Last week, we learned that SeaWorld is ending its killer whale shows in San Diego.
Mexican-Spanish skeptic Mauricio-José Scharwz was once asked what he thought about setting killer whales free and the orcas’ activism. I think his answer is worth being spread, so here it is:
Scholars of animal behavior, ethologists, caution us again and again about the dangers of anthropomorphism, complex word meaning “to give human form” to something, in this case the animals. It is the Walt Disney complex, “my canary is sad”, “my donkey is amused by butterflies”, “my cat is offended”.
Just as we say that we can not be sure that our individual subjective experience is equal to that of other humans, we can much less be so when dealing with other living beings, and to attribute them our subjectivity can be a costly mistake. For example, staring at a chimpanzee can trigger its aggressive reactions, because to many animals staring is a challenge. And more than one unsuspecting guy has extended a hand to a chimpanzee that seemed happy because it was smiling when in fact the chimpanzee “smile” is an aggression warning that immediately precedes the biting. Or they have tried to alleviate the “birth pangs” of cows, which show no sign of pain because in the recent evolution their bodies haven’t been modified as those of human beings whose birth canal has become a challenging and difficult space that still causes pain and kills 590.000 women a year. For the cow or generally any placental mammal, it is a clean and simple matter.
But militants always use the human metaphor, anthropomorphism, “If you were thrown into a pool without being able to cross the seas, how would you feel?” The reasonable answer is “cold and eager to get out and to not cross the seas. I am a fucking land mammal, a hominin, not a cetacean, you idiot”. Or “How would you feel if they had you run with a guy on your back flogging you with a whip?” Well, I’d fall, obviously, and I’d have him eat the whip because he’s an idiot if he can’t notice the difference in thickness and innervation between the skin of my buttocks and that of the back of a fucking horse”.
So we always have the problem that whoever says “orcas suffer humiliation” is acting as a trans-species telepath. We have to believe him that killer whales have the concept of abuse, and also interpret their situation as a humiliation and that they have managed to inform the respective animal. All too doubtful.
The same goes when speaking of the “suffering” of these species. Granting they may suffer, is their suffering like ours? We do not know. In some species we can interpret (sometimes erroneously, but in general doesn’t seem quite absurd) suffering because they behave as we do when we suffer, for example wailing or trying to move away from the aversive stimulus. It stands to reason to say “my dog doesn’t like that food” if it doesn’t eat it or puts it away on its plate, or saying “the lion’s leg is hurt” because it limps and licks it. We do not know if they suffer the same way, but we can grasp some idea when there is pain or aversion. So, for example, much of the ethical guidelines that have been developed for research in animals (and that are not followed, how curious, by pseudoecologists such as Séralini) have been developed to reduce to a minimum what we perceive as suffering.
This doesn’t happen with orcas. We don’t have shared behaviors that we can interpret, it’s all telepathy. When human “goodness” has managed to make real the beautiful fantasy of Free Willy (as they did with the orca who played Willy, Keiko, that featured at Adventure Kingdom) the result has been atrocious. Keiko didn’t want to move away from people, ie, it found aversive that natural world idealized by the Save [sic] Willy Foundation which eventually abandoned it, and [Keiko] sought the proximity of evil humans in the Bay of Norway where it died at a relatively young age for an orca.
I wonder why your question doesn’t say people will go to water parks so they can enjoy maliciously and sadistically the suffering of animals (also a very common argument against circuses, horse racing, etc.), which is clearly false.
So I would change your question to “Should the jobs of many humans and the enjoyment of many more when they get close to a number of species that otherwise they would never see in the wilderness, and the knowledge gained about the behavior and adaptability of these species prevail over the beliefs of some people who know nothing about biology or ethology but are inextricably convinced that they have a mission to save the rest of the world from the horrible human being?”
Finally, I always find it very interesting that certain animals are defended according to their “wow factor”, ie, those that make you say “wow, how cool”. Pigs are almost not defended although they are some of the most intelligent beings, the same can be said of the octopus. They have much less wow score than a panda or red panda or a dolphin that seems to be smiling at you (at least one species). And that, for starters, I think, reveals a profound ignorance or delirious hypocrisy. You either struggle to have a world that helps maintaining the ecosystems dynamics (and not have them immortalized in bronze, every ecosystem is dynamic and changing) and find points of balance between human needs and those of their environment, or you either act as an irrational forest-felling and rail bison hunter, like an idiot. But the notion of “I will defend this beautiful animal because wow, but that other ugly one not because agh” doesn’t seem to be a solid foundation on which to build a policy of resource management.
And always remember that the only being who realizes the damage it can do to their environment and are doing something to minimize it and change things is the human being. That should give some points, right?
I think this answers Jerry Coyne‘s argument against captivity. I hope he reads it and will think about it — if he or anyone else disagrees, thoughtful and respectful comments are always welcome.
If you want to ask Schwarz about this (or anything else), here’s his Ask account.