We’re Not the Planet’s Only Thinkers

A mother orca expressed her grief by carrying her lifeless calf on her head for days

By Rob Breeding

You’re probably aware of the sad news story of July: an orca in Puget Sound gave birth. The calf died hours later. The mother orca then expressed her grief by carrying the lifeless calf on her head for days.

It’s a tragedy on many fronts. On the species level, it’s one less whale in an endangered population of less than 100. Pollution, fewer chinook salmon and increased shipping traffic are the main causes of the decline.

These orca are primarily salmon eaters and pacific salmon runs aren’t what they used to be. Last year, another young orca died in the Sound after showing obvious signs of malnutrition.

July’s tragedy was also a reminder that the animals that make up a population are individuals too, and in the case of orcas, highly intelligent individuals capable of expressing deep, complex emotion. There was a time when biologists might have explained away the mother orca’s behavior as a purely instinctual response, an example of the mother whale’s hard wiring to help a new-born calf to the surface to draw its first breath.

We know better today. That’s a mother stricken with grief after losing her baby. In the immediate aftermath of the calf’s death, she appeared inconsolable. Reports indicate the rest of her pod maintained a healthy distance as they kept vigil while she mourned.

The implications are profound. As a hunter I have to recognize the birds I kill aren’t unthinking, emotionless nincompoops, but instead are living creatures just going about the business of survival. My decision to kill and eat them is one that desperately upsets those plans.

That said, reflecting on my role as a predator doesn’t lead me down a road of self-loathing and guilt. Eating other animals is a thing omnivores do to survive. In fact, meat-eating has a lot to do with the way evolution made modern humans. While I marvel at the predatory skills of orcas or mountain lions or cheetahs, the reality is that humans are the greatest predatory species Earth and evolution has produced. We’re not the fastest, nor the strongest, and we surely don’t have the biggest or sharpest teeth. What we do have, however, makes up for those limitations.

What human predators possess is the convergence of brainpower, opposable thumbs, a complex and nuanced symbolic language, and a mastery in both the creation, and use, of tools. There’s no one simple explanation for why we are so good at predation. Its the confluence of these factors, fueled by the way our brains and bodies evolved.

Consider the curious case of arms. No other species has so completely abandoned the traditional use of limbs as a means of locomotion. Running on two legs means humans are ridiculously slow, even Usain Bolt. But freeing our forelimbs from locomotive duties allowed them to evolve into the most precise and specialized tool-building instruments our world has ever seen.

What started with a sharpened stick evolved to razor-sharp rock flakes to bolder hurling trebuchets to precision firearms to nuclear weapons. With tools like these we can afford to lose a few of our kin in foot races with tigers. The population will get over it.

Much is said about the similarities between humans and our closest living relatives, chimpanzees. We share up to 98 percent of our DNA with chimps, according to some estimates. Still, it’s the other 2 percent, generated or modified since we branched off the evolutionary tree from chimps, that is the real difference.

The result is that humans are the smartest, most-efficient and most-lethal predator to trod this planet. We’re sentient beings who realize we can be lethal to widespread populations of animals.

Let’s hope we’re smart enough to do something for the orcas of Puget Sound, before it’s too late.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com, which covers outdoor news.

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