Enjoying The Snow. Part IV: Recalling Captain Ahab

The most popular post ever written on Readings From The Northside was a bit called “Calling Captain Ahab To The Intersection of Ethics & Self Interest” It was a quick rant written after a very long, frustrating, and depressing afternoon trying to photograph a humpback whale from the beach while it was mercilessly tormented by boats. I took pictures of them and their VIN numbers, but I just couldn’t bring myself to turn them in for whatever reason. It was popular not so much in a feel-good sense, but because it was somewhat controversial and open ended, and it made people think and so was very widely shared.

That made me very uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable writing it in the first place, but sometimes you just have to spit something out to relieve the pressure. Yet there is a huge danger each and every time you open your mouth. It is all too easy to be completely misunderstood, especially when you write quickly and in-the-moment. What is worse is that animal welfare, law, ethics, behavior… these are all topics I know very little about in a formal sense; I just enjoy them. It was not an essay. It was just thinking out loud about an annoying experience that had left me feeling uncertain.

But when I saw it printed in a local paper, I was actually ashamed. For the enormous pull quote chosen to highlight the letter was this:

I refuse to throw the 7 different Captains I watched grossly violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act today under the bus because I am pretty sure they are not horrible people.

It is not an absolutely horrible thought, and it represents something I truly believe: that some of the biggest (and most easily preventable) threats to wild animals come from basically good and well-intentioned people. Often from people who really love animals, like wildlife photographers and enthusiasts such as myself. But it is a dangerous thought taken out of what little context a blog post can provide. It suggests that the law might be unnecessary, or heavy handed, or maybe that we are capable of self policing, or deciding when laws and which laws should and should not apply to us. That is such poor and dangerous thinking, I would rather say nothing than encourage someone to think that way, especially in regards wild animals and the rules and guidelines that have been established to help them. I say that it is dangerous not in judgmental sense, but as a regular guy who knows how slippery the slope is from experience. I am not a do-gooder at heart. I’ve come to see the real value of the few laws we have protecting the wild beach the hard way, through direct experience of their successes and failures.

Many people got the point of the piece though, and most put the blame and the shame for the real failure squarely on me. That pleased me greatly. For not only did that show that I had successfully communicated that I have no idea what I am doing, and that these issues are anything but the black & white simplicities they are often presented as, but it also left most people with the very reasonable and correct thought that the animals are worth not-harassing and deserve consideration. I succeeded in leaving no room for the animal to be cast as the enemy.

That may seem like a natural and obvious conclusion, but it isn’t always. In fact, when issues of ethics are presented with too much contrast, pitting one group against another, like birders against photographers or beach-goes against scientists, people can quickly take positions and sides that do not necessarily represent their true feelings or their best interests. Oftentimes this is because their sense of entitlement has been violated, or some other fantasy about what a good person they are has been questioned.

In some high profile cases where photographers have been caught breaking the law, a common rebuttal is to lash out, for example, against wildlife management groups as being “even more harmful”. I’m a contrarian at heart and love a good, backhanded slap that turns an argument on its head and makes you think. But I have also read a boat load of ethics-related articles and commentary and find many to be, quite unintentionally, harmful. It is good to break the mold, to stir the pot, to make people think; but it is awful to confuse and issue, leave readers with wrong ideas, and worst of all, to embolden and give excuse to really bad behavior.

Equally unhelpful is when one group attacks another without true merit or basis: when the crazy-seal-lady yelled at a peaceful group of people being patient and obeying the law while enjoying the experience of observing a wild animal she not only accomplished zero things; she also discredited herself and, by association, discredited everyone who might later try to help a seal on the beach. So much of our loss of the ability to compromise in this world, be it in politics, religion, or wildlife ethics, is born from extremists on both sides of the arguments who promote abstract simplicities that simply can’t be reconciled to the real world. No one winds up getting it. Every one loses; especially the animals.

At the time, getting a bunch of boat captains arrested because they were excited about being so close to a humpback whale on a boring afternoon of fishing just felt like it really solved nothing and would only serve to turn more boat captains against whales and the people who protect them.

But despite any small victories in writing the post, my heart felt heavy and I actually apologized privately for it to some people. And as a result of those conversations, I wound up finishing the story myself by reaching out and contacting the authorities involved with protecting our whales. I spoke to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, the Coast Guard, and the state officials involved. What I learned is that the authorities are not the people I thought they were. I had some incorrect assumptions. These folks were as interested and enthusiastic as I was. They did not want to fine anybody. They wanted to teach them. They wanted to know the whales were there. They wanted to come see the whales themselves. We’re all suckers for humpbacks. And the small amount of information I had was truly valuable. Not for busting some over-enthusiastic captains… but for  understanding our whales and what was going on in the great big sea off of our coast.

I see many things differently since those phone calls. It highlighted for me that the issues don’t even have to be about what is right and what is wrong. The issue can just be about information. A wise commenter on the blog said something along the lines of, “You should’ve just called it in and washed your hands of it. Instead you played judge and jury.” A fair comment. I did not totally understand it at first, because in my own mind I was having trouble “judging” the captains. I saw them breaking the law, but also understood their motivations. I felt as if I could not make a judgement, and that was the problem.

But what I judged, incorrectly, was the complexity  of the situation. It was totally simple. We have simple laws, we have people who help create and develop and enforce them, and, in this case, we had people violating them. It was even simpler than most situations I find myself stuck in the middle of because I could not have spoken to the captains like I could on the beach, even if I wanted to. Calling it in was easy, and it was the right thing to do. Turns out I would not have been “busting” anyone, but would have instead let the agencies know about the whales, giving them a reason to do some patrols, and giving them a chance to educate those captains directly. I’ve often fallen back on the excuse “It is not my job, someone gets paid to do that.” But the proper authorities would never been in the area to keep an eye on the whales in the first place, unless someone like me reports these incidents.

I call it a woeful errand and it truly, truly is. Photographers, birders, and wildlife enthusiasts live for those precious moments when we can get away from it all and just be there, in the moment. Having to witness, and worse, intervene in some lame situation is unfortunately too common, too annoying, and too distracting. So many situations are grey, and debatable, and marginal, and so more difficult to respond satisfactorily to. So instances where clear boundaries are being crossed and laws are being broken are the simple ones. We should welcome them above all others, at least in terms of the clarity they afford us.

Laws related to wild animals are obviously useful, and they are important. It is a slippery slope to ever start thinking they are debatable, or not applicable to us at certain times or in certain situations. When we truly believe a law is bad then we should use our intelligence and our integrity to get it properly revoked. But we should never behave as if a standing law does not matter. If you truly believe the Holgate Refuge has no value and they “took your land”, then petition the government. But don’t trespass there or bring your dog there. That is a lazy, lazy way to protest. If you are a photographer and believe you are entitled to access some protected location, then set up a meeting with the refuge staff and start a campaign for new trails and blinds. But don’t trespass simply because you think you know better, have traveled a long way, and are entitled somehow to the privilege.

But what is really important is to engage. While it is always uncomfortable to risk being taken for a crazy-seal-lady and triggering the entitlement fantasy defense of an angry mob, I believe the world will evolve into a better place when we communicate with each other honestly and openly. Always let a trespasser know they are trespassing. Always let someone closer than the legal distance know they are breaking the law. You can do it with calm, cool, compassion. It does not need to be a judgement or a struggle. And always report stuff to the proper authorities. The information is extremely valuable to them. They already usually know about such problems, but duration, timing, frequency, and other details are invaluable to crafting policies and strategies which benefit everyone.

I see the current reality like this:

We have some innocent people harming animals because they are ignorant. We have a few flagrant jerks endangering animals because they don’t care or are actually cruel. We have a lot of people endangering animals because they think they know better, they are entitled, or that laws are debatable and situational. Then we have a few ineffective loud mouths yelling about how bad everybody is and how great they are.

But mostly, we have really good people behaving pretty responsibly. That is the majority. And most of the majority is insanely annoyed by the ignorant and the obnoxious and just want them to go away and to be left alone. If you identify as a pretty good person who behaves pretty responsibly around wild animals, you are encouraged to engage and help this scene evolve in a positive direction. At the very least, commit to upholding the law and sharing information with others.

Hopefully by Recalling Captain Ahab, some of the lessons I have learned will ring true.