We are in a café in a shopping maul. Donna looks at me and says, quite suddenly: You know, out there, there are great whales.
I can suddenly see them. Leviathans plunging in the vasty deep, encrusted with barnacles, noble and wise. It was very cool, thinking that just out there, just out east, over the horizon, there are these marvellous, almost mythical creatures and most of us aren't even aware of them and they probably don't even know that we are sitting here. Probably. How can I put this, that there are creatures out there who don't need us, who live by their own lights, who are themselves without us, who are not made by us.
Recently I went whale watching. These were the humpbacked whales, who migrate up the east coast of Australia in the winter. The ones we saw were young chaps, and they were the boy racers of the whale world. They were lobbing and breaching and twisting right of the water, which I think were the equivalents of burnouts and doughnuts, designed for show. They were all but doing peace signs over their heads and waving bottles of vodka. I so wished them well on their great journey.
Today, I was on the treadmill at the gym, and they always have the TV with the sound down. Sometimes I watch it a bit because it provided some random juxtapositions with the music I play very loudly. Today I watched dolphins in a swimming pool. They did tricks for a small group of people, and then the people got into the water. The people obviously loved the dolphins. They laughed as they stroked the dolphins and made the dolphins tow them along as they held onto their dorsal fins and tails. Then the people talked excitedly about how they had enjoyed their dolphin experience.The people seemed to be undergoing some sort of group therapy, perhaps a recovery programme of some sort. At the end of the programme they all cried and hugged each other.
I was appalled. I couldn't watch it. I put my head down and just concentrated on running and listening to Patti Smith real loud. Everything about that scene was wrong for the dolphins. Touching a dolphin hurts. Keeping a dolphin in a swimming pool is cruel. Dolphins only look happy because their faces are made that way. We find their speech cute but it doesn't mean they are wanting to be cute. They do tricks because they can, not necessarily because they want to. And most of all, dolphins are not tools. We might find interacting with them therapeutic, but only if we forget they are truly alive in their own way.
I have done my own dolphin experiences. I have swum (or more floated around) with our own lovely little indigenous Hectors dolphin, the rarest and smallest dolphin of all. I loved them so much and as one of them breached and leaped around me I had a sense of joyful recognition somehow - I called out 'I know you!' I have also fed wild dolphins. At Tangalooma Beach on Moreton Island they come in the evenings, and people wade into the water and feed them fish. I felt moved to be interacting with these creatures who I know to be intelligent and sociable, and to feel that they had some choice about interacting with me.
Probably the people in the dolphin therapy swimming pool felt the same way.
Our relationships with animals are fraught with contradictory demands - the demand for difference and the demand for similitude. We want animals to be a bit like us but not completely like us. We want them to be enough like us to relate to, but not so like us that we have to treat them like people, because that would be too complex or too just plain weird. We want them to be better than us, to be pure or authentic. We want them to be like infantile versions of us (neotony) - to have big eyes and little faces and make small high sounds. We want them to represent ideas we value, such as wildness or community or peacefulness or strength. I think all of this is important. Children learn to relate to others who are like-me-but-not-me by anthropomorphising animals. We expect our children to learn kindness and gentleness through our pets.
I don't know what animals want. The animals I share my life with actually want to have some sort of relationship with me, which I find extraordinary. Early anthropologists such as De Saussure thought it remarkable that any two humans can make themselves understood, and yet somehow people rub along even when they mix up cultures. I think it no less remarkable that my cat Isis Fang wants to sit with me or that my dog Tigger Ratbane greets me when I come home. What do they think about communicating across species? Somehow cuddles and gentle talking are never lost in translation.
Our ability to understand animals is curtailed largely by our inability to experiment (and just as well). However we know that apes have developed theory of mind, and that elephants grieve, and that some of the 'higher' mammals show what looks like altruism. There are two incidents I know of where animals have been suicidal. One was a captive dolphin, who starved himself until his living conditions were improved. Another was a harrowing example of a mother bear in a Chinese bear bile farm who was unable to stand the sufferings of her son and killed him and then herself. This was recently reported by WSPA.
I think animals are our next great ethical frontier. Most of us would now agree that women have souls (that was once put to the vote) and that people of recent African descent should own property. We are beginning to work out that marriage equality is not going to destroy society. We would probably assent, if pressed, to the notion that we are all on this one planet and we all have some responsibility for it. I am figuring here that there is a grand scheme of human development, and that scheme entails a widening and deepening sense of compassionate concern - from ourselves to our families to our communities to our nations to our humanity to our interspecies interconnected inter-everything world. If we can truly include all humans as valued equals in this world, my hope is that we can turn our gaze to other animals.