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A whale of a rescue. Canadian animal expert frees whales trapped in fishing nets off the coast of Newfoundland

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JON LIEN moved his index finger up and down, showing how he controls a 40-ton whale with a small rope. Another fishing story?

No, says the animal behaviorist. ``That is literally true.''

In the past 10 years, Mr. Lien has rescued hundreds of whales from the nets of Newfoundland fishermen in a program designed to save both expensive fishing equipment and the lives of marine mammals. He's learned how to calm and manage the whales as he untangles them from the lines. While figuring out how the animal is caught, he may shift the whale by tugging slightly on the entangling ropes, something the whale feels.

When first trapped, a whale will struggle hard to free itself, possibly injuring itself on the polypropylene rope or other strong materials used in modern fishing gear. Once it finds it cannot escape, the animal becomes still on the water's surface.

``Humpbacks are sort of sissies,'' he says. ``They don't do things to hurt themselves. Most smart animals learn to minimize pain and punishment. You get control of the animal. You can move him this way or that way. It is only because of their size that it seems impossible.''

Most humpbacks cooperate

Last summer Lien got his first dunking in the cold ocean by an agitated humpback. The fishing equipment was wrapped around its tail. As Lien attempted to untangle the mess, he and his rubber boat went flying into the air when the whale flipped its fluke.

A fisherman captured the episode with a video camera. With only his dignity hurt, Lien towed the heavy beast to the rocky beach where it could not move its tail, removed the netting, and pushed the whale back out to sea. It swam away.

But normally this psychologist, from Memorial University of Newfoundland, finds that the humpbacks remain quiet while he works to release them. Indeed, he usually parks his outboard-powered boat on the back of a creature as he tries to figure out how it is caught. Sometimes the netting runs through an animal's mouth, like a bridle. Or the whale may have gotten its long side fins or tail entangled.

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