fishy frisbee

We identify with the killer whale, the hunter, the thrower of dwarves
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In a week that has ended with Dodi's ex-girlfriend (number 1,438) Kelly Fisher - as represented publicly by her hairdresser - threatening to sue the heir to the House of Fayed for breach of promise, one begins to wonder if life is not becoming unsatirisable. Increasingly people behave as though they were the inventions of Tom Sharpe or Howard Jacobson. You can buy curry-flavoured condoms in some public lavatories.

So let us turn with relief to the natural world, where animals and fish, flowers and rocks do not deliberately set out to be silly or peculiar. They do what they do because evolution and environment tells them to. There is no caprice and no whim. Spiny nematodes do not read The Sun or Loaded.

My attention was drawn to a report on Thursday that marine scientists have discovered schools of killer whales that play frisbee. Really. But these clever mammals are not using plastic frisbees, cast off from hundreds of cruise ships and washed up in killer whale-land. They use stingrays. Coming up from underneath these large flat fish, lifting them at speed out of the water, and then - with a flick - tossing them at an angle into the air, where the rays possess similar aerodynamic qualities to the frisbee. Rotating quickly, the rays reach quite a high speed, and are often caught at the ends of their involuntary flights by other killer whales, who then - playfully - chuck them back. And - joy! - none of this is being done because the killer whales' publicists have told them that it will make great pictures in Hello! magazine, or will help to sell the latest CD of killer whale noises.

But what I found really interesting about this tale was my own uneasy reaction to it. Far from feeling delighted about more evidence of killer- whale intelligence, the discovery made me think rather the less of the animals.

Please don't accuse me of being a namby-pamby goody-two-shoes townie, who does not realise that all wild animals exist in a harsh world in which they are forced to be "nasty". I know there might be a perfectly good reason for this frisbee fun. But I still have a problem with the idea of "playing" with other live creatures without their own active participation. The ray does not choose to be skimmed, any more than the bear chooses to be baited, or the fox hunted. The illustrations from Alice in Wonderland, depicting her playing croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog, have always struck me as cruel. As a child I used to construct a maze of tunnels out of boxes and cushions for Monty the rat to run through. But it always made me feel guilty that - left to himself - Monty never wanted to play. And the ancient country sport of dwarf-throwing has nearly died out because of distaste for what it implies about our attitudes.

Peel this initial reaction away, however, and something nearly as pernicious lies underneath. For although our sympathies may conceivably be with the persecuted object of the game, our association is almost invariably with the persecutor - the active player. We identify with the killer whale, the hunter, the baiter, the thrower of dwarves. "You belittle yourselves", we say, "by doing this undignified and cruel thing to a fellow sentient being! Desist!"

Well, fine. But shouldn't we try to stand in the shoes of the other party to the game as well? After all, if a big bloke should not throw a dwarf, then it is also true that a dwarf ought not to be thrown. And let us slip into the turquoise waters of a warm ocean alongside the ray, and wonder what it feels like to be wafting around the sandy shallows, minding your own business, looking for things to sting, when suddenly you find yourself flying through the Pacific air at high speed. It may very well be completely disorienting. Indeed, some unprepared rays may suffer significant trauma as a consequence.

Put like that, I am sure you will agree that the affairs of Dodi Fayed seem insignificant in comparison.