In the 1970s, a golden era for what-the-fuck style scientific and military exploits, the US government created the Navy Marine Mammal Program, which looked to use an animals natural sonar capability to investigate Russian Activities under the polar ice caps. Plot to an episode of Archer? Yes. Reality? Also yes.
Belugas were selected in particularly because they’re like the Boston Terriers of the see: goofy, friendly and eager to please. The whales were enlisted into the “Cold-Ops,” a program which intended to train these whales to detect soviet submarines and investigate Russian activity, including missile testing, underneath the polar ice caps.
With government blessing, a Texas veterinarian did the most Texas veterinarian thing to do in this situation, which involved luring young beluga towards the boat and lassoing them like cattle. Among the eventual six belugas used as Cold-Ops was NoC (no-see), who was two at the time of his capture.
The Cold-Ops were considerably successful, by the way. The belugas were able faithful to their handlers, and not only capable of completing their dives but in retrieving torpedoes from the ocean floor. No matter what task they were given, the Belugas carried them out diligently and returned to to their humans without fuss. A group of animal rights activists once attempted to Free NoC and another beluga named Muk Tuk, but NoC returned of his own will and Muk Tuk was retrieved by following a Cold-Ops training vessel back to the base.
NoC was a willful child, doing the Beluga equivalents of ditching class and not paying attention, but around the age of six, he became a star pupil. Michelle Jeffries, one of NoC’s early trainers, expressed fondness for NoC, how he wanted attention from you, how he wanted belly rubs and connection from his handlers, and the way he “didn’t try to bullshit you the way some of the dolphins did.”
In 1984, NoC’s search for connection stepped up.
Two divers were making repairs on the whale enclosures, when one of them heard a call on his communications device, dubbed a wet phone. The voice he heard over his device kept repeating, “Get out! Get out, out!”
He obliged, and refused to believe his coworkers when they insisted they hadn’t called him.
Quite bewildered, the diver asked, “Who told me to get out?”
It didn’t take long to realize that the order was given by NoC, who began babbling to divers both under water and in the air, both spontaneously and on command. Even if incomprehensible, NoC was attempting to mimic human speech.
If you hear the recording, it doesn’t sound remotely like human speech, although it may bear some resemblance to a human voice as heard through the wet phone. NoC was one of the first times an animal attempting to communicate with us has been documented beyond apocrypha and with evidence of intent. NoC made vocalizations that are outside the scope of a normal whale, and within the range of human hearing. The mechanism by which he learned to do it involved distending the melon on his head with air, which seems as though it were an incredibly uncomfortable skill to practice.
In some capacity, whether or not it was intelligible or particularly good, he made a decision to make sounds for people, effectively, he was trying to communicate.
There is a good argument to be made that NoC was simply parroting sounds that he enjoyed making, producing the beluga equivalent to meowing at a cat that walks in the room. However, a more recent documentation of a female beluga learning to mimic the speech of dolphins she was housed with indicates that Belugas are simply doing what they can to be accepted socially, which is well within their pattern of behavior. If you house a lonely Beluga with people, by its very social nature, it will attempt to form a connection.
Why does it matter that NoC, for whatever reason, tried to bond with the humans he was surrounded with? It seems to me that the further we go in time, the nature of what it means to be human has been evolving, and the edges may be softer than what we’re comfortable with.
In recent years, some countries have offered that status of Nonhuman Personhood to some animals that exhibit characteristics of self awareness, including cetaceans, primates, elephants and parrots.
The rights of a nonhuman person are very, very basic. They include no imprisonment, I.E. illegal to be kept in zoos, it is unethical to perform laboratory tests on them and it’s a crime to kill them. It’s easy to see how alarm bells of the dreaded “slippery slope” may sound for some, but I think the inclusion of nonhuman persons is simply an acknowledgment of reality. Of course, it might help the argument seem more reasonable if PETA didn’t claim nonsense like nonhuman persons can hold copyrights, as if that monkey really gave a shit.
We have to concede that despite being one of the most proliferate, and certainly most technologically advanced species *on* the planet, the planet doesn’t belong to us, and we share it with other life forms capable of intelligence, empathy, self awareness, etc. In a manner of speaking, this is not our blue ball to fuck up, despite the fact we have treated it like a possession for pretty much all of known time. We coexist with other species and regarding “animal” as an abstract term might be more of a disservice than just dismissing your vegan cousin at Thanksgiving.
Do we regard the capacity for love and intelligence in other species the same way as we do in ourselves? Elephants perform grieving rituals for their dead. Dolphins have unique names, and can teach each other new and more efficient techniques for hunting. Humpbacks have expressed empathy for seals by rescuing them from attacks by orca.
These are, effectively, demonstrations of social behavior, and ones that we tend to covet in our human nature. Self awareness, compassion, empathy, and intelligence. If these are expressed by something that’s not human, do they matter less, and if so, why?
I realize this kind of logic makes me seem uncomfortably more on the side of animals than people. Not to mention, if you’re going to grant the status of nonhuman personhood to an animal, there’s certainly a large concern that one would attempt to grant the same rights to a fetus. How are we going to deal with these actions as we develop better and better artificial intelligence? Corporations are already considered non-human persons, what rights and responsibilities can we give the abstract idea of an organized group of humans?
Oh dear, that slope looks very slippery, doesn’t it?
Nonhuman personhood is going to be a philosophical and ethical gateway to some very messy questions, but we’re at that threshold right now. As much as I labored over this post originally (I took a break for this), it’s now become an issue of political relevance as Donald Trump continues being a cartoon villain of a president and lifts the ban on the import of ivory and elephant trophies to the US, although that decision is… who the fuck knows where he’s at with it.
The idea that hunting animals in order to help grow their population is not new, nor is it unfounded or even stupid. The preservation of species by hunting does indeed generate a great deal of conservation revenue that can be used to maintain forests and preserve open spaces. If you’re going to hunt for big ass game in the wild, effectively, you can’t tear down the wild and build a resort, right?
On the other hand, some argue, the money received by wild game licenses rarely makes its way back into indigenous communities, thereby doing nothing to help the humans that are sharing the space with the animals, so on a local level there will still be incentive to destroy habitats and threatened species in order to maintain life. So we ski on the slippery slopes.
This is a huge oversimplification, and I’m sort of ambivalent to the idea of hunting as conservation. I eat meat and I have huge respect for people who hunt. Anyone who falls a deer and eats it is doing more for the planet than someone buying prepackaged, shipped vegetable products from an annual crop that has to be cleared out and disturbing soil every year without allowing it to replenish itself.
People who hunt, (less so with guns but I’m not going to say that’s not a super efficient way to do it) are also privy to an animal dying for their food, and I honestly believe that’s an experience missing from our industrialized world view. Maybe it’s my own projection, but being aware of something dying for you to consume is one of the rare experiences one could consider sacred in a world without religion.
As we consume it, meat is something abstract, because killing sucks and it’s wrong. It’s not a terrible impulse, but I’d venture to say we’d be less likely to exhibit the kind of atrocities of factory farms if we’d ever looked an animal in the eye that we were killing. It’s supposed to be morally difficult, it’s a check to the power system of the food chain. It’s hard to say how much that can translate to trophy hunting, personally I don’t see it but I’ve never really sat someone down and learned why it could be just as sacred a ritual.
That being said, hunting for conservation enlists a whole new set of ethical problems. For one, we’re suggesting that the only value that these animals and their habitats hold is that we can murder them, and if you take into consideration that maybe there are animals that express a similar self awareness and intelligence to that we value in ourselves, that’s a pretty fucked up reason not to research the value in other efforts of concentration. If you consider that we don’t own the planet, to even just consider that maybe it’s “rude” to edge out biodiversity, we’re the worst neighbors even we could ask for.
.NoC reached over the boundaries of species to try to connect with us, even for the sake of being connected. He stopped “speaking” as he entered adulthood. He died in his early 20s of meningitis, a common fungal infection for captive beluga that more than halves their lifespan.
If we learned anything this year, it’s that what is human is not always good, and what is good is not always human. How we expand and what we value, both as a society and a species, is going to have to change