If you’ve been active on social media for the last couple of weeks you’ve no doubt seen the story of the killer whale known as Tahlequah.
Tahlequah is a member of the smallest of the four residential communities of killer whales in the northeastern part of the North American Pacific Ocean. Called the Southern Resident Killer Whales (or SRKW), the group swims the waters between Vancouver and San Juan Island bordering the Pacific Northwest.
The group is unlike other residential killer whale communities. Its population, cut down by food limitations, contaminants and vessel traffic disturbances, has been slashed to just 75. That 75 is made up of only one clan that contains three pods. Tahlequah’s generation is feared to be the last of her family. The youngest of her pod mates, a 3-year-old named Scarlett, has been seen to be extremely emaciated. Scientists are struggling to track the young whale to try to feed her antibiotic-laden fish in hopes of keeping her from starving.
To describe this group as endangered would be an understatement.
In SRKW, 20-year-old Tahlequah was set to birth the first calf in three years. After about 17 months of gestation, on July 25th, 2018 Tahlequah gave birth.
For 30 minutes, it was a glorious occasion. Another life had been added to the diminishing pod. A new generation has begun. The struggling 75 had become a hopeful 76.
And then, the calf, small for its size but huge in it’s potential, died.
As of this writing, it’s been 17 days since the death of Tahlequah’s newborn. And in a move that’s caused the civilian and scientific worlds to both gasp in awe, it’s been 17 days of Tahlequah pushing and carrying her dead child with her.
It has long been known that whales and their sea-dwelling neighbors, dolphins, are intelligent. Crafted in July 2012 during the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on the Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals, The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was signed by participating neuroscientists. The Declaration states:
“ The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
This evidence shows that not only are whales and dolphins conscious, they are also self-aware. They have complex brain structures to use on complex functions, just like us. They live in complex societies, just like us. They are capable of experiencing a range of emotions, just like us.
And, as Tahlequah’s actions have shown, they feel grief and sorrow, just like us.
Grief is only one size fits all in the way a straight jacket is.
There is no way to compare it among people. The only similarity is an emptiness that wraps itself around you and hugs you so hard you often have trouble breathing. You become stuck in that weird space between fear and familiarity. It hurts, but you’re used to it. The pain is rooted so deep, it has become one of the cores of your foundation. You don’t want to feel it but without it, you feel empty. So with bloodied paws, you continue your march.
We are seeing now the same is true for the grief struggle in animals.
In Tahlequah’s quest, I see a reflection of myself. Since the morning of November 3rd, 2011, I have been swimming, just like her, against the tide of child loss. Controlled not by the gravitational forces of the sun and moon but by the weight of love and loss, I have been struggling to move forward. I have often forgotten my purpose in life and just reacted on muscle memory. Like Tahlequah, I have abandoned everything that was normal about my life and turned my whole existence into carrying the memory of my child.
To see and share pain is the most honest form of connection. It is the ultimate namaskar of souls.
It’s saying “Yes, I see your pain. Yes, I feel your pain. I see you. I accept you.” And that connection, be it between humans or animals or any combination of the two, is something that is revolutionary.
On a personal note, I think it is wonderful that the whole world has been so touched by Tahlequah’s journey. The stories, the poems, the art, and the political change her story has produced has been uplifting and heartwarming. It’s important that we see and celebrate the connection between and us (humans) and the animal kingdom. To understand how important these animals are to our shared existence is something that I think we need to feel down deep in our bones. We need to continue to realize that there are more things on this planet than us. We need to respect their feelings and do better in accepting them as the rightful heirs to this spinning hunk of rock.
At the same time, I’d like for you to remember that there are people in your circles who are carrying the same weight as Tahlequah. But they won’t be the focus of a national news story anytime soon.No website is going to run the story about how hard it is to listen to the favorite song of someone who isn’t there. A picture of a grief-stricken parent, smile tense and eyes hard because s/he has to exist in such an unfair situation isn’t going to be a viral story.
Often times we forget about those people and their struggles. It’s easy to chastise these people when they are not being their best self. It’s easy to expect them to follow your guidelines and timetables of grief. What’s hard is to acknowledge them and their pain and give them reverence. What’s hard is to accept that grief is a weight that will be forever carried and a fire that will never be extinguished.
Maybe by acknowledging and accepting the pain that Tahlequah is showing in the waters off Vancouver, we will be better able to acknowledge and accept the pain of our human friends. When we do right by the planet and our animals brother and sisters, we do right by ourselves. Expelling empathy to all of the creatures around us, from those in the oceans to those sitting beside us in traffic, is the key factor in keeping this planet and each other alive.
And in the face of tragedy, maybe that is Tahlequah’s gift.