02 September 2010

The emergence of compassion

The following article has just been published online:

Perception of a cetacean mass stranding in Italy: the emergence of compassion

Giovanni Bearzi, Nino Pierantonio, Silvia Bonizzoni, Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, Massimo Demma. 2010.

Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. DOI: 10.1002/aqc.1135


1. The view that whales are malicious monsters has been pervasive throughout history. Conversely, the idea that these animals experience suffering has emerged only recently. One way of investigating perceptual, as well as behavioural, shifts is assessing general public reactions to mortality events involving wild, rare and charismatic animals.

2. Here, the responses of 118 individuals to questions regarding the mass stranding of seven sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) along the Adriatic Sea coast of Italy in December 2009 are reported through interviews taken at the stranding site and in the direct proximity of the dead animals.

3. When asked why the whales were stranded, 44.1% of the respondents suggested anthropogenic causes and 21.2% non-anthropogenic. The remaining 34.7% mentioned a generic ‘disorientation’ or stated they did not know. When asked how they felt about the whales, 68.6% expressed feelings of compassion or care towards the animals. Clearly non-compassionate attitudes accounted for only 4.1% of the sample. Finally, 21.2% expressed feelings that were ambiguous in terms of being suggestive of compassionate or non-compassionate attitudes, including 11.9% amazement, 4.2% deprecation and 5.1% powerlessness.

4. These results are in stark contrast with information obtained from accounts of similar events that have occurred in historical times, up until the first half of the 20th century. For centuries, responses to cetacean live strandings—typically including killing and harming of the animals—were either utilitarian or characterized by feelings including fear and a desire to ‘subjugate the beast’, with no apparent concern for their suffering and death.

5. It is concluded that attitudes towards whales—today strikingly revolving around sadness, compassion and a sense of loss—have changed dramatically over time, with a steep turnaround in the 1970/1980s. Full appreciation of the ongoing evolution in public perception can channel marine conservation efforts and assist in the design of response strategies to marine mammal strandings.


A pdf copy can be obtained from the journal's web site:


or from the first author:



Photo by Silvia Bonizzoni: A sperm whale dying on the beach of Foce Varano, Italy

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