Thursday, November 26, 2009


‘Shame on humanity!’ read the subject. It was an e-mail from an old friend. ‘Denmark’s shame!’ read another from a colleague. ‘Help save them…’ read yet another e-mail. I opened all three in different windows... It was yet another chain of forwards... And they all had the same set of pictures and common plea that echoed through my inbox… A series of pictures… The first one from a distance showed a cold green valley which had the sea running through it… they call them fjords in Scandinavia. But a stretch of the blue grey waters was stained red… blood red! And there were a few boats drifting along on the crimson waters….

The next photograph was of a rather graphic nature. It was a closer view of the sea harbour… From this angle, the water was the shade of slushy watermelon juice. But this was not a bleeding fruit that lay in the water but a great creature, both powerful and benign, that lay bleeding and gasping in a pool of his blood – a pilot whale. Pilot whales are cetaceans, large aquatic mammals, part of the same family that comprises dolphins and large whales. These sensitive and intelligent creatures are about 20 feet long and weigh as much as an SUV. But these powerful creatures are not aggressive towards people. They are, in fact, friendly and curious… but more of that later.

Pictures number three, four and five opened to macabre scenes of blonde haired burly men, ostensibly from those in their late teens to the early 50s standing in the deep water amongst the whales that were thrashing about in the shallows. Some of them were hauling these whales in with ropes, while others were swinging mean looking metal hooks that caught the whales by their skin and blubber… Once ‘hooked’, the other pictures revealed that they were pulled onto the shore by these hooks and ropes where their dorsal fin and spine was hacked through with a whaling knife. In spite of the coup de grâce with the knife, the whales did not die immediately and oft en it would be minutes before the life ebbed away from that great, but by now chopped up body.

There were more pictures… one showed a butchered female with a calf that was bleeding but alive, its body arching in agony; another had an image of a large whale writhing and apparently screaming in agony while a couple of young men were slashing away at it with sharp hooks and the last one showed the harbour waters again… The water seemed to ripple with agitation as pilot whale tails fl ailed about in the throes of death. Each of these pictures had captions that described the moment and below that was a request by each of the senders who had sent this e-mail personally requesting me, as a conscientious reader and as someone they know to believe has a heart that oft en beats, to sign the petition that followed. The petitions on each of the mails had many hundreds of names, from nations far apart from each other and as distinct in culture as Hong Kong, South Africa and Argentina. They also added that this was an outrage that cannot be allowed to continue… Someone else wrote that these pilot whales are really very friendly and curious, and oft en come near boats to establish contact. That they emit a cry like the sound of a child’s wail when they are struck by the hooks, and that their eyes speak of betrayal.

So is it really true? Are these creatures really that intelligent? Where is this cruel and barbaric act perpetrated? And why were they sending these pictures to people around the world? Well the bit about whales and dolphins treating humans like kindred spirits is actually true. They are amongst the most intelligent of creatures, perhaps as much as the great apes, our closest cousins. There are almost no known cases of a whale or a dolphin attacking a human being without provocation (read whaling ships and harpoons). But there have been umpteen cases of whales and dolphins and porpoises that roam free and wild in our oceans swimming up to boats, canoes and even divers and interacting with them with gentle curiosity, as if aware of how fragile we are when compared to their immense and supremely powerful.
There have been instances of dolphins and small whales, like the pilot whale and the killer whale, (the one from “Free Willy”) saving a child who might have been drowning. There are legends and accounts also of dolphins defending and protecting injured divers from sharks. They just feel a sense of innate kinship which we human beings find difficult to reciprocate.

The e-mail in question, which reached Indians this winter, is actually about a phenomena that takes place every summer in the Faroe Islands (a group of islands that are a part of the kingdom of Denmark). This event is a regulated ritual, a rite of passage if you will, where these whales that are found within a certain distance from land are herded in towards the beach by a ring of boats. Their intelligence and inquisitiveness might work against them and might attract them towards the boats and thus oft en to their deaths. Once in the harbour or ‘beached’, they are then massacred like the photographs I’ve described to you.

And something about this massacre of innocents has riled people from all over the world so they put together a set of pictures, signed their names and sent it around. I too believe that such cruelty has no place or need in a world where we all have plenty to eat without us having to take lives, cruelly and unnecessarily…. And yet here’s my reply to my fellow armchair environmentalists… condemn me if you will but this is the way I felt…

“Dear fellow hypocrites and vultures... I mean we scavenge the dead so that makes us vultures... and now about the bit about being hypocrites....

Carnivores, you have no qualms about animals being reared for you under the most cruel conditions possible, where they grow in squalor and their eyes never see the sun until their chopped heads are displayed on a butcher’s stall... chickens are skinned alive while goats get their legs smashed during transit and bleat through the pain till their necks are slashed and left to bleed... you feel no pain when a lamb thrashes about in pain for your epicurean pleasures but just when it is a dog being cooked in Korea or a whale being slaughtered in Japan or the Faroe Islands, suddenly your conscience wakes up and you find yourself on high moral ground which allows you to preach to the Faroese or the Koreans...

So are some animals more equal than others...?? A little piglet, or a fluffy yellow chick or a lamb does not deserve your compassion because your conditioning makes you immune to their pain, but suddenly you feel the cry of a whale’s agony... SHAME ON YOU TOO!!

We have no right to comment on the meat eating habits of others, while we ourselves gorge on the dead... whether the creature is rare or numerous, wild or domesticated, makes no moral difference, only an academic and ecological one...

That’s why I gave up on meat.


My friends were shocked by that reply, and also I suspect a wee bit embarrassed. Of course I feel that the killing of whales should be stopped, but long ago I had faced the same dilemma. I had given up eating mammal meat after an episode I have mentioned in a previous column but one of the prime reasons was a debate I got into during a trip to Norway. Annika, a whaler’s daughter who also ran the reception at the hotel I was staying in Bergen, was defending her cultural heritage as a proud race of whale hunters. And she said that it was like us eating chicken and goats. I wriggled out of that debate by talking about extinctions etc. but her contention stayed with me. The justification of taking a life had far more to do with ethics and morality and little to do with availability. If I’m ever cornered by destiny on a desert island with a fellow sailor, with nothing to eat, I can’t justifiably kill and eat my fellow castaway, can I? We can strive to escape or die trying but not ever raise a finger on each other in hunger.

I stopped eating all meat from then on because I knew that otherwise, I was being a hypocrite.

I got a solitary reply to my e-mail that said, “let’s do what it takes”. I wrote back saying that we can earn the right to engage the Faroese and make them listen to us only if we stop eating meat ourselves. Otherwise, they’ll only say that it is a question of culture and not ethics and human values... I had no right to eat meat of one sort and condemn others for eating another sort… That just becomes a silly beef or pork debate...

The respondent agreed. Now, instead of a chain mail, we’ll start a campaign that will reach out to Faroese children and show them the joy of sharing this world with whales as well as request the International Whaling Commission for more legislation to protect the whales. Will keep you updated.


1 comment:

  1. also think about human's working in un-humanity atmosphere in india