Opinion

We have more to learn from animals than animals have to learn from us

By Sandy Lloyd

SANDY LLOYD IS TALKING TO THE ANIMALS

Last week I heard a man on the radio describe the best thing that had happened to him all year.

It wasn’t what you might think at this point in a year that’s been turned upside-down, first by bushfires and then by a deadly virus.

He wasn’t celebrating an easing of restrictions that meant he could see family members he had been separated from for months, or his kids going back to school, or even being able to sit down for a coffee at his favourite café.

He was overjoyed about a whale.

But not just any whale. It was the first sighting for the year of Migaloo, the famous and rare white humpback. He was reportedly spotted off the south coast of NSW last week on his annual migration from Antarctica up to Queensland.

Scientists say the arrival of Migaloo provides invaluable information about the migratory patterns of humpback whales.

But Migaloo — and other happy stories about animals — also has the ability to make humans feel good about the natural world.

One of the strongest messages to come out of the coronavirus crisis has been our reliance on animals to lift our spirits.

Thousands of words have been dedicated to the therapeutic effect of our pets in lock-down — not to mention probably millions of shared pictures.

(Have you noticed recently the stories have become how to help our dogs cope with us returning to work? Not cats — they can’t wait for us to leave.)

One of my family’s favourite television shows during lock-down has been The Doghouse, about a dog rescue centre in Great Britain rehoming abandoned dogs with their forever families.

It brings a lump to my throat every time I see a new owner connect with their — often damaged and anxious — new dog.

As the third forever home for my little dog, who started life in the pound, I can relate to every story.

And it’s especially tear-jerking when homes can’t be found, or the dogs are too old and too sick, and must be put to sleep. (Wally the spaniel, I wish I could have looked after you!)

But it’s not just our domesticated friends at our feet or shared on our screens that have carried us through COVID-19.

Wild animals and their stories have also helped to make us feel lighter when the world around us is like a weight on our shoulders.

Migaloo is the perfect example.

Dr Wally Franklin, from the Oceania Project and Southern Cross University, told ABC Radio that Migaloo’s sighting was “the best news I’ve had so far in this very strange year”.

He said Migaloo, believed to be more than 30 years old, was the only all-white humpback in the eastern Australian group of about 40,000 whales.

That makes him easy to spot — and easy to love.

Marine scientist Dr Vanessa Pirotta, from Macquarie University, said “Migaloo is this iconic flagship whale of the entire humpback whale population in Australia”.

“Having heard about this white whale over years is something we can annually go, ‘I wonder what Migaloo is doing this year?’ — so it provides us with an identity whale,” she said.

So at the same time we’ve got the warm and fuzzies about seeing Migaloo, we’re absorbing information about whales and their world.

One of the desperately sad things we all had to endure this year was the mass deaths of our wildlife in the terrible summer bushfires. I sobbed over some of the heart-wrenching stories of animal and bird deaths.

But we brightened up every time we saw a rescued koala or a saved bird.

So I got some extra warm and fuzzies — and tears of a happy kind — when I heard a critically endangered marsupial, feared almost wiped out in the Kangaroo Island bushfires, had been found.

The tiny dunnart was seen by a farmer who had set up cameras in the hope some wildlife had survived on his fire-ravaged property.

Peter Hammond told the ABC he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the dunnart.

“We didn't want to build up our hopes too much, we looked at the photo over and over,” he said.

“There were lots of cheers and jumping up and down when it turned out it was one.”

Mr Hammond said discovering the dunnart had survived was a bright spot in a very difficult period of recovery for Kangaroo Island residents.

“It was about the best news all year.”

How extraordinary, that the survival of a tiny creature could so lift the spirits of someone who has lost everything in a disaster.

It just proves how connected we are to nature and how much we lose as human beings when parts of the natural world are lost forever.

I AM WATCHING...

The latest in a long line of movies and mini-series of Jane Austen’s Emma.

I missed this one when it had its cinema release earlier this year, but it was the perfect winter Sunday afternoon DVD to share the couch with.

Beautifully staged and styled (the costumes are glorious), this version really plays up the comedy of manners and claustrophobic Regency-era country society Austen captured in her novel.

Not my favourite Emma, but it’s still an enjoyable take on the young woman who occupies herself with her often misguided matchmaking and meddling in the lives of her friends and family.

I AM IMPRESSED...

By efforts to make television programs more accessible to vision-impaired people.

SBS and ABC have been given funding to kick-start audio description across a range of shows.

So how can a blind person enjoy watching television when they can’t see the screen?

You tell them what’s happening, explaining the visual and non-verbal elements of a program during gaps in dialogue.

How wonderful that children can now enjoy shows like Bluey and Play School, and adults can travel on Back Roads and can hear Gardening Australia’s Costa described in all his bearded glory.

I AM ANGRY...

That the things I think are critical to a vibrant and inclusive society are no longer deemed worthwhile by our politicians.

I’m talking about the blunt message coming out of Canberra: technology and maths are ‘good’, history and social sciences are ‘bad’.

Please don’t penalise students who want to study humanities — we need them to understand society, to learn who we are and where we came from.

That’s more important than ever, in this world filled with racial and cultural tensions.

I thought we wanted to be the ‘clever’ country — a clever country needs more than scientists and engineers.

I AM HAPPY...

To have caught up with some of my closest girlfriends after months of being apart.

Our little gang of six are ‘the subbing girls’ — over the course of 25 years we have all worked together at some point on the Shepparton News subs’ desk.

It has formed an unbreakable bond of friendship, even if we no longer all work together.

COVID-19 restrictions had kept us apart until a joyous reunion on Saturday — and a chance to celebrate a 50th birthday that happened during lock-down.

We were planning to go to Daylesford on the weekend to celebrate — but that will have to wait for another time.