14 June 2009

Rescue, let die or euthanise?

Cetacean stranding events keep occurring around the world. The most recent happened a couple of weeks ago, a mass beaching of 55 false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) in South Africa.

It's hard to accept that these things can happen. We would like these animals to swim free and healthy in the blue ocean, rather than die by the dozens on a beach for misterious reasons.

Lots of volunteers - probably inspired by the feeling above - typically intervene and struggle to save the animals. They pull, push, keep wet, shelter from the sun, lean these magnificent creatures, but most of the time to little avail. When hope vanishes, controversial issues come to the table: is it better to decide for euthanasia or to let the whales die on their own?

We would want to do our best to save them, as we are naturally inclined to do with the featherless and mostly hopeless baby bird that falls from its nest. Yet, some are convinced that large stranded whales should be euthanised to minimise suffering before the inevitable death. If they have been stranded for a long time, they may already suffer from irreversible problems. Attempts to refloat the whales after this point would only make things worse.

Paul Jepson, senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London's Institute of Zoology, talking about beaked and sperm whales, recently said “Once they strand, everything goes wrong very, very quickly… They have muscle damage and kidney failure, which is exacerbated by dehydration. There's no chance for these animals, they're past the point of no return and need to be euthanised."

Should we only try to save the small cetaceans, and forget about the large ones once the 'point of no return' as passed and damage is ireversible? Should we struggle to save them until they exhale their last breath? Is it better to euthanise dying animals or to let them die on their own, as they have been doing for millions of years?

These questions remain open and probably a 'right' answer - beyond and above individual opinions and ethics - does not exist. Decisions must be taken on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all the complexity and based on the most sincere intention to help. At times, such decisions may be hard to take for those who really care about the animals.

Silvia Bonizzoni

Photo: Dead whales on the east coast of Tasmania, by Peter Mathew

For more information:
Killing beached whales is kinder, experts say
Beached whales will be euthanised in future
South Africans euthanize dozens of beached whales

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