Members of the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS) returning a pilot whale to its watery abode (Photo Courtesy of MARS)

Of all the writings of Farley Mowat, a hero in the field of environmental journalism, no passage struck home for me quite like chapter five of A Whale For The Killing. His stories never failed to tug at my emotions, but the events in that chapter brought me to tears and inspired in me a sick stomach.

In it he writes of a pod of pilot whales — black, stocky creatures measuring 4-7 metres long and sporting a rounded dorsal fin of good size. Their heads, large and bulbous, inspired the nickname “pothead whales,” though they’re also known as the “blackfish.” They weigh between 2-4 tonnes.

The pod described in chapter five consisted of 15 adults and half a dozen young, all taking shelter in the harbour of St Pierre in 1961, a fishing community on Newfoundland’s south shore. Within two days all of these whales were dead, stabbed or shot or hacked to death for no reason other than sport. These poor creatures weren’t even permitted to leave the harbour, to escape their slaughter, as a line of locals guarded the harbour entrance with rifles.

In the end their bodies were dragged off and discarded, lest they taint the harbour’s water with unpleasant smells. There are people, like myself, who are rightly disgusted by cruelty to non-human life and I’m sure many such people were present at that harbour, but because social evolution is appallingly slow, cruelty won that day.

It wasn’t until August of 2015 that this terrible wrong was righted, in my eyes at least. Early in the month 16 pilot whales became stranded at Judique in northern Nova Scotia, on the coast of St George’s Bay. Were this 50 years ago, these whales might not have seen the proceeding sunset, but the citizens of that region submerged themselves to the neck and, together, fought to move these monstrous marine mammals back into deeper waters. Eight whales died before their rescue, but the rest were saved.

14 more pilot whales washed ashore near Bayfield the next day, also on the shore of St George’s Bay, and again they were met with urgent compassion by many dozens of people. These whales were returned to the water only to wash ashore again by the following morning, but with the help of professional animal rescue groups, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and even volunteer firefighters, these pilot whales returned to the ocean for good.

Am I saying that animal cruelty is a thing of the past, here or abroad? Of course not. Do I propose that we’re moving, socially, toward a state of empathetic enlightenment? That is something I can neither confirm nor deny. What this humble columnists suggests is only that, maybe, there’s hope for us yet.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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