Save the orcas, but save the planet, too

This week, a pod of orcas trapped under ice in Hudson’s Bay was freed. But the threat to their lives is hardly diminished.

The orcas trapped under ice in Hudson’s Bay are safe — for now. Photo via Flickr

For those who truly care about animals, last week’s dramatic news coverage of a pod of orcas trapped beneath the ice in Hudson’s Bay near the village of Inukjuak highlighted the selective blindness in our approach to caring for our fellow inhabitants of planet Earth.

Animals die in vast numbers every day. Some fall to disease; some are killed in accidents. Many are killed deliberately for food, others because they’re deemed a nuisance or a threat. Or in the case many of those killed by humans, it’s because they got in the way of some other objective.

Although it’s touching to see so many people rally to the cause of a dozen killer whales, as orca are also known, the empathy is lost on me when the same people are willing to see a Canadian icebreaker dispatched 1,500 kilometres from Montreal to rescue the whales at a cost of millions to taxpayers. Meanwhile, knowingly or not, they are supporting a worldwide fishing industry that is decimating the aquaculture upon which orcas and millions of other species survive.

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I’ve been a pescatarian for over 20 years now. Simply put, I haven’t eaten meat other than seafood. I made that decision in 1990 in the mistaken belief that animals that live in our waters are not part of the massively wasteful and destructive agro industry that is rapidly depleting the world’s resources.

I’ve had reason to reconsider. What harm could I be doing, I originally thought, by my yearly consumption of roughly 15 pounds of tuna, five pounds of shrimp, 30 pounds of salmon or steelhead trout and several pounds of mislabelled fish of various denominations?

The answer came in the form of a gift from a non-vegetarian friend who noticed, as we were walking around Chapters a few months ago, that I stopped in front of a display of Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals.

“I should read that,” I mentioned. Like many of my “should” resolutions, it was left unresolved. Until I opened my gifts on Christmas day.

In it, I learned that the effort to bring me my five pounds of  shrimp cost the lives of about 125 pounds of other sea animals — including many threatened species — that were simply tossed overboard. And that catching my tuna regularly kills 145 other species of fish, including a dozen types of dolphins and whales, orca among them.

“Bycatch” is the fishing equivalent of the military’s “collateral damage” and involves untold tonnes of animals that are thrown, lifeless, back into the sea. My cheap tuna and shrimp were coming at a cost I hadn’t calculated in my weekly grocery budget.

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Our ability to eat animals depends in large part on our refusal to recognize them as individuals. We’ve made exceptions for our pets/companion animals, whom we will gladly feed and walk, and whose feces we will pick up, in exchange for fetching, tail-wagging and purring. We would be horrified if a guest suggested that Fido would make a wonderful hors d’oeuvre, or that Whiskers was just about ready for butchering. Indeed, we react to cultures that eat cats or dogs as savage. Yet there is little to distinguish our pets from our pigs, which are arguably smarter and just as “personable” as our companion animals.

In indigenous cultures, the animals people ate were often idolized in recognition of their contribution to human life. In ours, they are anonymized. The family farm we envisage as we eat our eggs or chicken or bacon has given way to factory farms where thousands of animals live in conditions that most farmers won’t even allow to be filmed. They want us to think of Mom in her apron, chatting with the hens as she gathers the eggs, rather than the thousands of  animals in cages smaller than a floor tile stacked nine tiers high in windowless sheds. Even less do they want us to see what happens to half the offspring of “layer hens,” which are sucked through of a series of pipes onto electrified plates, because no one needs chicks with dicks.

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Humans are capable of building empathy for individual animals, but we seem to engage in willful blindness concerning the conditions that affect most of the animals on the planet, including ourselves. While we worry and petition on behalf of a dozen orca in Hudson’s Bay, we refuse to pay a few dollars more for organic produce or to reduce, or cut, meat and seafood from our diets. We need to realize that our daily diet considerations affect the entire planet, and even the simplest changes can save the lives of millions of our co-inhabitants.

So if you rooted for the orcas, bravo! Now root for the planet by fighting everything else that threatens their — and our — survival. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear at least once a week in this space. You can follow him on Twitter or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.

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