Sunday, February 28, 2010


Since I first read it on Friday, I've been trying to decide what I think about this Counterpunch column, which declares that SeaWorld is engaged in something that looks a lot like slavery. Here's a key passage from the column:

For those who think the references to slavery are excessive, remember the words of Frederic Douglass, quoted by Hribal. Douglass often made direct comparisons between the treatment and use of other animals and that of himself. “When purchased, my old master probably thought as little of my advent, as he would have thought of the addition of a single pig to his stock! Like a wild young working animal, I am to be broken to the yoke of a bitter and life-long bondage. Indeed, I now saw, in my situation, several points of similarity with that of the oxen. They were property, so was I; they were to be broken, so was I; Convey was to break me, I was to break them; break and be broken – such is life.”

I'm usually unsympathetic to the more extreme animal rights arguments, mostly because I think they're based on a simplistic, arrogant view of nature, and on childish ideas about death. However, I can't deny that there's something particularly disturbing about the fate of the performing orcas. Forcing such an intelligent animal to exist in conditions that drastically shorten its life seems deeply wrong--much worse than, say, killing it for food (not that I'm promoting that idea). I can't quite parse out my response, though, and I confess I've never seen one of these shows. I'm curious to know what other people think about the slave analogy--does it seem apt?

The Fate of the Animals, Franz Marc, 1901


jmcleod76 said...

I think all animal rights positions rest, by necessity, on some shade of gray or another. My own positions might seem pretty extreme to some people, and like a cop-out to the PETA set. I don't eat meat. I don't buy products that were tested on animals, if I can help it. I don't got to circuses with animal acts, because I think it has been demonstrated that circuses are not a healthy environment for animals. But I like zoos, for the most part (even as I recognize their shortcomings). And I don't think training animals, even non-domesticated animals, to perform is necessarily abuse. It's all very situational. It seems clear that something is wrong with the model used by these theme parks. Does that mean they need to close? I don't know. They certainly need to put more thought into what they can do to improve the physical and emotional (yeah, I said it) well-being of these animals. I don't know enough about orcas to know whether training them to do tricks is, in and of itself, abusive or detrimental to their health. Maybe, with better living conditions and different training methods, it wouldn't be. I just don't know enough to say. I do think that some animals, when treated with kindness and respect, can thrive in relationship with humans. Many of the more "intelligent" (by our standards) animals seem to enjoy the physical and mental stimulation of learning and performing tricks.

stella p said...

I will come back to this when time! But: I find the situation of these animals disturbing, just by trying to place myself in their position, and ask what it would feel if being enclosed, exhibited, and by "soft" force stimulated to entertain the masses of strange and threatening (?) creatures that humans are.

BitterGrace said...

Yes, I have the same gut reaction, stella, and there's also just the objective fact that the animals do not survive to a normal life span when they are confined. Hard to argue with that.

I agree with you, Jaime, that domestic animals, at least, seem to really thrive under training when they are given a good life otherwise. With wild animals it's a lot less certain what we're accomplishing with/for them. I always think of Lucy the Chimp--the ultimate "successful" training nightmare. They re-ran her story on This American Life a couple of weeks ago, and even though I already knew what happened I could barely stand to listen to it.

Julie H. Rose said...

Thank you for making me think about this. I hadn't been following the news

Framing this in a non-intellectual way, I think back to my childhood. Living in a city and loving animals, I would visit the zoo, where I'd usually wind up crying, for the animals all seemed so sad to me. There was an owl whom I'd visit regularly, because it was an the end of hallway that I suspected no one went into.

Later on, that same zoo, the Bronx Zoo, started creating habitats for the animals that were so natural for them that many of them needed no bars or wire mesh. The birds flew overhead, but not out. They were not there solely for the humans' enjoyment any longer. They mated and bred, which they hadn't before.

Orcas aren't domestic animals nor are they living in the kind of carefully thought-out conditions places like the Bronx Zoo creates. On a gut level, I can't say that I can feel comfortable with the very idea of places like Sea World.

And I'm not even a vegetarian!

I can't imagine even enjoying watching animals do tricks. I'd rather see them in the wild, and places like Sea World are rather a mystery to me. Why not go on a whale watch instead?

The slavery analogy? It frames it in a way that pushes too many buttons for me, even as I really don't like this sort of thing at all.

whoodoo said...

I passionately agree with the article. Orcas echolocate like dolphins do. Their whole world is about sound. Keeping them in concrete cages where their sound just bounces off the hard surfaces and then making them jump up out of the water into screaming crowds, plus the lack of space and the lack of stimulation pushes their nervous systems to the limit. They get ulcers and are fed Pepto-Bismol and Tagamet and they die in a fraction of the years they should live. They go blind from the chlorinated water. They self-mutilate. How is this not enslavement, and torture? We do not need whale and dolphin shows. Surely we have enough else to entertain us, especially when it comes at such great expense to the creature doing the entertaining. There is zero benefit to them, unlike, say, keeping a cat in a house. Cats live longer if they are kept inside. Who knows whether they are happier -- but I'm saying there isn't even that to say about keeping whales captive, and at least cats aren't expected to earn their living performing. I don't think it's a figure of speech to call it slavery, and I also think it's no exaggeration to call their conditions torturous. When there is no purpose at all. We don't eat them, we don't use their skins for purses, there is no utility to justify it.

BitterGrace said...

It's odd to me that the people who go to the shows seem absolutely unconcerned about any of these issues. Even if you don't know about the shortened lives these animals have in captivity, I would think you could just look at the size of the enclosures and know it couldn't be a good environment for them...

whoodoo said...

In these Sea World shows, the animals do pretty tricks interacting with the humans, and everyone appears to be having a grand time. It is a feel good experience. (I saw these shows when I was little.) If you don't happen to stumble upon the truth about what it does to their health and well-being, you wouldn't necessarily have reason to suspect they were unhappy from watching them perform. You don't see the behind the scenes and you don't know which animals have been doing 3 shows a year for 20 years with nothing else to do and no hope of at least retirement.

The people who see the shows don't know, but the people who produce the shows have to, and that's where my understanding falls apart.