Helping Out Putu, Siku and Kanik

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First there was Humphrey, the desultory humpback whale saved from starvation in California's Sacramento River in 1985 by an armada of whale lovers who successfully herded him out to sea. Last summer there was Henry, a young whale who made a wrong turn and ended up in New York's polluted harbor before regaining his bearings. Then last week the sight of three battered and bloodied gray whales gasping for breath at holes in a thickening Arctic ice pack caused Americans to forget, for a moment or two, both the World Series and the Bush-Dukakis race.

An unlikely, uneasy army of scientists, whale-hunting Eskimos, oil company officials and environmental activists mustered in frigid Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States, to organize a $1 million rescue effort. Biologists nicknamed the trio of young whales Bonnet, Crossbeak and Bone. By week's end the whales had competing Eskimo names -- Putu, Siku and Kanik, or Ice Hole, Ice and Snowflake. They also had the good wishes of President Reagan, who called to tell rescue workers that our "hearts are with you and our prayers are also with you." The media frenzy prompted a bewildered Ron Morris, the National Marine Fisheries biologist coordinating the rescue, to remark, "This is completely out of proportion."

But with the world's attention focused on the rescue morning, noon and Nightline, there was no turning back. After failing to haul in a massive "hoverbarge" to smash open a pathway to the sea, the team said it would resort to dropping huge concrete blocks to break through the two-foot-thick ice and clear a five-mile path to open water. Ultimately, the mammoth rescue effort involved several helicopters, support vehicles and more than 100 people. While only a heart of stone could fail to be moved by the plight of the three whales, the vast resources consumed by their rescue caused some observers to scratch their heads -- not at the behavior of the whales, but at that of their would-be human saviors. Such entrapment in ice, they know, is commonplace. Less than 30 miles from the rescue effort, polar bears feasted on the remains of a bowhead whale that had had the misfortune to become trapped before the arrival of the press.

In fact, as the whales futilely tried to break through the ice pack, some Eskimo hunters thought of putting them out of their misery. Even so, a swift coup de grace was mooted by a rush of television cameras and reporters.

As the press flocked to the site, the oil companies, biologists and Eskimos discovered they had unleashed a juggernaut they could not control. The Eskimos quickly abandoned their seasonal hunt for endangered bowhead whales in the belief that it would not look good on network news. The oil companies found themselves in a no-win situation. Lampooned by an Anchorage Daily News cartoon that showed oil-company workers competing in a race for a "Public Relations Cup," the rescuers also faced the possibility of inadvertently killing the whales with kindness. Would the shock of heavy equipment hammering the ice pack panic the whales and scare them to their doom under the ice?

As for the biologists, they faced the choice of being killjoys -- Morris at one point said that if polar bears tried to get at the whales, he would not interfere -- or putting aside wildlife policy in the interest of public relations. In fact, once the animals were given their nicknames, the option of shooting the whales was replaced by the possibility that the defenders patrolling the breathing holes might shoot anything that threatened them, including the polar bears lurking near by.

Whoa. Kill members of one protected species to save three of another? What was going on here? In his nightly commentary, NBC's John Chancellor singled out the sound of the whales' labored breathing, a reminder of another mammal's desperate urge to live, as the signal that triggered the national flood of empathy. But there was something more at work. Once the whales entered America's living rooms, they became, in effect, giant pets. Nicknamed, anthropomorphized and even serenaded by guitars, the whales prompted straight- faced comparisons with last year's dramatic rescue of Jessica McClure from a Texas well.

The Point Barrow rescue attempt brought out the best in Americans in terms of esprit and ingenuity. Two young Minnesota entrepreneurs paid their own way to Alaska, quickly managing with a special de-icing device to calm the whales by enlarging the holes in the ice. But it also raised troubling questions about the human proclivity either to pretend that animals are more like people than they are or to treat them as mere commodities.

Many marine biologists worry that the U.S. all too easily squanders its concern and resources on such individual rescue efforts, while programs that might benefit the whole species go begging. Others point out that the money spent on the rescue could substantially increase enforcement to prevent the illegal export of whale products. Still, many animal lovers saw the effort as an unalloyed plus. "Every time we are made more aware that we share this planet with other organisms, it brings us into the web of life," says John Hall, a San Diego-based whale expert.

As for the three gray whales, they may have to face new, intensified dangers from polar bears and killer whales that might sense their distress, as well as the danger that they might again become lost or trapped by the ice. As naturalist Roger Caras remarked last week on Nightline: "They are exhausted, they are stressed, and they've got a gamut to run." Caras and others did not believe that Putu, Siku and Kanik would ever reach their wintering grounds off the coasts of California and Mexico. Meanwhile, conservationists and whale lovers might reflect on this conundrum: How can the human outpouring of concern for three whales, however sentimental or misplaced, be translated into real protection for whales in general?