Extinction is Personal – Lori Marino

Scarlet with her family in mid-August 2018.
Photo by Katy Foster/Whale Sanctuary Project under NOAA permit 18786.

In 2018 I had a deeply personal experience with a member of a whale community that brought home to me what extinction means on the individual level. Scarlet was a plucky orca calf who was a member of the southern resident killer whale (SRKW) community in Puget Sound, Washington. But just as she approached her fourth birthday, Scarlet became sick and continued to lose weight over the course of the year. Our team from the Whale Sanctuary Project was part of a group of scientists and others that tried, over several months, unsuccessfully, to save her. We witnessed her monumental effort to live as she tried to keep up with her family during their travels. In the end, she slipped away after a valiant struggle.

In the wake of this emotionally wrenching situation coming during a spate of SRKW deaths, Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, who has studied the SRKWs longer than anyone, was asked for his comments on Scarlet’s demise, Ken said: “This is what extinction looks like.”

We are in a mass extinction.  That means that for the sixth time on earth the rate of extinction of species is 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural background extinction rates. The previous five mass extinctions wiped out 70 – 95% of all species on the planet each time. These past events were all caused by catastrophic changes in the environment too large for most of the earth’s inhabitants to absorb.

Although mass extinctions have been occurring for the past 440 million years, we are, understandably, most familiar with the last one – the KT Event (Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction) 66 million years ago.  This event caused the loss of over 76% of all species on earth, including the nonavian dinosaurs. The asteroid impact that precipitated the “dying” caused a cascade of climatic and geological events that made the earth largely uninhabitable for most plants and animals.

And while we wonder about what it was like during the KT event and, especially, what would have happened had the dinosaurs not gone extinct, we are removed from this ancient event in terms of both time and scope.  It is simply too long ago and too big an event to fully grasp.  And, thus, our relationship to it is rather impersonal.

Just like those before, the current mass extinction involves an ongoing devastation of biodiversity spanning numerous plant, animal, and microbiotic taxa. Nearly a third of the total number of vertebrate species on earth – are being lost. Normally it would take 10,000 years for those extinctions to occur. Put on a different timeframe, we are losing three species per hour. What is going on all around us is nothing short of an extermination.

The present mass extinction event, like all the others, is largely caused by dramatic global climate change. But the current situation is also different from all the others.  There is no asteroid this time – only the unrelenting rampant destruction of the planet in the name of human progress.

Climate change is simply one among many inter-related insults our species heaps on the planet.  In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, our species is using up more resources than the earth can replenish and taking vast swaths of land for deforestation and animal agriculture. We are poaching and trading in wildlife globally, over-fishing, and trashing the planet with pollutants and plastics.

Officially the current geological period is the Holocene but many have proposed that the name be changed to the Anthropocene because of the tremendous human impact on the planet and its inhabitants. The proposal is both an acknowledgement of the status of our species as the main destructive force on earth and an expression of our species’ self-importance and hubris.

One might be forgiven for not feeling the personal tragedy of past mass extinctions. But what is our current excuse? We seem to view extinction as a cold numbers game – a calculus of quantitative metrics such as population size, reproductive capacity and genetic diversity. But underlying these metrics are the “close to the bone” life and death struggles of the sentient animals who are living (and dying) through this process. Extinction is more than an abstract concept.  It is very personal.

The quantitative scientific data that inform a traditional conservation approach are indispensable but inadequate. It is also essential to ask how extinction impacts the lived experiences of the individual sentient beings who make up endangered communities, populations, species, and cultures. This second question represents a newer approach – compassionate conservation – championed by Marc Bekoff.  Compassionate conservation recognizes that the welfare of individuals is a vital component of how we think about and enact conservation methods.  Approaches that address sheer numbers but disregard animal welfare and even rights are not sufficient.  The bedrock of compassionate conservation is the recognition that extinction plays out in the lives of individuals and only does so in populations and species in aggregate.  Extinction is a term about numbers, but it is felt by individuals.

The southern resident killer whales (SRKW) of Puget Sound, Washington, introduced in the opening paragraph, are a community of orcas (Orcinus orca) who are highly endangered. They live-in closely-knit pods – known as J, K, and L – and are matriarchal in their family structure. Their numbers have plummeted to a precarious 74 individuals; they’ve never fully recovered from the plundering of their population by the marine park industry in the 1970’s.  Now, still not recovered, they find it difficult to face down other threats, i.e., pollution, harassment, and lack of prey.  And while it is most certainly the case that they are listed as endangered because they have low population numbers, there is another layer to their conservation status that is felt at the individual level.

Ken’s comment about Scarlet’s death left me wondering whether, at some level, this little orca and her family, understood the extinction threat they are under. And while they probably do not know or care about the scientific status of their community as “highly endangered” one wonders if they have a sense of their whole community as being under siege. They certainly care very much about what happens to each individual in their community and feel the losses that accompany frequent deaths. What is the cumulative effect on the lived experience of each individual whale?

In yet another example that same year, Tahlequah, a mother in the J pod, made headlines globally as she carried her dead baby (who lived only thirty minutes) for 17 days in what was described as a “tour of grief”.  The unbearable sight of the grieving mother carrying the decomposing body of her infant was a message that extinction is the life and death struggle of a mother to come to grips with the loss of her child. Tahlequah did not experience a downward trajectory of genetic diversity or the decreasing loss of reproductive potential in her community.  She simply bore the onslaught of frequent deaths in and around her family at a very personal level and maybe the understanding that her way of life was under threat.

And it is at this foundational personal level that compassionate conservation seeks to and must work. These examples above make it clear that extinction – whether it is recognized as such by individuals – is always a painful process that involves immense suffering on the part of individuals – little by little, piece by piece. And that is why any conservation measures must not harm individuals any more than they are already experiencing harm.  Measures such as relocation, culling, taking into captivity, and other practices that trade off individual well-being for the good of the group are not in keeping with compassionate conservation and, I would argue, a generally ethical stance towards other animals. Clearly these are complex issues that are not easily addressed. But compassionate conservation, at the very least, is an attempt to recognize that anything we do to protect and conserve a community or species must respect the rights of the individuals and recognize that extinction is indeed personal.

Lori Marino, PhD, is a neuroscientist who has studied animal behavior and intelligence for thirty years and was on the faculty of Emory University.

Lori is internationally known for her work on the evolution of the brain and intelligence in dolphins and whales (as well as primates and farmed animals). She has published over 140 peer-reviewed scientific papers, book chapters, and magazine articles on marine mammal biology and cognition, comparative brain anatomy, self-awareness in nonhuman animals, human-nonhuman animal relationships, and the evolution of intelligence. She has also worked extensively on marine mammal captivity issues such as dolphin assisted therapy, the educational claims of the zoo and aquarium industry, and the ethics of captivity.

In 2001, she co-authored a ground-breaking study offering the first conclusive evidence for mirror self-recognition in bottlenose dolphins, after which she decided against further research with captive animals.

Lori is President of the Whale Sanctuary Project, whose mission is to create a seaside sanctuary for captive belugas and orcas in Nova Scotia. And she is also the Founder and Executive Director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, which focuses on bridging the gap between academic scholarship and animal advocacy efforts.

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