By Alex Brylske
Photo by Joseph C. Dovala
(Readers, please comment at bottom of editorial)
As expected, everyone and their brother who could possibly pass the acid test of being an expert was interviewed about what had happened. So far, “experts” have blamed the incident on everything from boredom to stress to mating behavior. Frankly, the cause seems irrelevant. The fact is that these creatures weren’t intended to live in an aquatic kennel, or what one advocate describes as “straitjackets of concrete.”
Orcas are considered by many marine mammalogists to be the most social, intelligent, family-oriented member of the dolphin family. Just a few weeks ago an Emory University biologist, Lori Marino, in a presentation before a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, explained that captive whales and dolphins suffer real psychological stress. “Dolphins are sophisticated, self- aware, highly intelligent beings with individual personalities, autonomy and an inner life,” she told the group. “They are vulnerable to tremendous suffering and psychological trauma.” If that doesn’t earn them the right to be left alone to live free in the open ocean, then I can’t imagine what would.
I’m fully aware of the argument that had it not been for places like SeaWorld turning “killer whales” into cuddly performers, our attitudes toward them may have never changed. It’s now well known that there has never been a documented account of a person being killed in the wild by an orca. But that just as well could be because very few humans are ever in the cold and often distant waters where orcas live as to any temperamental aversion to considering us prey.
I also agree that, in the past, there may have been justification for keeping marine mammals captive so that humans could have a more intimate and accurate experience with them. For example, I remember an episode of “Sea Hunt” in which the matter-of-fact premise of the story was a killer whale eating a diver. But that was in the 1950s, and it’s no longer the world we live in. Today marine mammals have what may be the strongest conservation advocacy of any animal on the planet. In all forms they are beloved, so it’s pretty clear that we got the message. Therefore, trying to justify the captivity of orcas by asserting that it’s a way to prove they aren’t “killers” — aside from the evidence of the Tilikum incident — is just a very thin veil to hide the truth: As The New York Times stated when it weighed in on the Tilikum incident, “that’s a big money-making animal.” I think it’s time to own up to that truth and leave these magnificent creatures where they belong: in the sea.