Other People

It’s been eleven years since I was last in New Zealand, almost to the day, but I’ve never forgotten a person that I met one morning, not far from Kaikoura. We shared a joke, and the joke was on me.

My new friend wasn’t in the least bothered that he didn’t have any arms or legs; nor that he didn’t have any money. But then, you see, he was a dusky dolphin. He seemed amused by my clumsy swimming, although it was the ‘music’ I was making that first got his attention. I was humming Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture through my snorkel, although why I chose that particular tune, I don’t recall. In any event, we struck a deal: I kept on humming, and he stared at me, and circled around me, permitting photographs. With apparently effortless flicks of his tail, my new friend accelerated, until I was spinning like a top, trying to keep him in my viewfinder… at which point he swam faster still, and I just about tied myself in knots. This, it was very obvious, was the desired outcome, and my host seemed delighted to have taught me a thing or two about swimming. After perhaps ten minutes, he headed off at what seemed an impossible speed, and I retired to the dive boat, tired but happy.

Dusky dolphin

Dusky dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obscurus)

As a result of that encounter, I’ve come to feel that dolphins are people. They don’t have thumbs, or a language we can understand, but that doesn’t matter. They’re people who happen to live in the sea. Sadly, the relatives of these people are hunted by some of our kind – principally in Japanese waters – and their bodies are used for fertilizer, pet food and human consumption.

It simply won’t do. Where a creature has the cognitive ability to feel as wide a range of emotions as scientists have observed in dolphins, drive hunting (forcing a pod of dolphins into shallow water where they can be killed with knives and spears) is obviously inhumane. It’s no more defensible than eating French people, or making Fertiliser out of Danish people. I don’t care if they represent a renewable resource… not all things exist to be consumed.

Four years ago, I saw two children misbehaving. Their body language telegraphed the fact that they were up to no good, to the point where the phrase “as thick as thieves” might have been coined just for them. It just so happens that these young people were covered in orange fur – but people they were, unmistakably.

The duo hunkered down to look at something that they had stolen… and it turned out to be a pocket knife. The younger of the two looked on, fascinated, while his playmate quite deliberately opened the knife, and tried it out. It took quite a while for us to convince a sceptical keeper that we really had seen the duo playing with a knife, but eventually he went in and retrieved it, by swapping it for a piece of fruit. Before that, though, I had watched a process of experimentation that could leave me in no doubt that we aren’t the only intelligent species on land: we’re merely the dominant faction.

Young orangutan with knife

Young orangutan with knife

Young orangutan with knife

The keeper later admitted that the pair were always stealing things, and had evolved a form of currency: if they stole something large such as a broom and you wanted it back, you’d better give them a lot of fruit: a miserly offer would result in the broom being dismantled and returned piecemeal, with a single banana perhaps only getting you a handful of bristles…

We happen to be the current front-runners in the race to evolve, but if we could give the other people a sporting chance and leave them in peace for a few million years, who knows what they might become? We ought to consider our role to be one of stewardship; not owners but just looking after things for a while… but it’s not working out that way: the oceans are becoming increasingly polluted and the Sumatran orangutan is listed as ‘critically endangered’ today, due to poaching and an illegal pet trade… plus habitat destruction caused by palm oil plantations – a $40bn industry, and a material that’s used in the manufacture of far too many foods and cosmetics.

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