On The Human Intervention of Dolphin Stranding
By: Enterprise Staff
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?