Canada's whale of a dilemma

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It is said that your right to swing your arm ends where your arm meets someone else's nose. And, I might add, your right to believe your late relative has been reincarnated as a killer whale ends where you prevent that whale from being returned to his pod.

Science and animal welfare concerns are clashing with political correctness off the coast of British Columbia, where an orca named Luna is making the news. Rubbing up against boats, alternately victimized and revered, he is stuck and hapless as humans try to help - provided it doesn't offend anyone.

Luna, now five, is a Southern Resident killer whale (an endangered species) who, in July of 2001, showed up in Nootka Sound, off Vancouver Island. The youngster had lost contact with his pod, or family unit, and wandered until he found a food source. Killer whales normally stay with their pod their whole life. Marine biologists theorize that he was swimming with an uncle who died.

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Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) initially decided to leave Luna be, hoping he would find his way back. He didn't. He traveled further inland toward Gold River, where he became famous. By the summer of 2003, tourists were traveling to Gold River to see him, touch him, and sadly, to abuse him. Some poked and prodded, others poured beer down his blowhole.

He's a big boy now - nearly 3,000 pounds - and some have wised up that Luna should be helped back to his pod, which, according to experts, is where he will thrive. The first (and so far only) attempt to reunite a killer whale with its pod was the case of Springer, in 2002. That relocation was successful and also took place off the coast of British Columbia. But Springer had not been away as long as Luna. Time is of the essence. Last fall, the decision was made to relocate Luna. The move was delayed until spring 2004, when Luna's pod was expected nearby.

Meanwhile, the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nations people, a native Canadian tribe, raised concerns about moving Luna, whom they call Tsuux-iit. Their late chief had said he would return in the form of a whale. Shortly after his death, Luna appeared.

In June, an oceanic battle took place. While scientists from the DFO and the Vancouver Aquarium tried to capture Luna, Mowachaht-Muchalaht members paddled their canoes out to stroke and scratch Luna's considerable belly, luring him away. The DFO backed off and in mid-September a joint stewardship was set up between the DFO and the Mowachaht-Muchalaht. The stewardship will focus on ways to keep humans from bothering the whale. Its downside is that no date has been set for his relocation, in spite of the fact that the next few weeks - as boating season dies down - would be opportune.

It is hard to believe any community other than a native group would be given such power. Expressions of guilt - some sincere, some not - over past injustices have created an environment, at least in Canada, where anything short of concurrence with native ideas is seen as arrogance. Killer whales may well be important in native mythology. And there are more things in heaven and earth, and all that. But Luna is not a mythological whale, he's a real one. Perhaps a simple, "We're sorry we stole your land, but the whale needs its pod" is in order.

Another factor is the prevailing belief that aboriginals cannot be incorrect about the environment. History shows them no more or less reverential of nature than the rest of us. (One scientific theory of why more than 30 species of mammals disappeared in North America between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago is that they were hunted to extinction.) Not to mention, the Mowachaht-Muchalaht are part of a larger tribal council, the Nuu-chah-nulth, which has an existing right to hunt certain species of whales. True, they cannot hunt killer whales. But if you are claiming a special relationship with wildlife, consistency is helpful.

If Luna were a child, there would be no debate. A headline this summer in a West Coast paper read, "Spiritual bond between killer whales and West Coast aboriginals runs deep." Do the whales agree? The inability of so many of us to recognize animals as beings worthy of respect is at the heart of Luna's struggle. He is not a thing. And not only is he vulnerable where he is, he is endangering the people around him. He rocks boats, he "plays" with floats. Scientists monitoring Luna - who is still using Southern Resident calls - think this is a sign of this creature's very real loneliness.

Rondi Adamson is a Canadian writer.

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