I just returned from three weeks in southern and central Florida. My family has vacationed there since before I was born, and Mom and Dad bought a second home in Sarasota to escape to cold Chicago winters. Unfortunately that strategy was upended during my stay. Low temperatures at Mom's dipped to 33 degrees F at night, and highs were as cold as the 40s. Even Miami, where I went to spend time with my little sister Nancy and see my nephew David graduate from college offered weather records... 14 to 16" of rain in a 24 hour period. Yes, it is good to return to sunny and warm southern California. At least while I was in Florida I had the warmth of my family to enjoy.
Family is important to me and I have a great one. Based on what little I know about marine mammals (I don't focus on anything in the ocean that gives milk), family is also important to sea creatures like dolphins and whales. Many of my readers may be aware of the annual dolphin kill that occurs in Taiji, Japan, or the recent collision between a Japanese whaling support vessel and Sea Shepherd's stealth-like boat the Ady Gil off Antarctica. The killing of marine mammals for food or "research" has been a hot topic among environmentalists and I thought I'd add a few thoughts to this debate in today's column.
As an ecologist, I am not a believer in "animal rights" as it is often positioned by groups like PETA and others I've "encountered" over the years. It is anathema to me that extremists of this ilk repeatedly threatened my life when I was in charge of the removal of goats and pigs from our island more than a decade ago. My belief in "animal rights" is that the native animals (as well as the plants) of our island ecosystem deserved a life free from the threats posed by these "invaders," which were originally from Europe and not even native to North America! I support the "rights" of plants and animals to exist within their natural ecosystems to the greatest extent possible, and have worked for decades to educate people about these biological communities both on land and in the sea.
However, as a biologist who believes in "The Mutual Eating Society," I fail to see anything wrong with human beings eating other species whether they be plant or animal. I am decidedly an omnivore and enjoy a medium rare flank steak, filet or Pacific swordfish with my broccoli or corn on occasion. I watch my sea critters munch on one another and feel that is the natural order of things. I do not feel guilty when I sit down to dinner. However, I make exceptions. I try to eat only flesh that is harvested in a sustainable fashion. When I used to hunt and fish, I tried to show reverence for my prey in the fashion the "Native" Americans are reported to exhibit. And I certainly do not indulge in killing animals for "sport."
There are solid ecological reasons for eating low on the food chain... fruits, nuts and vegetables or plant-eating animals. Ecosystems can support far more biomass tied up in plants or herbivores than in higher level carnivores (such as predatory fish). We can feed far more people on a vegetarian diet, although I don't support increasing the human population of the planet any more than it already is. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb has already exploded from my perspective. Eating low on the food chain almost always involves a smaller carbon "footprint" and reduces the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. I believe humans evolved as omnivores and their digestive systems and physiology are adapted to a mixed diet. However, I compromise and have more "meatless" dinners than I did in the days of my Midwest upbringing.
You now have some grounding in my "munching philosophy" so lets return to the issue of killing dolphins and whales for food. I mentioned my ties to my own family (and, of course, my friends). Many marine mammals are very social creatures. Based on our scientific understanding of them, they exhibit fairly high intelligence, often have recognized communication skills and demonstrate strong social bonds. Their cows have strong mother-infant relationships. I remember watching female gray whales pushing their newborn calves towards our Zodiac in Magdalena Bay, Baja California. It seemed very apparent they wanted the youngsters to experience human contact now that we North Americans do not hunt them any more. One mature whale female solicited human contact by approaching our Zodiac upside-down so we could scratch its belly. At night I could occasionally hear the songs of the humpback whales in the Sea of Cortez as they communicated with one another since my berth on the mother ship was below the waterline.
My gut feelings oppose the killing of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, and protest the harpooning of a thousand whales off Antarctica by the Japanese whalers for "scientific" study. I find it difficult to support the killing of sentient, social creatures for food. The dolphin meat has been demonstrated to have high levels of mercury and other toxic substances as would be expected in a higher level carnivore. The whale meat from the lethal "scientific studies" is served to school children. If this whale hunt is "scientific" as claimed, what peer-reviewed journals are the biologists publishing in? The actions by the Japanese whaling fleet in ramming Sea Shepherd's anti-whaling vessel in frigid Antarctic waters are also reprehensible to me.
Much as I dislike the killing of an intelligent species for food, I do not condemn Japan or the Japanese people. I do not feel the moral high ground and self-centered judgmental attitude of many who label themselves as "animal rights" activists. My Christian upbringing said something about glass houses and throwing stones. Earlier in our history, the United States was a whaling nation as well. We did our part in devastating many whale populations, in part to obtain oil for our lamps and machinery. Once petroleum was discovered under the ground in Pennsylvania in the 1850s, our interest in whaling diminished. Therefore, I don't feel we can claim any moral high ground on that issue.
The species different countries kill for food is a cultural issue. Personally, I cannot understand why any culture would kill intelligent, social animals for food. As I've said, I'm a scientist who focuses on invertebrates and fish, and have only a minimal understanding of mammals. To the best of my knowledge, cows on land may be social but they don't seem to exhibit a high IQ. While in Florida, I enjoyed a great hamburger at Patrick's with my Mom, and did so with no guilt. However, I'm sure there are many living on the Indian subcontinent who would decry our choice of prey. Who has the moral high ground in these matters? Certainly not me.
I have yet to see the movie "Avatar" as I chose to help Mom tackle a few more things on her "honey do" list the day I had planned to view it. I would like my readers to think in extraterrestrial terms as I close this column. I have written previously about my friends on the planet Xanadu who visited our planet a few years ago to assess "food stocks." I spoke with a few of their scientists about their research findings. Apparently they consider human beings to be a rather tasty treat. They especially like the soft coating over our skeletal structure, since it makes it much easier to get to the crunchy, calcium-rich nutrients they crave. Of course they don't consider us very intelligent, and after viewing our constant warfare, they don't see us as a very social species either! Be forewarned!
© 2009 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!
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Encounter with a friendly gray whale in Magdalena Bay (left) and dolphins
off the bow of SCUBA Luv's King Neptune.
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Dr. Bill Bushing.
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