Posted on June 15, 2007


A Cetacean Citation

Two perps and a porpoise


Daniel Clark


Two Englishmen were arrested recently for harming a dolphin off the coast of Kent. They didn't injure it physically, mind you. Instead, they've been charged with "harassing" the animal. Although the details are sketchy, these men are presumed to be guilty, because dolphins just don't lie about these kinds of things.

It's only natural that the British government would be so protective of the dolphins. If you've ever seen one up close, you can tell that they must be long lost relatives of the royal family. The English aren't the only ones who care, though. We Americans have our own law, entitled the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which likewise forbids the "harassment" of our little pointy-faced pals.

a bleeding heart under the influence

This law defines "harassment" as encompassing "any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering." To be sure, being too annoyed for breeding is a serious matter. Imagine going on your honeymoon, and having the people in the room upstairs play Journey albums all week long. That's roughly the equivalent of what these poor animals must be dealing with.

It can be inferred from the MMPA that harassment of dolphins is often sexual in nature. Perhaps one of those cads from Kent made an untoward remark like, "Who put this dorsal fin on my coke?" That might sound innocent enough to you or me, but it's the way that the victim perceives it that counts. People have got to learn that when a dolphin says no, it means no. Or at least, when it says, "ehh-ehh-ehh-ehh," it means no. Or something.

If dolphins are at least equal to humans, as animal rights activists believe, then they must also be capable of suffering from something akin to ethnic harassment. Just imagine how it must annoy a dolphin to be verbally assaulted with specist slurs, like "flippo," or "spoutback." If it is a particularly sensitive animal, cracks like those could easily disrupt its breathing and feeding habits. Sadly, it does not have its own anti-defamation league to turn to, so the government is obliged to intercede.

Since we are not advanced enough to understand the dolphins' language, the question of whether or not one of them feels annoyed is purely a matter of conjecture. What sounds to human ears like an expression of annoyance might simply be the sound of dolphin small talk. For all the British authorities really know, those two alleged hooligans they arrested might have just been updating their flippered friend on the FA Cup. If it sounded annoyed, maybe that's because it had wagered a few pounds on Manchester United. The culpability of the two humans in that case would be open to question.

Here in the States, we take all of the guesswork out of the matter by only requiring that a human action have the "potential" to disturb a marine mammal. That way, we don't need to be able to read the dolphins' minds. We can just assume, for example, that if somebody wades into the ocean wearing a pair of Speedos, any marine mammals that happen to be in the vicinity will be extremely annoyed.

Home of the Potentially Disturbed

Whereas that interpretation may be nearly unanimous, there are others that would be highly disputable. When some beach bum does that "hang loose" signal with his thumb and pinkie, maybe we'd expect a sea lion to find that annoying, but then again, it might think it's pretty cool, too. As the saying goes, there's no accounting for taste.

Nevertheless, the law demands that we remove every potential disturbance, which means that the most easily offended of all marine mammals must be accommodated. According to this standard, its feelings do not even need to be rational. If a porpoise, otter or whale has a phobia about surfboards, then surfing must be prohibited until it can be conclusively determined that there are absolutely no marine mammals near that particular beach.

By the letter of the law, the only way to be completely sure that one is innocent of harassment is to avoid the ocean altogether. That means no more tourism on our beaches, no cargo vessels near our ports, no offshore drilling, and, needless to say, no fishing boats. Sure, it would devastate our economy and lower our standard of living, but that's a small price to pay to preserve a dolphin's emotional well-being.

-- Daniel Clark is a Staff Writer for the New Media Alliance. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.



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