Friday, March 17, 2006

Sharing the blame

Michael Parfit, whose ultimately unsuccessful work in protecting the lost killer whale Luna from harm I described earlier, has penned an eloquent and insightful piece describing the aftermath of the young orca's death:
We had flowers with us. Slowly we began to throw them into the sea. They floated away behind us on the easterly breeze as we were carried west by the current. I had told a newspaper reporter that we would throw flowers and say goodbye. But we only managed the first part.

And whom shall we blame for this great loss? The heart weeps and the heart seethes, and the heart demands to exact a price from those who have caused it pain, in the vain hope that some kind of relief can be purchased by what the broken heart imagines is the more deserved pain of another.

In the press and on websites we have seen a pouring out of recrimination. We find that both terrible and understandable. We are often overwhelmed by waves of anger and desires to blame. Our pain at this loss is greater than we had ever imagined it would be, and the bursts of anger we feel are more intense than is in any way justified. In fact, I found to my dismay that I threw some of the flowers hard, as if hitting out at the water for withholding our friend.

As part of the grieving process, Parfit also examines his own culpability:
One thing must be said now. You did not read about everything I did. I could not be altogether honest, because I was afraid that if I was I would be officially forbidden to continue. I will be honest now. I did not make a habit of playing with Luna, but on several occasions I led him away from problem encounters. Most of these were with fish farms. In the last few months he has caused damage and concern at those places, and when I came past and saw Luna engaged in that kind of activity, and then saw Luna come toward my boat, I did not speed away. I let him follow. Usually I then led him across the bay, then motored slowly up Zuciarte Channel toward the open ocean, to see if he would follow.

Usually, when I got into Zuciarte, Luna chose not to go any farther. Once, however, he followed me up Zuciarte to within two miles of open water, which I found hopeful. I had many daydreams about a reunion at the mouth of the Sound if he could just learn to headquarter out there instead of behind stone acoustic barriers in Mooyah. But after that one time he didn’t go that far again.

Once I did lead him to the sea. He was far out of Mooyah, around on the west side of Bligh Island. I had been looking for him for hours and was quite worried. Do you remember the photos of his recent breech? It was that day. I saw a spout and then the breech. What a relief it was! When he came down from the big jump he did stealth whale right over to me and started playing with the boat. I could see the edge of open water in the distance, and decided that I’d just leave the motor turned off. I drifted at about two knots all the way out to Yuquot. I was looking straight up at the lighthouse when he finally left and headed back into the Sound.

This told me that getting him to the sea regularly would not be hard. Unfortunately I felt that I had so pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in leading him out those two times that I did not seriously try it again. Now I wish I had done differently. But there are many wishes.

The point of all this is that I found it extraordinarily easy to get him out of troublesome situations. Although I didn’t do this very often, I knew how straightforward and effective it could be.

... The point of all this is that I know I might have been able to head off the accident that killed him. After all, I was the guy who had taken on keeping him safe. I knew how to do it, and had done it before, and was concerned about the risks. And I had made a commitment to our own hopes for Luna. I had also made at least a moral commitment to all of you who have read our reports and had your own hopes for a long life for this boisterous sweetheart whom Lisa Larsson, in her grief, calls our brave little whale. Though I was constrained by law from doing all that I wanted to do for Luna, I had promised that I would be around to give Luna help when he needed it, and was willing to bend the law when necessary to get that job done. I was the one on watch.

But on the day that mattered, I wasn’t there. I had tied up the boat and had gone down to our home near Victoria for a few days. There were things we had to get done at home and I thought it was going to be more important to be around all the time later in the season. There are few sadder words to me right now than these: I wasn’t there.

Parfit, however, is wise enough to recognize that he couldn't have played God in the end, and that Luna's death was a tragic convergence of many actions and inactions, many presences and many absences:
I think that in learning to accept whatever blame is legitimately mine, and in shedding the vanity of taking on too much, I find that I cannot escape my pain by laying blame on others. The reality of this tragedy is that it was a specific event, an accident, which had no direct cause in policy or negligence. It could have happened anywhere at any time, even after a reunion. I can absorb some of the blame, because it indeed happened on my watch. Beyond that, blame is just guesswork and slander and unworthy of the character of the loved one we have lost.

We can surely seek lessons, as Fred Felleman has done so calmly in his essay. And we have to accept that we all share responsibility here. We all cared, but we failed to find agreement, and we failed to learn what Luna really needed. We just failed. But we have to accept also that one of the costs of freedom is risk, and Luna was free and took risks. Could we have lessened those risks? Perhaps. But wherever he was we could not have eliminated them, even by taking away his freedom, where a different set of risks would have come into play. You can lock your child in the bedroom away from fast cars, but then he dies of loneliness or the flu you bring him.

Be sure to also read Fred Felleman's essay on the lessons learned, as well as Howard Garrett's and Susan Berta's excellent op-ed from the P-I.

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