Dolphin Ethics Without Ethics Alarms: Once Again I’m Ashamed Of My Species

Ed Wood was never so profound as in that profound snippet of dialogue from “Plan Nine From Outer Space.”

Last week a female dolphin was washed up on the sand at Quintana Beach County Park in Texas. According to the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which posted about the incident on Facebook, beach-goers discovered the distressed sea mammal and, not having a clue what they were doing, tried to push it back out into the ocean. Then some of the morons attempted to ride the creature, which soon ended up back on the beach. Again stranded, it was harassed by the crowd that had gathered until it expired. By the time rescuers arrived to take care of it, officials said, it was too late.

“This type of harassment causes undue stress to wild dolphins, is dangerous for the people who interact with them and is illegal — punishable by fines and jail time if convicted,” the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network said.

What’s the matter with people? I don’t understand this kind of sick incident, and there are a lot of them. Human ethical systems don’t apply neatly to the treatment of animals, but they a basic understanding of them still helps. We can’t understand how animals think, but the Golden Rule isn’t completely useless: my late mother in law, when she saw a grand daughter pulling a cat’s tail, yanked the girls’ hair, hard, and said, “Do you like that? No? Then don’t do things to animals you don’t like.” If you were exhausted, terrified and stranded on a strange beach, would you want someone to try to ride you?

This shouldn’t be hard.

Kant comes in useful too: using an animal as a means to a selfish end should at least ping one’s ethics alarms. If the human need is genuine and serious, then we are in the realm of balancing and utilitarianism. Harassing and teasing a wild animal in stress for human amusement can’t be justified ethically. The Hippocratic Oath is also germane: when dealing with animals in the wild, first do no harm.

Then there is basic humility and common sense: if you encounter a distressed animal in the wild and don’t happen to be the reincarnation of Steve Irwin or Marlin Perkins, leave the creature alone and find someone qualified to help.

This story has upset me all day. I hope they can track down those dolphin abusers, fine the daylights out of them, and then lock them in a room where every episode of “Flipper” is playing on a loop.



14 thoughts on “Dolphin Ethics Without Ethics Alarms: Once Again I’m Ashamed Of My Species

  1. Kant does address this issue directly. To put it into the common parlance, the problem with animal abuse was that it deadened one’s ethics alarms.

    On a somewhat related note, I recently ran across a law in Minnesota that outlawed “greased pig contests” as well as “turkey scrambles.” That’s right, at some point, the Minnesota legislature determined that the people needed to be told that trying to catch greased pigs for fun was not acceptable behavior.


    • Jut,

      Catching greased pigs is a standard children’s rodeo/fair activity in Wyoming, as is riding sheep. My cousin lost an eye during one of these events as a kid but clinched his title. No more kid rodeos for him. His siblings still did kid rodeos, graduated to adult forms, and have their kids do it too. Adults, of course, ride the bucking bulls and horses, but also rope animals, barrel race, show off herding dogs (by herding cows) in the ring, and many more farm and cowboy friendly activities.

      My personal opinion on certain events notwithstanding, rodeo is a major sport (and considered far more important out here than any silly kids game as played by adults) out here. Showcasing your abilities for cowboy work is still considered a good thing, though professional rodeo-ers are looked down on. Opinions are slowly changing about bull and bronco riders, but greased pigs are considered good “clean” fun.

        • Thus in parenthesis. Good clean fun is stuff you can’t get in trouble for, and in my experience never actually clean. Going mudding (spinning cookies in a jeep in a mudhole and trying to splatter every inch of your vehicle and passengers) is good clean fun. Camping, hunting, etc are all good clean fun. None of it ever ends up clean.

  2. A classic example of verdict and proposed punishment well ahead of the evidence?
    We have one unverified report from a Facebook posting and many news media reports all based on that same FB post. Photographic evidence is nothing more than people standing around a dolphin on the beach and what appears to be a dolphin in the water. Witness statements? Can’t find any, but apparently irrelevant anyway.
    Dozens of comments on that FB post demand punishments that would violate the 8th Amendment. Embarrassed for my species indeed.
    Yes, let’s debate the ethical treatment of animals.
    But, sometimes the phrase ‘If it actually happened’ is useful.

    • How would you propose to report it? The agency that covers such episodes appears to have done some investigation; where would the riding account come from? Similarly the harassment issue. They had to have interviewed people at the scene. There was no way to get names and suspects, and no way to verify what occurred before the experts arrived, other than eyewitness testimony from people who didn’t want their names published. The story was an excellent way to remind people not to interact with wild creatures, so some good could come of the ugly event. Or would it be better to just report a dead dolphin on the beach?

      Agreed: the news reports are hearsay, and the EA post is double hearsay. But the reality is that many events can’t be investigated, and the choice is either to go with the most likely scenario, or not to report it at all. This story is not very different from others involving whales, sea turtles, animals in the National Parks, giving it least threshold credibility.

  3. The several ‘news’ accounts I scanned all could have been, and looked as if they were, written from information in the Quintana Beach County Park and the Marine Mammal Stranding Network Facebook posts. The Stranding Network gave thanks to one, just one, unnamed individual for reporting the incident. They since have posted that they have provided all relevant information to NOAA for investigation.
    There are no individuals from these organizations cited by name. There apparently are no corroborating reports. Eyewitness accounts frequently are faulty, and when there’s only one, it should not be blindly trusted. That people tried to push the dolphin back into the water seems credible. That people tried to ride the dolphin seems much less so; that easily could have been a misperception of what actually was going on in the water. Good Samaritanism, even when misguided does not merit punishment at all, much less the wildly imagined harsh punishments some thought appropriate. Criminal behavior might warrant reasonable punishment, but not before due process has taken place.
    So, how would I have reported it? I would have done some actual reporting, i.e., information gathering, rather than re-hashing FB posts. I would have sought additional witnesses and on-the-record statements from officials in the organizations involved.
    I understand the news organizations’ need for immediacy, but I also understand the greater need for accuracy and reliability.
    With regard to discussion blogs, as a lead-in, I would go with what I said previously: ‘If it actually happened’.

  4. I don’t understand this at all. I’ve had run-ins with dolphins a couple of times, having mostly lived up and down the gulf coast, and it never occurred to me to try and ride one. I was once surrounded by a pod of 8-10 dolphins while waiting to load a jet ski onto a trailer. The dolphins shouldn’t have been there because it was a brackish water body, and they were marine dolphins. I just turned the jet ski off and waited for them to leave so none of them would be injured. It was a very cool and surreal experience, but I wouldn’t have even thought about touching one of them, much less riding one. What is wrong with people?

  5. Funny how we use the term “Nazis”, as if they were a different species, and we wouldn’t resort to the same manner of cruelty given the right circumstances.

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