The archetypal image could have come right out of the pages of a Harry Potter novel, resembling a classic battle of good versus not-so-good – the white doves which were released at the Vatican as a gesture of hope towards peace in the Ukraine were quickly attacked by a hooded crow and a gull. The doves appear to have survived the attacks, but nonetheless the superstitious beliefs emerged over the internet in chat rooms and comments, fearing this event as a sign of the ‘End of Days’.
But crows and gulls are opportunistic predators and no doubt are accustomed to finding easy meals from the lunches of the thousands of tourists who flock to visit the Vatican. They just happened to be there at the wrong time looking for a snack – to them the doves may have seemed just another tasty morsel thrown from the window.
The strikingly white doves have been carefully bred for centuries – we are fascinated by the appearance of these animals who lack the normal pigment of their species. Their brilliant white color stands out and seems to command our attention, causing us to wonder about their origin and chances of survival in the natural world, and to marvel at what we are taught to believe about them.
In the case of wild animals, all too often that sense of wonder is soon replaced by a desire to capture these rare individuals for display, or to kill them for their hides. In other instances these unexpected white animals stir a deep and primal need to restore our inner equilibrium and often become symbolic in cultural beliefs.
“Prophecies have been shared and sacred instructions were given. We, the People of the Earth, were instructed that the original wisdom must be shared again when imbalance and disharmony are upon Mother Earth. In 1994 the sacred white buffalo, the giver of the sacred pipe, returned to the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people bringing forth the sacred message that the winds of change are here. Since that time many more messengers in the form of white animals have come, telling us to wake up my children. It is time. So listen for the sacred instruction.” Arvol Looking Horse, Lakota Tribe.
According to legend, the White Buffalo Calf Woman was a holy entity that visited the Oceti Sakowin [Sioux] over a four-day period. She taught them sacred ceremonies, songs, and dances. She gifted the people with a sacred bundle containing the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, which still exists to this day and is kept by Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Upon appearing and leaving, the White Buffalo Calf Woman changed into a white buffalo calf, then changed in color from white to black, to yellow, and finally, red. Prophetically, it is said that the White Buffalo Calf Woman will return at the end of an age, and she will appear as a white buffalo calf. (Native Times).
The images of white animals and the ideas that they represent do seem to have a primal impact on us, but the question is, what do we do with our beliefs – do we obey our gut reaction to capture or kill the unusual white animals or do we choose to let them live free and wild, taking whatever message that we will just from having seen them?
There are several biological mechanisms which can cause a loss of pigment. A true albino loses all pigment (including the eye color) while mutations or defects can cause partial or complete color loss, and the animal usually retains eye pigment in the latter cases. The orca above appears to have lost just some of his pigment, while the dolphin calf below appears to be a true albino.
This albino dolphin calf was recently captured in the brutal dolphin drives in Taiji, Japan. Separated from her mother and the rest of her family she faces a tough adjustment to life in captivity, as there can be physiological complications that arise with albinos. Her mother was either released back into the wild, or more likely slaughtered in another classic parable – that of killing the golden goose – for she might have carried recessive genes that could have produced young who in turn may have carried the gene for albinism which appears to have been a high revenue capture.
Saving the mother dolphin along with the calf would also have helped the calf survive the trials of captivity – but then again the whole strategy behind the dolphin drives shows stupidity at every level…having over-fished their environment these fishermen see the dolphins as competitors for the dwindling fish stocks, and they also consume the meat from the dolphins which is known to be contaminated with heavy metals.
There is a correlation of heavy metals with increased albinism in fish:
Heavy metals (As, Cd, Cu, Hg, Se, Zn) were shown to increase the incidence of albinism during 5 years of experiments with channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus). Metal-induced albinism resulted from exposure of both adult fish and eggs. In egg bioassays, exposed populations consistently exhibited higher percentages (up to 6.3%) of albinos than did controls, but frequencies did not vary significantly for the six metals or for exposure concentrations which ranged from 0.5 to 250 µg/1.
Metal contamination in a hatchery water supply yielded frequencies of albinos corresponding directly with those observed for metal-exposed laboratory populations. Inasmuch as albinism has proved deleterious to fish survival and production, caution is recommended in using metallic compounds in hatchery management. Tests for albinism may prove useful in screening aquatic contaminants for mutagenic potential.
Science and mythology may intersect when it comes to the symbolism of albinos; the Sioux prophecy of the white buffalo tells that white animals will appear in a time of change, signalling a need for humanity to unite – and ironically, as we inch towards irreversible climate change our careless treatment of the environment may result in an increased incidence of albinism, but certainly does call for a need to unite across cultures.
Photo from George Dvorsky.
A final cautionary tale about our tendency to project concepts onto wildlife: Ahab in Moby Dick lost sight of reason in his obsession to destroy a white whale, determined to dominate the forces of nature. We now know what a perilous undertaking that has been as we face ecological problems on a global scale, and hopefully have learned to balance the comfort of superstition with perspective. If the crow attack symbolizes the ‘End of Days’, it is only what we read into nature, combined with our efforts to try to manipulate and control natural forces.
To some, the White Whale is a myth. To others, he is immortal. But one significant question is, What is the White Whale to Ahab? Ishmael grants that Ahab views the whale as an embodiment of evil. Ishmael himself is not so sure. The narrator often sees both sides of a question, never more so than in Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” There he tells us that Moby Dick’s whiteness might represent good or evil, glory or damnation, all colors or the “visible absence of color.”
For Ahab’s interpretation, it is helpful to consider the captain’s comments in the pivotal Chapter 36. There, the captain says he sees Moby Dick as a “mask,” behind which lies a great power whose dominance Ahab refuses to accept. Ahab sees that inscrutable power as evil.
Some scholars argue that it is not the whale, or the force behind the whale, that is evil; the evil is in Ahab. Others see the captain as simply insane. Ahab is out of control as he rants about attacking the force behind the façade of Moby Dick. He wants to kill the whale in order to reach that force. Ahab seems to want to be a god. As great and charismatic a man as he can be in his finest moments, the captain is destructively egocentric and mad for power. To Ahab, we might conclude, the White Whale represents that power which limits and controls man. Ahab sees it as evil incarnate. But perhaps it is just a big, smart [whale]. Cliffnotes.