Michael Weiss/Center For Whale Research
Who has not been moved by reports and images of a female orca (formerly called a killer whale) carrying her dead baby calf through the waters of Puget Sound on America’s north-west coast for more than a week? The heroic determination of Tahlequah, or J35, to hold onto her baby, balancing it on her head, pushing it along with her forehead or fins, sometimes clutching it in her mouth, really tears at human heartstrings.
The female calf – the first live birth in her clan in three years – lived for only 30 minutes; she was emaciated and lacking enough blubber to keep her afloat. Yet the mother was not willing to part with the baby she gestated for roughly 17 months. Although it is common for these whales to carry their dead for a day or so, Tahlequah carried hers for at least 10 days – with assistance from others in her pod. (There have been no new reports since Friday.)
Why? It is obvious to us humans: she was grieving over her lifeless newborn. That is the popular consensus, and whale scientists seem to concur. Orcas, they tell us, have big brains that are highly developed in the areas which relate to social emotions and awareness. They have a complex inner life; they feel emotions that they communicate using their pod’s particular dialect. They have a communal orientation which gives the character of a wake to what was going on in Tahlequah’s pod last week. At the same time, says one expert, there is a very “tight-knit” bond between mother and calf.
In other words, they are so like us. As one whale biologist told The Washington Post: “That's part of what people are picking up on, like, 'my God I would feel the same way … If I had a baby that only took a couple breaths, I wouldn't want to let it go either.'”
And yet, how like them are we really? How honest is our emotional response to the attachment of this sea creature to her offspring?
For five decades in the Western world we have – officially — treated the birth of a child (not its conception, but its birth) as a choice, and increasingly regard the dismembering of an imperfect unborn child a legitimate or even advisable choice. For three decades bioethicists have debated ending the lives of disabled babies after birth. Meanwhile, The Netherlands and Belgium regulate but do not forbid infant euthanasia. It seems that whales, by contrast, do not kill their wounded children but rather mourn their deaths.
We live in a time when motherhood is held in low esteem; when remaining “childless by choice” is defended as a rational and good option in an “overpopulated” world; when having a child is a matter of strict calculation and “accidents” are regularly disposed of by abortion; when we prefer to see mothers rushing off to work than hovering over their young children – at such a time the outpouring of sentiment for a killer whale who won’t let go of her dead calf is rather odd.
Has Tahlequah caught us off our guard? She has confronted us with a poignant image of the natural bond between mother and child, and the mother’s naturally profound investment in her infant – even a frail, sickly one. In doing so she has made the human population reveal its instinctive sense that she is right, and we are wrong when we relegate motherhood and fatherhood to incidental roles and subject the generation of children to the rules of the production line.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.