Colin The Baby Whale

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
22nd August 2008

Tagged: death euthanasia


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I do not know who named him Colin, but personalising him only increased the pathos of the baby whale in Pittwater. Separated from its mother the calf could not be persuaded to go into the open sea, nor could humans provide for it inside Pittwater. Each day brought starvation closer.

Words are such important tools in moving our opinions and affections. The name Colin moves us from calling the whale “it” to “him”. Similarly calling it a “baby” instead of a “calf”, affects our response to the tragedy.

The sight was sad, even forlorn. To see the poor confused creature nuzzling into boats was pathetic. Our inability to help the poor animal was frustrating. There were so many different ideas on what to do but no one in any authority able to help.

Then came the question of killing it—or should I say “him” or “the whale”. We did not talk of killing Colin. That would be murder. Killing sounds barbaric even immoral but murder is by definition wrong. For murder involves wrongful killing. There was even talk of it being wrong because killing whales in Australian waters is illegal. As if legality determines morality rather than morality determining legality.

Some people spoke of killing the whale as wrong. “Other alternatives should be attempted.” “While there is life there is hope.” So ran the arguments as the week came to an end.

But when all other alternatives ran out, the best experts in the field (a rare and strange field to be an expert in—“how to deal with deserted whale calves”) declared that there was no hope. Then came the dreadful word—the whale would have to be “euthanased”.

We have just had two weeks of the Olympics where the noun medal has turned into a verb (e.g. “More British than Australian athletes medalled.”) English has this wonderful capacity to keep expanding its vocabulary in this way. So turning the noun “euthanasia” into a verb “to euthanase” is a natural if unpleasant linguistic evolution.

This linguistic evolution is driven by the powerful political forces behind the move to legalise so called “mercy killing” of humans. To normalise (to use a similar evolutionary verb) the word euthanase is a very important part of the argument. We have to develop language that makes killing acceptable.

We have done this with abortion. We no longer allow abortion to be called murder. It is not even killing. We remove any stigma of having an abortion by talking of terminating and termination. Termination is a neutral sounding medical procedure rather than a moral choice to end the life of the embryonic or foetal child.

Let us be clear in our language about what we are doing. It enables clarity of thought when making moral choices. This is especially needed with heart rending and difficult choices—such as killing the young whale.

To kill is to cause the death of some other living creature. It is never something that we should do without respect for that life. So we are never to drink the blood of the animal we kill (Genesis 9:5). Nor are we to kill in a cruel and unnecessarily painful fashion. Killing is to protect ourselves and to live. All eating involves killing something.

Murder is more than killing, it is wrongful killing. But not all wrongful killing is murder. For murder is the wrongful killing of another human being. Not all killing of another human is wrong, though the burden of proof lies with those who want to start war. Killing a whale may be the wrong thing to do but it is never murder.

To confuse whale killing or any animal killing with murder is to make a very serious error of categories. It is the confusion of the moral order of humans and other animals. Humans alone are created in God's image and protected by God's edict “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6).

Humans have responsibility for the animals but animals do not have responsibility for us. You can blame a human for cruelty but you cannot blame an animal for cruelty. They do not kill out of cruelty—that is part of human sinfulness—they act out of their natural instincts when they kill.

Euthanasia can mean “a painless death”. In this sense palliative care can be a form of euthanasia. But today the word is used to mean “painless killing” or “killing motivated by the desire to end pain”. We have been doing this to animals for a long time—but the pressure is to do the same to humans.

Again the issue is the category confusion between animals and humans. To those who do not believe in God humans are not made in the image of God. Christian belief appears irrelevant to them and they would argue should be irrelevant to society.

To such people we can appeal to the intuitive notion that humans are different morally and personally to animals. This is why we have to beware of the attempt to humanise animals (e.g. calling the baby whale Colin). Or we could appeal to the intuition that questions who should/could take responsibility for another human life.

If these intuitive arguments fail then we can point to the inevitable negative outcomes of legalising the killing of humans under this guise. It pressures old people to give up on life. It makes them fearful of seeking medical attention. Those who stand to inherit will be morally compromised by the decisions they make. The list of arguments is extensive. These cannot purport to be moral arguments but then the people we are arguing with have already renounced Christian morality.

It is very sad to kill a whale calf. But no police force is out looking for the mother to charge her with wilfully abandoning Colin—her baby.