06 March 2010

Surprise, Surprise: An Expansion

I realized, after posting on the recent death of a Sea World trainer, that I might not have been entirely clear on the subject. At the time, I was so pissed I couldn’t see straight, and that unfortunately leads to posts dripping with sarcasm and not really addressing the issue at hand.

Let me start with why this issue hits so close to home, for me. I wanted to be a marine biologist growing up. I wanted to be a lot of things, like most kids, but it was always a toss up between some kind of artistic career (art teacher/ fashion designer) and marine biologist. Specifically, I wanted to be a dolphin trainer. I have been nothing short of obsessed with the ocean and specifically dolphins for as long as I can remember. They are intelligent, arguably more intelligent than humans (they haven’t destroyed the planet, after all). And they seem to symbolize, for many people, something which is inherently lacking in our civilized lives: a freedom, a joy in living which is somehow expressed by a dolphin’s careening leaps above the waves.

My desire to be a marine biologist was thwarted by two things: an aversion to cutting dead things up in biology class to study them, and the realization that dolphins are not happy in tanks. It is highly deceptive, the dolphin’s smile: no matter what their mouths twist up at the corners, and it gives the impression that they are pleased as punch to swim in circles all day and leap out of the water for the entertainment of screaming visitors. But if you have spent any amount of time near captive dolphins, and I have spent long, long hours sitting by the window at the National Aquarium in Baltimore gazing at these magnificent creatures, you will begin to understand the ineffable sadness in their eyes. You can watch them swim around and around and around their tank between shows, always the same circle, as if they are pacing, frantically, looking for an exit, looking for something that isn’t there. There’s nothing in those tanks. They are solid concrete. They must be infinitely boring to a creature with an intelligence on par with most humans. I mean, think about it: how would you react to being kept, for your entire life, in the same room, with absolutely nothing to look at except blank concrete walls? There is absolutely no justification for that kind of torture.

The main arguments I’ve heard in favor of keeping marine mammals in places like Sea World (and performing for audiences) is that it promotes conservation efforts. I’ve used the same argument myself, in favor of the Baltimore aquarium. And it’s true, these places do a lot of great work to save the oceans, and to educate people as to why the oceans are worth saving (though this should be so blatantly obvious it appalls me that we NEED that kind of education). But is that a reason to keep marine mammals in captivity? And not only to keep them in captivity, but to force them to perform over and over again for human audiences?

I could maybe tolerate the argument in favor of rescuing injured marine mammals and nursing them back to health before re-releasing them into the wild. But most people seem to think that just because places like Sea World participate in conservation efforts, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether or not whales are kept in captivity. In fact, I’ve heard the argument that whales should be happy to be in captivity, entertaining humans, so that more people will be inspired to save whales. The thought is horrifying. If you applied the same argument to a human, say, if you proposed keeping children from Darfur in captivity to entertain and inspire Americans to donate money to end the civil war in Darfur, the uproar would be nearly unanimous. But most people also think humans are more important than animals, which, when it comes down to it, is why whales are in trouble in the first place. And really, so long as that attitude prevails, whales will continue to be in trouble: oceans will continue to be polluted, whaling will continue, climate change will continue unabated and we’ll all be screwed.

The real issue with a place like Sea World is that it encourages the notion that whales are there for whatever purposes we devise for them. They’re there for our entertainment, they’re there for our education, whatever you want to call it. They are there for human purposes alone. The purposes of the whales do not come into question. And I bet if you could ask one of these whales who have been in captivity their entire lives, would you rather be swimming free in the ocean or jumping out of a chlorinated swimming pool for the entertainment of humans who are probably not going to leave the theme park much more educated than they were going in, the whales would probably vote on the ocean. After all, it’s not like Sea World has thus far managed to end the threats to whales in its over 50 years of existence. If it had, I might be much more prone to agree with those who argue that a conservation program is reason enough to keep intelligent mammals in captivity.

There’s absolutely no reason why we should not be inspired to save whales by seeing them in their natural environments. But then again, as I said in my previous post, we keep ourselves in captivity, and seek to rationalize this at every turn. So it’s not in the least a surprise that we seek to rationalize the continued captivity and enslavement of marine mammals. After all, if we started to argue that whales have the right to enjoy freedom and joy in their lives, we might start to question whether we (humans) deserve the same.

1 comment:

Amelie Lillith said...

I was listening to a radio show on this issue and a woman called in and said that whales should be happy to 'have the job of spreading the word about their species'. When the host of the show asked 'what if they don't want to do that?' that caller replied 'I don't want to work in front of a computer all day either, we all need to do our part'. It's just like you mentioned at the end of your post, humans will justify their enslavement by whatever means necessary, even if that means chains and cages for other living things.