In a desperate world we help who we can, even if it's a whale

Susan Nightingale

By Tuesday, it was beginning to look like an Irwin Allen disaster movie Save the Whales.

The military, the oil companies, the greenies, the Eskimo whalers, even the president who phoned in his moral support had marshaled forces in a compelling truelife drama.

Naturally, the networks followed.

The entire nation watched the risky mobilization of up to half a million dollars worth of resources aimed at rescuing three California gray whales, trapped a halfdozen icy miles from safety.

On the front page of this newspaper, below the story about the whales, was a report that 5 million American children may suffer from chronic hunger. Below that story, at the bottom of the page, The Associated Press reported that 2 million people are on the edge of death from starvation in Sudan the result of summer floods and years of war.

Yet it is the whales, barnacled and bloody, that haunt, that capture our imaginations and our prayers and, no doubt, our dollars if we thought they would help.

What does this say about us? About our values?

Or our imaginations, for that matter?

Surely, the whales seem closer to home. We have seen compelling photos and footage of the familiar gray beasts, gasping for air just feet from humans willing them to live, waiting for them to die. They are mammals without arms, a sister species unable to save itself.

Then, too, there are only three of them not 5 million, not 2 million, but three. And only six miles from rescue. These are bitesized statistics, numbers we can understand and absorb, and so maybe affect.

The irony is not lost on local biologists. "Every year, probably dozens of grays drown or are crushed by the ice, but nobody ever knows about it, " one biologist told the Associated Press.

Ah, but this time we know, and the sound of a whale gasping for breath into a microphone is distinctly different from a tree falling in the forest when no one's around to hear.

Alaska National Guard adjutant general Maj. Gen. John Schaeffer put his finger on it when he told the New York Times: "Whenever they can go on a mission our guys are excited about it, but this has a different flavor it's like going out and freeing Bambi."

Bambi aside, there is no end to the anthropomorphizing. These are brother mammals, endangered and intelligent. Whales occupy a place in the Western heart even the hearts of the Eskimos who still hunt and revere them that is special.

If you doubt it, consider this: Where was the call from the president when seven Eskimo whalers not three whales were lost on the ice in June?

It is not fair, or even logical. Nothing about this effort is, and maybe we err in trying to answer instinct with logic. The whales aren't competing with the homeless women and desperate men of the world. Would that it were otherwise, but the rescue funds supplied by the guard and VECO and ARCO would not have gone to hungry children if the whales had kept their wits and made it to the dubious safety of the open seas. That is a different financial and emotional pot.

Sometimes, the world is too big and too impersonal and, yes, too messed up even to grasp; we are selective in our concerns out of selfdefense. We take on what we can, because we can. It is emotional triage, pure and simple.

So executives in Manhattan walk past sleeping forms huddled over grates but fret about three dying whales 5,000 miles away. Here in Anchorage, some people do the same while others hotly debate the merits of a $500,000 rescue effort in the shadow of Alaska's economic depression and the world's greater exigency.

It is a debate as old as the problem of need, however new and wondrous the technology that accompanies it. Whom people decide to help, and how, is an instinct as mysterious as the migrations and songs of the whales themselves.

Suzan Nightingale is a Daily News columnist.

Anchorage Daily News