Don’t Judge the Whale

By Rob Patterson

They call it entertainment. I call it torture. It’s known as Sea World. And Tillikun the orca — I won’t say killer whale, even if he recently killed a human — said “enough already.”

I’m also ticked at the media for its coverage on this whole deal. We are not dealing with a dumb animal here. By all human biological measures, dolphins and orcas (which are classified as dolphins in a subset of cetaceans) are as smart as we are, maybe smarter. They just think and communicate differently, because they live differently, and we’re so stupid we don’t know how listen to them.

How would you like it if someone made you jump through a hoop all day long for their entertainment? And starved you to get you to do that for a little morsel of food? And kept you shut up in a closet where every sound you make comes echoing back at you for your entire life, away from family, friends and lovers?

Sea World and every other place that keeps dolphins and orcas in captivity as showpieces are the Abu Ghraibs of our war on our aquatic cousins. I’d even say that comparatively, Abu Ghraib is like a vacation resort.

Orcas are highly social animals with close and strong family bonds that roam hundreds of miles daily and many thousands a year. They engage in complex communication. The only reason they are called “killers” is that they are the only whales that eat meat. By that measure, we should call our species Killer Humans, Super Killers in fact, because we kill our own for many reasons, all of them stupid, senseless and immoral, other than maybe some cases of self-defense. (Gee, killer whales never kill their own. Maybe another indication that they are smarter than us?)

In the wild, orcas only kill to feed, and there is not one recorded instance of one ever attacking, much less killing, a person in the wild. There are scientists like Dr. Ingrid Visser in New Zealand who spend time with them in the ocean with no problems. At Sea World in San Diego, an orca was even kept in the same tank with a bottlenose dolphin — its prey in the wild — with, again, no problems. These animals are not senseless killers (but we are).

And now 45 years after the first orca was kept in captivity for an extended time — Namu at the Seattle Public Aquarium — one of them finally had it (and Tilly was, reports say, beaten at a previous seaquarium). Would humans have such forbearance, especially with smaller creatures we could easily overwhelm? Ha!

It’s interesting that a number of people who were intimately involved with dolphins — like Dr. John C. Lilly, the pioneer in interspecies communication, and Ric O’Barry, who trained Flipper (or rather, the dolphins that played Flipper) — finally came to the conclusion that it is wrong to keep these beings in captivity. And the reason why was essentially that the dolphins they knew elicited their deepest humanity by the relationships that they had with them.

The speculation as to why Tillikum killed his trainer has largely been all stupid human tricks. He’s a creature of high intellect and sentience. This wasn’t instinct. It was (and shows all the signs of) an intentional act. Yes, I feel bad for trainer Dawn Brancheau and all who knew and loved her. But in this equation, I’m on Tilly’s side (hey, she knew she was working with an animal we call a killer).

Yes, my deep and abiding interest in dolphins began when I first saw one up close at Marineland of Florida at age 9. Years later I was awed by the sight through an underwater window of a live orca at Marineland of California. Three years ago I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life when I had a “dolphin encounter” in the Bahamas. But I hear you, Tilly! No more. (I do hope before I die to swim with dolphins in the wild, maybe even an orca.)

For years I have scoffed at the most radical animal activists by saying that maybe if we first learn to treat one another better, and then we might treat animals better too. (And I will never deny that fact of existence on our planet known as the food chain.) But Tilly has changed my viewpoint. Maybe if we can treat our aquatic cousins and equivalents (if not betters) more humanely, we might treat our fellow humans more humanely as well. And if we could communicate with them (music is the key, I believe), bet they could teach us more than a thing or two.

These creatures are the ultimate environmentalists, after all. Unlike us, they exist within their natural environment, not outside and in opposition to it.

Yes, they did free Willy (Keiko), and he died (pneumonia). Places like Sea World say they help us understand and appreciate dolphins and orcas better. But Tilly’s revenge proves we have not learned the essentials these beautiful, loving and wonderful creatures can teach us. It’s time to close these places down. Humanity will be better for it.

A friend of mine once quipped that orcas are “dolphins in leather jackets.” Tilly pulled his switchblade and said, “Back off, mofos.” We need to heed his message. I will. Otherwise, I won’t be living up to my email address that appears right below this column.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2010

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