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A Tale of a Whale

(Photo: avi_olmus)

In Blackfish, Gabriella Cowperthwaite’s sleeper hit documentary about a tragedy at Orlando’s SeaWorld, audiences are tempted (or at least I was) to empathize with Tilikum, the orca who killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau during a 2010 performance. The whale had been abused for decades in the service of mindless human entertainment masquerading as environmental education. (“SeaWorld artfully combines education and entertainment in a way that connects people to the sea and sea life like nowhere else,” their webpage boasts.)

I felt a kind of poetic justice in the whale’s eventual revolt against the handler, who must have epitomized, for him, the humiliating institutions of captive animal displays where he had had the misfortune to spend his life.

He was a “killer whale,” and he killed – what part of this was unexpected?

In nature, actually, orcas are not inherently threatening to people, simply because under normal circumstances, they rarely come into contact with people. They are curious, playful, clever, highly social, keenly emotional and profusely communicative animals. Indeed, their complex social structures and bonds make it all the more debilitating for them to be removed from their natural habitats, from their communities, and cooped up – as Tilikum was – in small, dark, steel aquarium tanks, where they are deprived of their freedom and their roaming and grouping habits. In this claustrophobic imprisonment these whales become very disturbed, and consequently, violent because they cannot conduct their lives as they would choose to do. If they attack humans under these circumstances, it is because we have driven them mad.

“Killer whale,” a loaded human label that reveals more about the namer than the named, constructs a human narrative that reflects a human perspective. Consider, along the same lines, “killer bees”: like killer whales, the phenomenon is our fault. They didn’t start killing us until we started interfering with their natural lives and transforming them from how they were to how we wanted them to be, so that they could be of greater service to us. Africanized bees were interbred with European bees in an effort to generate more honey for people to harvest: a selfish and short-sighted motive with dire ecological consequences. Killer bees were accidentally released in Brazil in the 1950s and have moved steadily north, invading much of South and Central America and the United States. While their stings are no more potent than those of other bees, they are more tightly wound, more defensive, and thus more likely to attack more quickly and in greater numbers.

By calling them “killer bees,” we attribute to them a danger, a brutal malevolence, which draws on a lurking paranoia that they’re all out to get us – “they” being, potentially, the entire animal kingdom – in one way or another. It’s all we can do to defend ourselves with pesticides, varmint traps, population “management” or “culling,” clear-cutting the nasty dangerous forests that harbor killer snakes and killer bats and poison dart frogs and other creepy-crawly spiders and scorpions and “man-eating tigers” and so forth. There’s quite a rogues’ gallery lurking out there in nature! Like the great American hero George Zimmerman, we are all just standing our ground (with a hair-trigger finger, poised to shoot first and ask questions later) defending ourselves against the insidious threat that all these killer animals pose to our prosperity.

The implication lurking in the denomination of orcas as killer whales suggests the violence that we fear, or imagine, or construct, in these big, “dangerous” creatures; the designation serves to drum up publicity at a place like SeaWorld, where people capture, constrain, dominate and exploit these “killers” to show how much more powerful we are than they. In the words of one Blackfish writer, SeaWorld’s mission was “to turn killer whales into killer profits.”

(“Blackfish” is how native people refer to what the SeaWorld crowd calls “killer whales,” and unsurprisingly, their relations toward these animals are much less adversarial and exploitative than SeaWorld’s. The Tlingit view the blackfish as a protector of humankind, and many other tribal communities honor the blackfish as their emblematic clan animal, respecting the blackfish’s need to have a wide berth rather than trying to capture, own and contain them. Native Americans enact their awe for the animals from afar, rather than demanding, as SeaWorld’s audiences do, the proximity that necessitates the whales’ painful dislocation from ocean to tank; from wild to captive; from authenticity to a demeaning parody of their natural existence.)

What we do to these animals by kidnapping them and transforming them into crowd-pleasing clowns suggests that, paradoxically, people simultaneously both admire and scorn their power, their natural force. We love to admire that force, finding it exhilarating to bask in its energy. At the same time, we scheme to coopt that force – to take it away from the animal and have it, commodify it for ourselves, as if we believe that the essence of life is zero-sum, and so if we want to experience the cornucopia of nature, we must harvest it, or colonize it. We must take it from them. Apparently, we can appreciate a majestic, dynamic, powerful whale only by depriving him of his whaleness, stripping him of everything that it means to be a whale. Removing him from the ocean, we cram him into a cage in Orlando because we can’t see him easily in the ocean: He won’t always be there whenever we come by. For our construction (our reconstruction, really our falsification) of his whaleness, he must be there for us to witness him day after day, year after year.

We (SeaWorld administrators, trainers, audiences) demand that he submit himself to our greater power, and we decide how he will manifest this phony, cheesy whaleness that is on display six times a day. Instead of his natural behavior, we would like him to swim in circles, and wave to the crowd, and prance and canoodle with the trainers. Audiences pay (a lot) to see him doing what we would like him to do rather than what he would like to do. We are in control; we’re calling the shots. When we say jump, we expect Tilikum to say, “How high?”

(Note: we’re not actually in control – the world is in a pretty tenuous state. Animal habitats are being destroyed on an exponentially increasing scale and extinctions, of course, are spiking as a consequence. Toxicities of every kind are rampant as never before in the history of existence. In a perversely fascinating lesson about the marvelous, far-reaching complexities of ecosystemic stability/decline, we are only beginning to see the multitudinous ways in which our global warming will afflict every species of animal, including us – the tip of the iceberg, if you will, though the iceberg is melting quickly. But the people whose job it is to monetize orcas are keenly aware that this tableau of ecological crisis isn’t a very cheery spectacle: better to watch prancing whales and sustain the implicit illusion that we’ve got everything well in hand.)

I am not a violent person, and I do not endorse violence. But it is hard for me to avoid feeling that there is something appropriate, something fitting, something that we might have expected (if we thought more sensibly about our relationship to the other animals with whom we share this planet) when Tilikum attacked Dawn. I’ve had the same feeling when Montecore attacked Roy Horn (of “Siegfriend and Roy”) on the Las Vegas strip, and when Tatiana, a Siberian Tiger (who had been made to reside in San Francisco instead of Siberia), attacked Carlos Eduardo Sousa Jr., a stoned zoo visitor who tried to climb into her cage. Or when Travis, a “pet chimpanzee” (not a good idea, for future reference), tore off the face of Charla Nash, who stopped by to visit him in the Stamford, Conn., home where he was kept.

At the Denver Zoo, a black rhinoceros bit off a woman’s finger. The woman was participating in an innovative zoo program (that has since been “indefinitely suspended”) in which visitors could feed and touch a caged rhino for $60. Other zoos have similar programs: At Zoo Miami’s Rhino Encounter Station, patrons can not only touch, but also brush and smell a rhino.

Google “When Animals Attack”: It happens all the time. YouTube is filled with compilation tapes: “Top 15 animal attacks”; “25 worst animal attacks”; “Crazy animals attack!” Again, let me note for the record: They’re not crazy; we are. Just move away from the wild animals, please, people. Let them be.

I will transgress the anthropomorphic fallacy (the pronouncement that it is impossible to attribute human emotions to nonhuman creatures) and suggest that all these animals most likely hated the people they attacked. And I hope I will not seem too heartless when I say that I think the victims got what they deserved. They played with fire, and they got burned. What goes around comes around. Choose your cliché – there are lots of them, and they all fit. Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, he eats you (The Big Lebowski). In Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005), Timothy Treadwall got too close to the bears and, indeed, he got eaten. Robinson Devor’s 2007 documentary Zoo tells of how Kenneth Pinyan, who enjoyed sex with horses, got anally fornicated to death. And the “Crocodile Hunter”: When I heard of Steve Irwin’s death, my first thought was what did you expect, messing around with poisonous giant stingrays? “Killer stingrays,” we might call them.

These kinds of incidents should be teachable moments: moments when we are painfully, irrefutably shown that we do not understand other animals very well. We don’t understand what they are like, or what they feel, or how we can most honestly relate to each other. We don’t appreciate them. We don’t respect them. We see them as fodder for our amusement.

I walked out of Blackfish thinking that the film’s lesson – that captive animal display is a shameful and cruel desecration – applied not just to the ridiculous shows at SeaWorld, but to all zoos and aquariums. (Full disclosure: I walked into the film thinking that already . . . but still, Cowperthwaite’s documentary struck me as a vitally incisive argument, universally, against the captivity of animals.) All three SeaWorlds – in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego – are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the entity that presents itself as the authority in maintaining the highest standards of zoo practices and “leaders in the protection of endangered species.” What’s wrong with SeaWorld is a microcosm of what’s wrong with the institution of animal display everywhere.

Numerous effective animal rights campaigns lately have begun to chip away at the unremitting exploitation of animals that is consequent upon our intrusive voyeurism. Various zoos (including Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, the Detroit Zoo, and, in 2009, every zoo and circus in India) have phased out elephant exhibits. Elephants were perceived as especially unsuitable inmates in zoos: They suffer high rates of death and injury resulting from their captivity, including chronic foot problems caused by standing on hard surfaces and musculoskeletal disorders from inactivity that results from their being constantly penned or chained instead of able to roam freely and widely as they would like to do. The Georgia Aquarium, where many Beluga whales have died already, was recently denied permission to import more of them from Russia (some of whom would have gone into tanks in Atlanta, and others of whom would have been franchised out, dispatched to the circus that is SeaWorld.)

Cutting back on the captivity of elephants and whales is a good first step. I applaud the dawning awareness that certain animals are obviously unhappy in zoos and unfit to be locked up in cramped, inadequate cages. Three centuries after René Descartes pronounced that animals are merely automata, machines to which human beings could have no moral obligations, finally a backlash is growing.

But it’s no worse, ethically, to kidnap and ruin the life of an elephant or an orca whale than it is to do so to a smaller animal – a capuchin monkey, a Chinese alligator, an East African crowned crane, a meerkat, a reindeer, a rattlesnake. Each of these animals has an array of needs and desires that cannot be met in captivity: The zoo deprives them of a free range of movement and of a certain climate, and temperature, and light, and proximity to other members of their species and interaction with other species. An environment that the animal desires and needs, comprised of certain plants and waterways and topographies, is rendered inaccessible. It may be a more obvious case to free the whales than to free the alligators, and it’s fine to start with the more obvious cases, but please: Keep it going.

There are myriad arguments against zoos; the one that Blackfish amplifies most emphatically is: This is how we develop an appreciation for wild animals – by humiliating them? By “showing” them in this decontextualized, painful condition of constraint and alienation from nature, when the torments of captivity have drawn out the worst physical and psychological strains on them: Hordes of people come to gawk at this? (In the 17th century, paying audiences by the hundreds massed for visiting day at London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital – commonly known as “Bedlam” – to gape at the human “Lunatickes,” sometimes poking them with sticks; have we become any more enlightened since then?)

We are told (by those who profit from the prosperity of these corporations) that we demonstrate good ecological citizenship by visiting zoos, aquariums, SeaWorlds to connect with other species – to befriend them. Man, those animals must be thinking, with friends like this who needs enemies? And again, please excuse the anthropomorphic fallacy, which I like to think of as the “anthropomorphic fallacy fallacy,” the pretence that we can’t understand what animals are thinking. We might like to think we’re unable to imagine their hopes and fears, because that would make them comfortably “other”; but this is just a convenient self-deception: We are in denial.

In fact, we can imagine very well how captive animals feel about being in cages or tanks, and it’s not very appreciative. We have constructed the human-animal contact zone as a degrading spectacle. The physical retribution that Dawn Brancheau, Steve Irwin, Roy Horn and others have suffered from animals who could no longer endure the ridiculous sideshows to which we have relegated them stands as an ominous metaphor for the catastrophic ecological blowback that awaits us if we continue to treat our earthmates like slaves, freaks and fools.

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