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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Winter the Dolphin

Winter the Dolphin was discovered one December; she'd lost her tail in a crab trap.  After 6 months, Kevin Carroll, who had successfully designed prosthetics for other animals, was able to create a prosthetic tail for Winter, an astounding accomplishment given the complexity of a dolphin's tail.
I didn't write this blog to gush at the medical miracle and the plucky marine mammal who refused to give up hope.  Nor do I intend to excoriate American culture for its lack of priorities devoting such valuable resources to the recovery of one dolphin.  What interests me is how I imagine Winter feels about her new tail, and how she felt about losing the old one.
I have read that for raw brainpower, a dolphin is easily a match for a human being.  Dolphins, I understand, feel love and grief, communicate and play.  I have even heard it said that it is only the fact that we have hands with opposable thumbs that make us the dominant species over dolphins. I submit that there is something more than thumbs and cerebrums, however, something more fundamental, something mysterious and ineffable, that separates us from even the most intelligent of animals, and that the story of Winter might help illustrate this.
To begin with, I admit, we cannot know what Winter feels about anything, so everything I say from this point on is conjecture.  Nevertheless, I accept that what D H Lawrence had to say for birds, applies equally well for dolphins: "A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself."  Therefore, and again, this is only conjecture - when Winter's tail got tangled in line, cutting off the blood supply, it was painful and probably frightening.  That when she lost her tail altogether, it was painful, and inconvenient, and scary and life-threatening.  However, I do not believe that any such thought passed through her mind as, "Why is this happenning to me?" or "This is so unfair," or even "I wish I had my tail again."  I cannot imagine a dolphin having such thoughts, and not just because she wouldn't have words to think them with.  Likewise, when she was fitted with her new tail, her life no doubt, was immeasurably improved.  I'm sure she felt, safer and happier than she had at any time since she lost her tail.  But I do not imagine she could think, "Well, finally!  I should have had this all along," or "This new tail is nice, I guess, but it's not as good as my old one.  It isn't really me, and I really feel less of a dolphin than I used to."
Self pity is not an emotion we like to acknowlege, but it indicates something very important about us.  We have a self, and are aware of it as a discrete thing, a thing which is capable in some situations of deserving pity.  We read about Winter and are understandably cheered, as we should be, a creature that was less happy has been made more so, and a creature that was in peril has been saved.  But when we imagine her relief at a "new lease on life," or feel a secret twinge of sorrow that she must make do with a mechanical tail instead of her own natural one, these are our emotions only, not hers.  Pity and self-pity are reserved for humans only.

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