photo by Thomas Hubauer
I will never be a vegetarian (let alone vegan), and I hardly fit anybody’s definition of an animal rights activist.
Yet to paraphrase a certain former president, I consider myself a compassionate conservationist, one who has a particular affinity for the ocean and its inhabitants. I also want to be open to new ways of thinking about the world around me. Lately I have been thinking of orcas, better known as “killer whales,” and what a compassionate conservationist should do if an orca ever came into his custody.
A lot of people seem to think the compassionate thing to do with a six-ton animal that has spent most of its life in the care of humans is to “rehabilitate” it – essentially by trying to teach it to behave like a wild whale – and then return it to the open ocean. Some stop just short of this, advocating retirement to a life in “sea pens” where the whale would have a chance to encounter other members of its species, but would have a safe place to return for human contact. Think of a halfway house for very large parolees.
Cetacean-libbers see this as a straightforward matter of right and wrong. If it is wrong to capture a wild whale, separate it from its family, keep it in a tank and force it to perform for the entertainment of humans, it must therefore be right to advocate the whale’s return to its natural, and presumably happier, state. It makes all of us feel good to do the right thing. Liberating a whale feels right and therefore leads to happiness – for people.
But is it the right thing to do from the vantage point of the whale?
The question clearly calls for calm and careful consideration. If it is wrong to capture and confine a wild whale in the first place, then the last thing we should do is compound the injustice by mistreating the animal, either in captivity or by the act of releasing it and thus forcing the whale, once again, to adapt to now-foreign surroundings. I will return shortly to the question of whether the best thing to do with a captive whale is to release it. First, however, let’s take a look at the mob mentality that is giving this proposition its currency.
Though I typically refrain from blaming Hollywood for the things we choose to do or not to do, the simple fact is that the free-the-whales movement is largely the product of two well-known films that were released 20 years apart. “Free Willy,” one of the hit movies of 1993, told the fictional story of a theme-park orca that leaps to freedom over a seawall and swims off happily into the sunset. “Blackfish,” a documentary released earlier this year, recounts the true, if debatably accurate, tale of Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld’s Orlando park who killed a trainer during a 2010 performance and has been involved in two other human deaths since being captured as a calf in 1983.
“Blackfish” helped inspire a petition drive on Change.org calling for SeaWorld to “humanely release the Orca whale known as Tilikum to a seapen for rehab.” The petition drive, in turn, has apparently persuaded some high-profile entertainers to avoid association with SeaWorld. This week country music artists Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride canceled a scheduled February appearance at the Orlando park, following similar cancellations by Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson and Heart.
In a classic Hollywood ending, Tilikum, like Willy, would live happily ever after. But the reality of life for a free-swimming orca – as much as we know of it, anyway – is much more complicated. If Tilikum’s online friends took the time to consider the matter, they might come to a different conclusion about what is in his best interests.
Orcas, like most whales and dolphins, are highly social creatures, and they may be the most intelligent of all marine mammals. In fact, orcas are considered to have a “culture.” Various orca groups have unique languages – collections of sounds that are common to the group but unknown to other groups – as well as different food preferences and hunting techniques. Orcas have been observed learning from one another and engaging in specific acts of instructing their young, such as mother whales teaching calves to climb onto ice floes and beaches in search of prey while standing by to retrieve them if they get stuck. Though orcas are widely distributed among the world’s oceans, their distinct groups seldom interact and hardly ever interbreed, according to genetic studies.
Even on our own West Coast, orcas tend to live in segregated communities. The “southern resident” population lives in the Puget Sound region and dines mainly on small fish. The “transient” population ranges from California to British Columbia, overlapping the southern resident group, but feeds on seals and sea lions. Further offshore, a third group of whales tends to attack large fish and marine mammals such as sharks, dolphins and other whale species; this group has little to do with either of the inshore clans. Back on the coast, the residents are much more vocal than the transients, which speak a different dialect.
Scientists are not even certain whether the global orca population consists of multiple species, or a single species with various subspecies and sub-subspecies or “races.” Against this backdrop, the odds seem stacked against a strange whale that has lived among humans finding a place in the wild orcas’ social order. And so it proved with Keiko, the orca that starred in Free Willy.
Keiko actually was set free. It took more than five years and $20 million, much of it provided by tech billionaire Craig McCaw. Keiko was transferred from his decrepit home at a Mexican marine park to a rehab facility in Oregon. After several years of intensive care, during which he gained a ton of weight (literally, unlike yours truly after Thanksgiving), he was flown to a transitional pen near his home waters off Iceland, where he had been captured in 1979. When the dot-com crash cut off McCaw’s financial support, the cash-strapped Humane Society took a “tough love” approach to prod Keiko back to the wild. It seemed to work, as one day in 2002, he swam off.
But not for long. A month later, Keiko turned up – alone – in a Norwegian fjord, where he befriended a group of Norwegian fishermen. He sought human contact, giving rides on his back to local children, and dined on handouts to supplement whatever he caught on his own. In his second winter of “freedom,” Keiko died of pneumonia. He was believed to be 27 years old.
I am hesitant to try to get inside the mind of a whale, but it seems clear and unsurprising that Keiko found it easier to relate to humans than to his own species. He had a choice, and he made it.
If we truly want to be compassionate and respectful to whales and dolphins, it seems to me that the first step would be to ban live capture and sale of wild animals. Knowing what we know today of the animals’ intelligence and social structure, this commercial harvest strikes me as little different from the slave trade within our own species in centuries past. Each newly taken animal adds to the problem of what to do with the captive population. Last summer, to its credit, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) denied the Georgia Aquarium’s request for a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales that were captured in Russian waters. The aquarium is appealing.
We could set higher standards for the care and feeding of captive marine mammals. By almost any benchmark, the SeaWorld parks are likely to rank among the best of their type, though we might want to set new benchmarks for the size of habitats relative to that of their occupants, or for other measures of care. With ownership of any creature comes a responsibility of stewardship. That is the basis for every animal cruelty statute on the books. In the end, however, the parks most in need of improvement are likely to be far worse than SeaWorld and mostly far beyond the reach of American law.
Appropriate standards should recognize what we have learned about marine creatures’ family groupings. It might be right and fair to restrict the separation of family groups, or at least to require that some of the mammals be transferred together rather than as isolated individuals.
Perhaps someday we will know much more about whether a captive whale can adjust to life in the open sea. In the meantime, however, let’s be realistic. It costs a lot of money to maintain even a single whale, especially in humane conditions. The people who care for animals at SeaWorld and similar parks work in such places, for the most part, because they care about animals and want to study and work with them.
Theme parks are not perfect, but the best ones are not hotbeds of animal cruelty. They are just the easiest and most visible targets for public pressure and activism. I see little point in boycotting SeaWorld. I see nothing inherently cruel in training intelligent mammals to perform for an audience – after all, every intelligent creature needs something to do to prevent boredom from setting in. I don’t know enough about whale psychology to know why Tilikum killed his trainer, but I know SeaWorld’s critics don’t know enough to be certain either.
Even if we now believe it is wrong to capture wild whales, it is not automatically right to evict our captive population from the only homes they now have. What appears to be freedom from one angle looks a lot like banishment from another.