On Twitter, Ricky Gervais called those involved in the calamity ‘stupid c***ts’ and it’s hard, as an animal-lover, to disagree. This was, after all, a video of a dolphin that had been pulled from the water in Argentina and carried around the beach for people to ogle and take photos of, before it apparently died of dehydration.
Was the dolphin injured before it was pulled out of the water? Probably. No-one is yet sure. Was it abandoned by its pod? We may never know. Nature writes scripts we can’t always read or predict, particularly when it comes to marine mammals. But I find the human response to this dolphin very interesting. I’d argue that it was very predictable that we would surround it when it washed up. For we have a thing for fondling marine megafauna. We really can’t help ourselves, it seems. We love to touch whales and dolphins.Need evidence? You only have to look to the crowd that formed around each and every one of the dead sperm whales that washed up in Norfolk and Lincolnshire over the last three weeks. Many humans wanted to be near them when they washed up. Then there are the nature documentaries. You see divers on nature documentaries, desperately reaching out at passing whales and dolphins like movie journalists beside a red-carpet. They love it. You see those machismo moments where we tug on the dorsal fins of passing dolphins and are pulled along, grinning at the splendour of momentarily wrangling such a splendid beast. The dolphins probably think we’re total dickheads when we do that. Total dickheads. You see us getting all spiritual about dolphins, stroking and patting them and being healed by them. It’s all about us. Our pain. Our machismo. Our need to touch. There can be no doubt about it: when it comes to marine megafauna we are a touchie-feelie species. But I wish desperately we weren’t quite so…. handsy.
There are reasons for this. For starters, there are concerns that whales and dolphins might get stressed by human interference, particularly with boats straying too close to mothers and calves, for instance. They might find us, and our handsiness, a bit disorientating. Plus there are diseases and pollutants that might be a risk too. (We are dirty animals, don’t forget). But there are other reasons we should probably keep our distance. I feel there’s a kind-of cultural respect we should probably afford one another, as cognitively advanced species of planet Earth. Dolphins and some whales live in a world governed by noises, not touch. They probe novel objects with sounds, where we probe them with our fingers and our eyes. There’s a chance that many whales and dolphins may not like being touched, let alone picked up out of the water and carted around by a crowd of people like a prize-winning jockey after a race. We come from different worlds, them and us. We’d do well to remember that.
But were all of the people on that beach really equally stupid for ogling the dolphin, as Ricky Gervais suggests? Are they all equally “c***s”? I’d argue, partly, not. I’m sure that some of the people on that Argentinian beach, at least, thought this air-breathing mammal needed help and that, somehow, being out of the water was a good place for it to be. Some of them cared, I think.
You’ll see a range of human emotions on the faces that surround the poor dolphin. Sure, there are smiles, a hint of ridicule in a couple of faces, but there is also awe and wonder. There is a hint of sadness and worry in a couple of the onlookers. There was, I’m sure, some people that got close and then chose not to take a photo of the dolphin. They probably wondered what they were going to do with an image of a suffering animal on their phone. (Is it worth posting on Facebook? Probably not, they realised). They thought about it. Gervais is right, but not totally. The humans in that picture aren’t equally stupid.
Animals bring out the best in us and the worst. Humans are capable of great things, when we think. But we have to think. On images like this you can see some people doing that. Thinking. We just need to do it more. All at the same time. And, ideally, sooner, before we risk losing splendid creatures like these forever.