning grounds and they often fall prey to entanglement by fishing nets, among other reasons. We asked a marine biologist friend about the practice of rescuing sea turtles, and her answer was she wished we didn’t need to, but it’s just that their populations are so low... You know, we can’t afford to lose even one more of them.

Fair enough, but the white-sided dolphin, the common dolphin, and the long-finned pilot whale are not endangered in this region.

As we must control our tendency to destroy and homogenize nature and its wondrous diversity, we must also control our urge to shape the wild into our own image, to “manage” and manipulate aspects of ecosystems that we do not understand. It seems to be human nature, or at least modern human nature, to try to protect certain species, to relieve our guilty consciences by running to the rescue. Tell us, what is the moral and compassionate thing to do?

3 Responses to "On The Human Intervention of Dolphin Stranding"

  1. I absolutely believe people should respond to stranded dolphins. First, we can ease suffering, and that's not only humane, it's the best of being human. Second, while these particular animals may not be endangered and while this particular process has been happening for hundreds of years, it remains a fact that humans are negatively impacted the ocean and its inhabitants in profound ways we have not yet begun to understand. This is one small way we can "tip the scales," if you will, to alleviate some of these impacts. Third, there is so much we can learn from these animals in the process of helping them. Dolphins are mammals (like us) and high level predators in the ocean ecosystem (like us). As such, they serve as "canaries" in a vast, wet "coal mine" giving us clues about ocean health. And, ocean health in turn impacts human health. Additionally, through the study of stranded dolphins, scientists are making discoveries that inform human medicine. Consider the advances in human prostheses brought about by the creation of a tail for a stranded dolphin in Florida. Closer to home, consider the improved understanding of mammalian diving physiology through the study of the very stranded dolphins about which the article speaks. See this ongoing research project by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in collaboration with International Fund for Animal Welfare: http://www.whoi.edu/hpb/viewPage.do?id=1432&cl=3. Responding to stranded dolphins not only helps the dolphins, it helps the larger ocean ecosystem and, ultimately, it helps people. Kathy Zagzebski President & Executive Director National Marine Life Center

  2. The following is posted on behalf of Dr. Larry Dunn, Veterinarian at Mystic Aquarium. Dear Editor, While your editorial contained a great number of facts it lacks an equal or greater number of important facts. As a veterinarian who has worked with stranded marine animals for almost 40 years I have watched the substantial growth in the number of individuals and institutions which respond to stranding events. Many of these individuals volunteer their assistance out of a desire to prevent unneeded animal suffering. Dolphins and whales that strand often suffer from extreme hyperthermia. they are so well insulated from their environment that in the absence of cooling water flow across their flukes and flippers their body temperatures rise alarmingly and they literally cook their nervous systems. In the cases where they are able to maintain body temperatures they may suffer from respiratory issues as their unsupported body weight impairs their ability to respire properly. Who among us wishes to witness these forms of suffering and stand idley on the sidelines. In addition to these humane concerns there is very substantial useful information obtained from examining the bodies of those animals which die on the beach. Many of the advances in our knowledge of disease and physiology of these species has resulted from necropsies and samples collected from stranded animals. Mass stranded animals often represent a reasonable sample of the population of that species in the wild so the levels of parasitism and the body load of heavy metals and pesticides are representative of the wild populations and often a harbinger of perils to the human population as well. All individuals and organizations dealing with strandings may not always agree on the approach which should be taken in a specific stranding but we are united in our desire to lessen the suffering of these animals and to garner the maximum amount of information from these unfortunate events. J. Lawrence Dunn, VMD, Staff Veterinarian, Emeritus & Research Scientist, Mystic Aquarium, Mystic, CT

  3. There are indeed some complex ethical questions associated with the rescue of individual animals. But as Kathy Zagzebski points out in her comments to this editorial, in almost all our interactions with animals, both on land and in the oceans, the animals lose out. Rescue and rehabilitation of animals back to the wild is one small way in which we can interact in a positive way. Species are made up of individuals, and the individual matters as well as the species. All over the world there are many of us involved in rescuing not just charismatic species like dolphins, bears or elephants, but common garden birds, and indeed the deer hit by a car, or the cottontail brought in by a pet dog. Most of these species are not endangered. In fact, it is no more relevant to rescue and release an endangered sea turtle when there is no habitat for it to return and nest than to rescue an animal that is not presently endangered. Neither action has a direct effect on the population. But both do have a direct effect on the welfare of the individual animal involved, and also both have much to teach us about the state of the environment from which they come. Much of what we currently know about the many marine mammal species comes from data recorded from stranded animals. Studying marine mammals in the wilds affords us only a small glimpse into the behavior and natural history of the animals. It is by studying live and dead stranded animals that we learn about their adaptations to the marine environment, their physiology, and the natural and anthropogenic threats that they face in the ocean environment. We recognize that it is the environment that matters, and without saving the environment all animals (including ourselves) are doomed. And yet the inexorable march of destruction continues despite our efforts and minor victories. But we CAN rescue these individuals, and reduce their suffering. And in the process they teach us; not just the scientific data that can be collected from each rescue event, but also the ethics of caring for the fellow creatures which share our ever more damaged environment. Ian Robinson, Katie Moore, and the IFAW Marine Mammal Rescue Team

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