In July, an orca calf washed up on rocks near Wellington. He was separated from his pod, so would-be rescuers carried him by trailer up the coast, then by boat out to where they thought his family were. They were unsuccessful and over the next 13 days, we were transfixed with the fate of Toa.
The Department of Conservation, Whale Rescue and other helpers sectioned off an area of boat ramp to contain him while they desperately tried to find and return him to his pod. His stranding coincided with school holidays, so he became a huge attraction. Families visited, sometimes with their dogs. Whale rescuers stood in the sea with the little lost orca through winter nights and days in freezing conditions. They kept him from bumping into the “sea pen” walls, kept him company and sang to him. He squeaked and called and cried. He had favourite people, those he drew extra comfort from – the boy who found him and orca legend Ingrid Visser, who had a lead role in his care.
When stormy weather threatened his and his carer’s safety, he was moved into the biggest swimming pool to be found where he spent several days – first, being kept safe from high seas and then from harbour water polluted with sewage.
Professor Karen Stockin, of Massey University, caused an outrage when suggesting that we might not have the happy ending we hoped for – and questioned how long it would be appropriate to keep Toa in a sea pen. She asked, on behalf of the International Whaling Commission, what does animal welfare look like for a lost, very young orca, who is dependent on maternal milk, and whose chance of survival is slim.
In the end, Toa died. He was surrounded by people who loved him, but without his pod. He touched many lives and hearts, including mine.
Economist Geoff Simmons speculated that it would be great if every child living in poverty in New Zealand received the same concern and compassion as Toa. In response, animal rights academic Michael Morris said that the people concerned about Toa should be equally concerned about the lives and deaths of animals in industrial agriculture – the animals that most people eat every day. Sea Shepherd New Zealand Director Michael Lawry said given that humans have damaged animals’ habitats so that orca are rare and endangered, it was a moral obligation to try to save those in trouble where we could. The implication that “it’s children in poverty or orca, it can’t be both, so we should care for children, not orca” denies the fact that we’re failing both.
In that conversation, there was a compelling logic, a moral imperative, a lesson from Toa. We should care for impoverished children, but we should definitely care for orca too. And if we care for orca, we should care for animals we kill for food as well.