Me and Humphrey: A Lesson in Perception
In January of this year, a Beluga whale swam up the Thames River. She was bleeding and sick·and, as rightwing bloggers raged, (only a whale)·but Londoners spent a hundred thousand dollars on a rescue effort. As veterinarians and advocates were transporting her down the river and toward the sea, she started convulsing and died.
Still, I believe in saving whales.
When I was four years old and living in the San Francisco Bay area with my mom and little sister, Humphrey the Hunchback made his entrance·swimming into the Bay and up the Sacramento River like an elephant stumbling through a narrow alley way. My mother watched the news coverage on our small television: (He just has to turn around, then he’ll be fine) she said· to me, but also to the bumpy wet gargoyle on the TV screen.
People spoke about Humphrey as if he were a willful child. Adults knew what he needed, what was best. That silly whale. At age four, I thought that the adults should let him stay inland, because the ocean must be such a scary place to live. All depth and darkness and sharks. By that time, I already had my fear of water, after having had three near-drowning experiences·each of which is, twenty years later, still emblazoned in my sensual memory.
I believe that empathy is learned by exploring difference through imagination. Imagining one’s self as other. Who knows how much of the interest in Humphrey was innate curiosity or even morbidity, but for me I just wanted to know how he felt. I knew how it felt to be drowning, but the opposite of that, when there was too much air space and not enough water, was distinct. I imagined being other than my small self. Being grand, strange and alone in a new world without enough water.
I believe in saving whales because they are in many ways as human as we are·they sing, talk, and live for a hundred years. If we don’t believe in saving them, then we will never be kind to smaller and more subtle creatures. Whales are obvious. They exist obviously. They shake and moan and die large horrific deaths. We should want to prevent such things.
After 25 days in a slough in Rio Vista, Humphrey was pushed back to sea by a wall of noise, made with metal pipes by volunteers in boats. Out in the Bay, sexy Humpback whale songs were played. Humphrey swam from the commotion toward the invisible whales. In footage, his movements appear more delicate and lovely the deeper into the water he goes. Then he left the Bay.
A few years later, we left San Francisco and moved with my new stepfather to Arizona, where there are no whales. There is barely enough water to drink much less to drown in. I learned how to imagine myself as a lizard, a hawk, a snake, a beetle· all subtler animals than Humphrey, but no less worthy of attention.
I believe that empathy can start with whales.
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