TWO RECENT news stories about animals have caught our attention, not so much for their content as for the way they've been reported. The first is from Cherbourg, France, where a 13-foot grampus whale, fondly and unimaginatively named "Willie," swam into Cherbourg harbour, specifically into the "military half of the harbour," and brought all naval shipping traffic to a halt, or to anchor, as it were. The second story is from just outside San Francisco, where 13 endangered-species, orange-bellied harvest mice were discovered at the site of a $2-billion power plant, currently favored by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. A report by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission stated that the site would be rejected if the power plant hurt the mice.
Both stories are, of course, adorable, and - needless to say - adorably told. Ted White of Pacific Gas and Electric was quoted as saying: "We can mitigate the situation by moving the little bitty fellows somewhere else." And the French navy hired a "whale psychologist" for Willie, who eventually left Cherbourg on his own. Upon reading such accounts, we are left with the feeling of a heartwarming fable: "The Whale and the Mouse" - in which two lovable mammals do their darnedest to stay mankind from the mindless expansion of the military-industrial complex.
Well, we're not much in favor of anybody's complex, but we would suggest that the idea that animals are always thinking of our well-being bears some scrutiny. More often we are thinking of theirs. Willie, for example, is a grampus (Grampus griseus ), which means that he's more of a dolphin than a whale. There is no animal on land or sea that has been better thought of than the dolphin - the most renowned of the breed, "Pelorus Jack" (a grampus), having received lifelong protection in New Zealand by an Order of Council. As for the plight of the "little bitty fellows," the third edition of "Mammals of the World" makes it clear, first, that the harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys fulvescens ) is not "orange-bellied," as described, but rather has white or grayish "under parts," occasionally tinged with "orchraceous-buff of pinkish cinnamon." More to the point: "Harvest mice are of no economical importance as they do not thrive on cultivated land." In short, what we have here is less a case of the lower phyla warning us against ourselves, than of malicious trouble-making by two genera that are coddled on the large hand, and lazy on the small.
Finally, consider the context of their stories, which is irritating, if not alarming. The activities of our mouse and whale are not isolated pranks, but rather occur in a whole nest of similar tales. On March 12, a deer jumped through a window in the home of Murray and Elizabeth Crocker of Beltsville, and settled in the bath tub. Last spring a beaver attacked a woman in Pisgah, Md., and dragged her into a ditch. Need we mention the gangs of maruading squirrels in New Jersey or the attack rabbit in New York or the frogs that fell on Alabama? Well and good to chortle at this monkey business; but it's getting harder to ignore the fact that whenever animals do think about us, they tend to behave like animals.