Anthropomorphism, the attribution of human personality to an animal, is one of the more endearing qualities of most people. Never more so than when whales swim inexplicably to a beach and leave themselves high, dry and dying when the tide goes out.

But the man who led the effort to refloat as many as possibly of the 159 beached whales at Stewart Island this week, Department of Conservation area manager Greg Lind, might have taken anthropomorphism a little too far.

Having refloated 39 of the pilot whales, DoC staff were encouraged to see them move out to sea and join a new pod well away from the stranding site. "That will give them the opportunity," said Mr Lind, "to socialise and destress and tell their stories and get some support."

Is that what whales do? Like us, they socialise, so it might not be too far-fetched to assume that they draw the same sort of sustenance in the form of conversation and "support". Those who study whales attest to their ability to communicate and to behave sympathetically but the experts cannot tell us why they land on beaches in large numbers and consign themselves to a slow death by exposure.

There are theories. The pod, or at least its leader, might be ill. Or something might have temporarily interfered with their sonar. It is probably only a matter of time before a product of human industry is blamed for their apparent disorientation. The possibility of deliberate mass suicide, perhaps obeying some herd instinct we cannot understand, is acknowledged but not favoured. Even when these creatures resist rescue and return to the beach, we prefer to think they have made a mysterious mistake.

Anthropomorphism tells us more about ourselves than any form of life lucky enough to have human qualities projected upon it. Or is it lucky? Large aquatic mammals such as whales and dolphins enjoy an unusual degree of protection from human predators, including species that are not at risk of extinction.

The reasons advanced for their protection enter the ream of "eco spiritualism" that bestows intrinsic values on certain animals simply because people feel an affinity with them.

But those creatures are not so lucky if anthropomorphism impedes human understanding of their behaviour. It is remarkable that an animal as carefully monitored and studied as the whale still is capable of behaviour that defies human comprehension.

Could that be that scientific imagination is limited by the tendency to see the whale as a kindred spirit? Since we do not understand what compels these pods to beach themselves, we cannot assume they welcome human help.

But what are people supposed to do? The sight of deep sea creatures flapping helplessly in the sand cannot be ignored. The DoC staff and Stewart Island residents who rushed to Patersons Inlet on Wednesday were acting on an impulse greater than rational calculation.

Rescuers such as Greg Lind said there was a risk that any whales they saved would simply "restrand". Whether the animals are sick or suicidal, in human terms it amounts to the same thing.

So with buckets of water and as much wet cloth as can be found, the whales they found still alive were covered and kept wet until the tide returned. Their effort in saving as many as 39 left them deservedly proud and, as Mr Lind put it, "feeling really good about themselves". They made the rest of us feel pretty good, too.

Whatever the reason for the whales' behaviour, the human response is noble and life-affirming. For as long as most people are prepared to extend generosity to helpless animals, the heart of our own species will be beating well.