Last summer I had the chance to interview Marnie Giroud, who works for the Swan River Trust, in Perth, Western Australia. Marnie runs an interesting program called Dolphin Watch, that trains residents to be citizen scientists and to monitor and report about the resident population of Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins.  There are presently about 25 dolphins that make their home in this river environment in and around Perth.

The dolphins can often be sighted in the city—I can recall seeing them playing (or so I thought) in the waters of the Fremantle Harbor, as I would occasionally take the train to downtown Perth. Many residents of Perth probably aren’t even aware that there are dolphins to be seen in the Swan and Canning Rivers, but Giroud’s program is helping to change that.

Participants in Dolphin Watch go through a training program to learn about the dolphins and how to make and record dolphin observations. This program, begun in 2009, is already generating important new insights and knowledge about the biology of the resident population of these dolphins, as well as expanding awareness of the dolphins. The program is run in collaboration with researchers at Murdock and Curtin Universities, and some 360 volunteers have gone through the training.  As a result of this research there is already new understanding of the movement patterns of the dolphins, an online map of observations, and a FinBook which identifies the unique dorsal fins of each dolphin (the “fin prints” as their called). There have been contests to name dolphin calves, and new efforts to work with schools to educate about the dolphins.

A city’s resident animal population is often quite abundant and diverse, and one goal of a biophilic city is to foster greater awareness of these animals that co-occupy the spaces of a city. Each city will have its own unique fauna, like the bottlenose dolphins in Perth. There are usually many more animals around us than we realize, or care to understand, and making the presence and lives of animals in cities more visible becomes an important challenge for biophilic urbanists. Understanding their presence, and learning about their biology, are important steps, to be sure, but fostering that sense of deep care and of ethical co-habitation within urban space is even more necessary.

Perth provides a case in point.  In June, a three-year old Dolphin calf known as Gizmo became perilously entangled in fishing line, something that Marnie’s network of volunteers saw and reported. The fishing line, wrapped around the baby’s dorsal fin was nearly cutting it in half. There were some four attempts at catching and freeing the calf, each time thwarted by a very protective mother (known as Tupac). Thanks to volunteers tracking the dolphins’ movement patterns, the Perth Water Police eventually enacted a successful rescue, cutting away the damaging line. And by all accounts the baby is now doing fine.

This June drama was instructive on several levels. It was a visceral demonstration, of course, of the anthropogenic threats that dolphins and other marine life must endure. But it was also a very hopeful sign of how attitudes of attention to and care for other forms of life can be fostered in urban populations. The episode shows dramatically the value of the Dolphin Watch program, also, but even more broadly that urbanites, when given the chance, are motivated and compelled to help other creatures in distress.  This is reassuring in an age where callousness and apathy seem mostly to prevail. The press reports of the rescue quote Senior Constable Bruce Rogers, one of the water police, as saying: “To look down (into the water) and see the baby struggling, you couldn’t, as a human, do nothing.” Too often nothing is exactly what we do.

Marnie believes strongly that we have a special connection with dolphins, and that special connection can help us to connect and care about many other species, small and large, and the larger environment that serves as our mutual home.  Caring for animals and finding ways to come to their aid are important characteristics of compassionate and biophilic cities. In a biophilic city we seek to reduce our ecological footprint, but actively expand what Marc Bekoff has called our “moral footprint,” the extent of our depth of concern for other life, and our deep acknowledgement of the ethical duties we have to minimize our impacts on them and to reduce their pain and suffering.

We gain much in the process, in the form of richer, more interesting lives. Cultivating an active interest in the other life forms with which we share our cities is quality of life-enhancing, I believe, and adds much to the richness and quality of our urban lives.  That glimpse of dolphin play in the Fremantle Harbor, on the way to a hectic day of work, is a joyous elixir indeed. It may also in some small way help to mitigate the loneliness of modern life.

Whether concern for dolphins will in turn translate into concern for other sentient, and non-sentient aquatic life, much of it out of sight, remains to be seen. But it will certainly help to extend our notion of cities and urban spaces to include many other fascinating non-humans lives and voices.

Post By Tim Beatley

Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, UVA Department of Urban & Environmental Planning