The Terri Schiavo situation dominating Florida, Washington, D.C., and front pages everywhere is oddly reminiscent of a crisis that riveted the world’s attention back in October 1988: the rescue of three whales, Siku, K’nik and Putu, trapped in Arctic ice.
Uncountable whales had died this way in the past, and hundreds since, but in this particular case the world decided to go quite mad:
Eskimos that normally hunted and killed the unendangered whale species instead, urged by environmentalists, let them live and even named them as though they were pets (the names, respectively, meant Ice, Snowflake and Hole in the Ice).
Hundreds of millions of people paid rapt attention to coverage over more than two weeks, during which the media — represented in Alaska by more than 150 journalists from around the world — spent upward of $5.8 million on the story.
The Soviets got much credit for saving the three whales, even if it responded to requests to send an icebreaking vessel just at the end of a whaling season that killed more than 150 of the creatures.
President Reagan, whose environmental high points included appointing the satanic James Watt secretary of the interior and blaming trees for pollution, called the rescue team to let them know that “Our hearts are with you.” The governor of Alaska exerted himself on the rescue, despite or because of the apathy he displayed a few weeks before toward saving seven Eskimos who floated out to sea on an ice floe. The government wound up getting much of the credit for saving the whales, although it was mainly the result of Greenpeace efforts.
And the oil industry, mainly the companies Arco and Veco, scored major points by contributing to rescue efforts, although their usual role in Alaska was cluttering the land with pumping and drilling equipment and befouling water and animals with oil spills. Within six months, the Exxon Valdez would dump 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska, causing what many still consider to be the No. 1 spill worldwide in terms of damage to the environment.
People lapse into persistent vegetative states all the time, just as whales get trapped in ice. In both cases, it is our reaction that is remarkable, not the situation itself. And when Terri Schiavo has faded into history with Siku, K’nik and Putu, people will still lapse into persistent vegetative states, families will still face decisions over whether to let them die and there will still be arguments and anguish, and little or no moral clarity, over those decisions.
What the world will never know is how much Terri Schiavo, or the whales, appreciate the efforts on their behalf or attention to their plight.
Tom Rose’s “Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event” (1989, Birch Lane Press) added to my recollections of the whale crisis.