Today's Reading

Talking with the wildlife officer, I began to think of the whale's body as a sort of setting in which dying could take place at multiple sites, over different durations. The animal, alive on a great scale, didn't die in an instant. Only parts of it did. The humpback's death wasn't, in a word, global. This was the kind of death people call "a death of a thousand cuts." The humpback's face —so much as any whale can be said to have a face, its eyes on either side of its huge head, its nostrils in its crown—did not agonize, grimace, or wince. Neither did the animal cry out in anguish. People on the beach took this for a dignified stoicism, though we were only familiar with the human cosmology of pain. It was dawning on me that, because a whale's body is attuned to its oceanic environment, and because it occupies such immense, physical dimensions, it might suffer uniquely, according to senses I then knew little about.

The wildlife officer told me there could come a point when strapping the whale with dynamite would prove the most humane option. The cleanup afterward—which needed to be thorough and hygienic if a whale had run aground on a popular public beach—was expensive. (How expensive? In time I'd look it up. Another humpback, found dead nearby, a few seasons hence, cost $188,000 Australian dollars (AUD) to remove. Biological "contaminants" sieved out of the sand had to be incinerated. Wires, chains, crane straps, and tarpaulins purchased for the task of transporting the dead whale were all thrown away. The local council and the state department of fisheries disputed which government authority should foot the bill: their remits extended to different varieties of calamity. "Because it's a mammal, not a fish, they believe it's not their jurisdiction," the mayor said.)

The wildlife officer and I stared out to the horizon, the sea mouthing our shoes. Then we walked up to his van. He wanted me to see the only other mercy he could bring to hand: an injection.

"It's called the green dream," he said.

The needle was near to a foot long, and as thick as a car antenna. A rubber tube ran to a pump container. The whole apparatus was reminiscent of something you might use to administer herbicide. A vivid green liquid swilled inside the plastic canister: the trademarked color of Fairy detergent and Nickelodeon slime. It might work, he speculated, because the whale was small, only a yearling. But you wouldn't want to get the dosage wrong.

If administered, the fatal chemicals would linger in the humpback's carcass long after death, and imperil the survival, too, of any scavenger that came to dismantle the whale and gather what could be picked off the bones. Spiny nibblers and jellied dabs that crawl. Feral carrion feeders, slunk in from nearby parklands. In one recorded case, a dog (the breed was Australian shepherd) fell into a coma after digging up and consuming a scrap of blubber from a whale killed twenty-three days previous, so enduring was the barbiturate drug in the euthanizing injection delivered to that cetacean.

The lesson here, the way I grasped it, is that what instinctively feels like compassion toward one creature can prove poisonous in the orbit of small and smaller organisms left lying out on the beach after we leave.

The officer let me hold the green dream for a minute, this ghastly prop, heavier than it looked. Whose was the dream? I wondered. I pictured the whale's many veins and arteries, which, if you could unpick them, would lead off more than three hundred feet down the beach—thinning to capillaries in the distance, like the red thread from a smashed thermometer.

I asked him, "Is it you who makes the decision?" I suspected he could get a gun instead and use that. I had heard he was empowered by certain regulations to fire on a suffering whale, as though it were a chassis on chocks in a paddock.

He held one hand, crablike, on the wet sand and said nothing. The whale weakly lifted its tail and dropped it again.

What would happen afterward: I wanted details, the process. The wildlife officer sighed. He described two mechanical bobcats assigned to collect the carcass. Beach and bundle, he called it, the policy. The whale would be chainsawed in half, it would be quartered and trucked to the Tamala Park landfill site, in Perth's Mindarie, to decay. I envisioned it jumbled in with household waste, amid defunct white goods and bags of trash; the skull, an upturned trough of spoil. After death, the whale's putrefaction would generate yet more heat, scorching its bones and turning its organs black within the tight bind of its innards. If no one cut the body open, it might explode. Other whales had before. Gases puff up cavities inside the carcass, straining against the fat. Did the council worry a whale's remains, towed back beyond the shallows, could bring thresher sharks and hammerheads out of the deeps to loiter where swimmers would, after a time, return? I was confused as to why the animal was destined for the junkyard, even if it didn't end up being given the death-dealing injection.
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