• Nancy J Thompson

Whales, Humans, and Other Relatives

It’s no secret that I love watching #Nature. That’s my Wednesday night “must”: I settle into the family room with cats or whoever else is here to learn something new about the rest of the world.


Recently, I was fascinated by a program on whales. The narrator was a man who had lived through the experience of a humpback whale breaching and crashing on him in his kayak. Interestingly, marine biologists suggested that the whale appeared to realize mid-breach that the man was in harm’s way and reacted to its realization. Maddeningly, the narrator never acknowledged any kind of responsibility or wrongdoing by getting far too close to a wild animal that was doing nothing more than living its life, out in the ocean.


As maddeningly, a scientist on the program blathered too-usual pabulum about the problem of anthropomorphizing, which in short means admitting that other creatures might have behaviors and emotions similar to those humans have.


Why are we so shocked by that concept? Why must we guard against the (supported by evidence) conclusion that other species, such as humpback whales, might be altruistic? That they might show compassion? That they might protect even other species, with no benefit to themselves?


Perhaps we find it so shocking because truthfully, we find it so shocking when we ourselves do it. In the face of our consciousness, our tendency to cruelty is breathtakingly shocking, so much so that we see our own altruism as an anomaly worth nothing.


I remember an answer once when I was attending Buddhist college. I don’t remember what my question was. It must have been something about other species, or evolution, or whatever I thought was such an important distinction at that time between humans and other creatures. Although I have forgotten the question, I have never forgotten Yangsi Rinpoche’s answer: “It’s all just energy flow.” Basically, only our shapes are different, he was saying. Yes, we can do only what our bodies allow, and yes, our bodies are different. But beyond that: life is life. Human forms are not more “special” than a humpback whale, or a hippopotamus, or a honeybee, for that matter.


That message was reinforced by another recent Nature episode I watched in which people were reunited with animals they had cared for when the animals were babies. A man, for example, reunited with a gorilla he had raised from an infant but had not seen or interacted with in five years; a woman was reunited with an orphaned female chimpanzee she had reared; a man was reunited with elephants he had cared for when they were traumatized infants, their mothers slaughtered by poachers in front of them.


In each case, the non-human animals remembered the humans and displayed clear affection toward them. And why should we be surprised that non-human animals would do so? Why should we be surprised that they value love, value caring? Why should we be surprised that they can suffer, and that they can and will bond with those who extend #compassion toward them and work to relieve their suffering?


If I have hope for the world, it is in part from watching Nature. If utterly different species – different “energy flows,” as Rinpoche describes life – can form bonds of love and altruism and compassion, then liberals and conservatives, Christians and Jews and Muslims, native-born and immigrants among our own species can surely find their own common ground and surely can extend caring and compassion to each other.

image copyright, University of Washington. No copyright infringement intended.

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