Vegetarians love to pretend that humans are ‘naturally’ inclined to avoid meat. But a bizarre scene in South Africa shows that people will go to disturbing lengths for a meal of meat.

File this story under the heading, “Problems We’re Glad We Don’t Have.”

According to the Johannesburg, South Africa, newspaper The Citizen, the meat of a dead whale which washed up onshore near the city of Palm Beach earlier this week may be toxic.

An Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal wildlife department spokesperson warned that residents of the area would be well-advised not to consume any of the meat from the dead whale advised residents not to.

“We do not know why it came out of the sea in the first place,” departmental spokesperson Musa Mntambo told the newspaper. “It may be poisonous to people who will eat it. We do not know how long it has been dead and its meat may be rotten.”

According to the newspaper’s reporter, however, that warning didn’t stop area residents. Local women were seen “hacking pieces off the animal’s carcass this morning to take home to feed their families,” the paper reported. 

That is both sad and scary. Sad that people in South Africa are apparently so impoverished and/or desperate for foodstuffs that they would haul off slabs of dead whale meat for a family meal, and scary because there would certainly seem to be serious issues with consuming the meat from a cow or pig that died from an undisclosed disease, or from some other physiological problem.

It’s the marine equivalent of eating roadkill, or in this case, beachkill.

Worse, anti-whaling activists have long argued that the International Whaling Commission officials should convince the World Health Organization to prohibit eating whale meat due to the fact that, as animals at the top of the food chain, the meat from whales is likely to be highly contaminated with mercury and thus dangerous for people to eat.

Despite that warning, provincial wildlife officials noted that, “It is difficult to police a whale [when] it has been beached,” at least until the animal has been removed from the scene.

A marine miracle?

That’s disturbing enough, but here’s the real kicker to this bizarre story.

In a video clip posted on The Citizen’s website, Christian Family College principal Gill (as in Jill) Carlow is captured standing next to the carcass of the dead whale, as locals scurry around in the background. Here is what she says on camera—repeated verbatim:

“What an opportunity it is for me to bring the students down here to see this phenomenal sight. The smell is horrendous, the students are pulling their noses up, but you know what? If you look at what God has given us, and the people being able to feed from it, as you see in the background, it really is quite a miracle.”

Wow. That is so wrong on so many levels.

First of all, “miracle” isn’t the word that comes to mind when one watches video of people hacking away at a whale fin with knives and machetes—not to obtain specimens for further study, or even to help cut the giant carcass into manageable pieces, but in lieu of browsing the meat case at the supermarket.

It isn’t miraculous when people are so starved for proper protein sources that a rotting whale—the smell so bad that people have to hold their noses—becomes a treasure trove of food.

Second, it’s mind-boggling that a school principal would think it’s a gift from God when a whale washes up on the beach. In such situations as they’ve occurred around the world, the cause if often unknown, but virtually all of the animals are in poor health or in the final stages of some sort of disease condition that renders them helpless to return to the water.

Nowhere in North America would someone in authority go on camera and sing the praises of a rotten, foul-smelling carcass being a gift from God for people obviously so bereft of wholesome food that dead whale meat is seen as a delicacy.

This story isn’t taking place anywhere in America, though, and despite the obvious risks, the newspaper noted that a spokesperson for the KwaZulu-Natal health department would not comment on the implications of eating dead whale meat.

The coda to this grim scenario was provided by wildlife department spokesperson Musa Mntambo, who reminded residents that whales remain a protected species.

“One needs a permit to be in possession of its meat,” Mntambo said.

As if people willing to lug home chunks of rotten whale meat would be dissuaded by the local permitting process.

That’s the least of their problems.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator