The Value of Life Itself


Human-centred animal that I am, I find it easiest to appreciate the heroism of animals who save human lives, who rescue people. But I’ve come to be impressed, too, by the numerous accounts of animals inexplicably going out of their way to save the lives of other animals.

Now, the official government-run Soviet News Agency TASS does not ordinarily carry “human interest” stories. But in September, 1977, TASS reported a remarkable incident that occurred in the Black Sea. A Russian fishing boat found itself being circled by a small group of dolphins. The animals seemed to want something, and kept circling, until the sailors decided to raise anchor. Immediately, the dolphins sped off, as if they had been waiting for the anchor to be lifted, and wanted to be followed. The puzzled sailors decided to follow along to see what would happen, and were lead to a buoy near which they saw a young dolphin trapped in a fishing net. Understanding now why the dolphins had come to them, the men released the trapped dolphin. The dolphins then proceeded to guide the boat back to the exact spot where it had been originally anchored.

In this case, dolphins teamed up with human beings to save the life of one of their own kind. But there are many cases, perhaps even more remarkable, in which dolphins and human beings have collaborated to save the lives of other species, such as whales.

On September 30, 1978, about 50 pilot whales became beached just north of Auckland, New Zealand. Government officials tried in every way to lure the great whales out to sea, because if they remained where they were they would all certainly die. Nothing worked. Then the officials got the idea of guiding a passing group of dolphins into the harbor. This they did, and when the dolphins saw the whales they seemed to instantly understand the whole situation. Wasting no time, the dolphins immediately took charge, and literally herded the whales back to the open sea, thereby saving their lives.

Of all the accounts I have on record of dolphin heroism, perhaps the most amazing comes, once again, from TASS. Their report tells of sailors on board the fishing vessel “Neverskoil,” which was sailing off the coast of Kamchatka on August 14, 1978. The sailors heard a sea lion bellowing for help, and saw that the creature was surrounded by a number of killer whales. But before the whales could devour the sea lion, a group of dolphins appeared, and the whales backed off. The sailors watched as the dolphins then swam away, and they thought this high drama of the seas was over. But the whales made another run at the beleaguered sea lion, who again began bellowing in fear. I can’t help but think that what the sailors saw next must have astounded even these hardened veterans of the sea. The dolphins, hearing the distressed cries of the sea lion, realized that the killer whales were again honing in on the creature. They rushed back to the scene, leapt over the heads of the whales, and formed a ring around the sea lion, protecting it. They did not leave until the killer whales were well out of sight.

There are reports of dolphins coming to the aid of whales giving birth. When sharks are menacingly near, the dolphins take up positions around a mother whale and her female “attendants,” forming a ring around the helpless mother during her labor and delivery. Should the sharks attack, the dolphins bump them away with their bottle-nosed beaks.

There are so many cases of dolphins saving lives – both human and non-human – that we should really think of them as the “Life-guards of the Seas.” We should. But we don’t. Instead, we often treat them with utter contempt.

One type of dolphin, called the Dall Porpoise, often swims in the water above salmon and tuna fish schools. Current salmon and tuna fishing methods use huge nets which trap the salmon and tuna – and the dolphins. In the last ten years, according to official figures, 1,649,189 were killed in the course of tuna fishing. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 required fishermen to reduce their porpoise kill gradually to zero. However, in September 1981, President Reagan’s Administration convinced Congress to exempt the U.S. commercial tuna fleet, resulting in the continued use of purse-seine nets which trap and kill thousands of dolphin along with the tuna. Thus fifty dolphins will be killed in the time it takes you to read this chapter. Two have been killed while you’ve been reading this page, and this rate of massacre goes on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The huge corporations which own the fishing fleets tell the public they have modified the nets to permit the porpoises to escape. But they don’t tell the public that many of the animals are netted and released, netted and released, until they are mangled and dead. The Reagan Administration has also allowed the Japanese to kill porpoises while fishing for salmon in the U.S. Waters of the North Pacific. Over a million dolphins have died in their huge nets, which also trap and kill seals and birds. As a result, organizations like “Friends of Animals, Inc.” have called for a boycott of all tuna and salmon products.

The more I’ve learned, the harder it has become to avoid the conclusion that animals are capable of a respect and reverence for life that cuts across species boundaries. One veterinarian reports:

“I have six cases on record of pet dogs and cats becoming depressed and calling mournfully when a companion animal in the same house has been taken away to be put to sleep because of some incurable disease. In all cases, at about the same time that the companion pet was being destroyed, the surviving animal showed a sudden and obvious change in behavior. In one case, the owner did not know that the vet had put the other pet to sleep until he called an hour later, and for an hour before, her cat had been calling frantically and showing distress.”

I find it difficult to dismiss these cases and attribute them merely to instinct. They speak to me rather of a thread binding all creatures in the great web of life.

Story is from “Diet for A New America”, an inspiring book by author John Robbins, promoting a cruelty free way of life for the physical, environmental, social and spiritual well being of Mother Earth and all of her children. Visit for more on the work of John Robbins