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Animal rights activists are incensed with Prince Philip, president of the World Wide Fund for Nature, for calling the costly rescue of two whales off Alaska a "circus act" irrelevant to conserving the species.

During the same appearance Tuesday, the outspoken 67-year-old husband of Queen Elizabeth II also created a stir with a chance remark comparing wives with prostitutes.Answering questions at a luncheon given by the Association of American Correspondents in London, Prince Philip said the successful $1.3 million operation in October to rescue two California gray whales from winter ice off northern Alaska was in many ways counterproductive.

The prince said the rescue gave people a false impression that "they are doing something about conserving nature." He said resources devoted to rescuing the whales could have been used for "very much more positive things," adding that gray whales as a species are vulnerable to Eskimo hunters.

"You have got to see it as a circus act or an act of entertainment. In that sense it was highly successful," he said. The whales became trapped after failing to leave the region early enough on their annual migration to waters off Mexico. Gray whales regularly become trapped and die this way.

Asked why the plight of the two whales attracted international attention and aid, he said: "I honestly don't know (except) it's quite a dramatic idea. It had no significance whatever for the conservation of nature or for the conservation of that species."

Prince Philip, who has been president of the fund, formerly the World Wildlife Fund, since 1981 and who travels widely promoting nature conservation, also defended his own interest in hunting.

He compared taking part in bloodsports, a favorite pastime of the royals, to being a butcher who sells the meat of slaughtered animals.

"I don't think doing it (killing animals) for money makes it any more moral. I don't think a prostitute is more moral than a wife, but they are doing the same thing," he said. "It is really rather like saying it is perfectly all right to commit adultery - providing you don't enjoy it," he added.

James Barrington, executive director of the League Against Cruel Sports, a British animal rights group, said: "Prince Philip seems to be so out of touch with ordinary, decent people. I am saddened and offended by his attitude."

He said the prince failed to recognize that wild animals killed for sport suffered far more than farm animals slaughtered for meat. "If the Duke of Edinburgh wants to help the cause of conservation the best thing he can do is keep his mouth shut," Barrington said.

Referring to the prince's remark on wives and prostitutes, legislator Clare Short of the opposition Labor Party said: "He has just insulted his wife and all the married women of Britain. He has called his wife the equivalent of a prostitute."