What does it mean to be human? The classic definition states that we are the only creature with the tragic awareness of the “big picture” i.e. the ability to see the beginning and the end. This awareness of our own mortality sparks in all of us a desire to leave a lasting impact upon the planet and upon our fellow human beings. This impact can take many forms; some strive to understand the great mysteries of the universe and in so doing have given us our greatest scientific, technological and philosophic triumphs. Others seek to increase the caliber and availability of social justice for the benefit of all mankind. Classical conceptions of humanity have led us to believe that as a “higher creature” capable of infinite wisdom, tenderness, and progress we have a duty to each other to search for truth, to do justice, and to care for the uniqueness that each one of us embodies. However, modern science has recently validated a truth that has been and should be common knowledge to many of us: we are not the only creature capable of culture, profound depth, and a meaningful existence.
Recently, major zoos across the United States have initiated the process of relinquishing their elephants to larger animal sanctuaries. This is on the heels of discoveries that indicate that keeping elephants in small enclosures constitutes cruelty due to the immense intellect these creatures possess. Like us, they have complicated social hierarchies and like us they demonstrate an awareness of death and the tragedy that accompanies the loss of loved ones. Recently the New York Times published the results of an experiment confirming what most pet owners already knew: dog brains experience emotions in the same way that human beings do. If animals are capable of joy, sorrow, pain, and social connectivity what justification can possibly exist regarding mankind’s cavalier and heartless attitude towards their rights?
On Wednesday, the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund hosted PETA counsel Jared Goodman for a discussion on his work against orca captivity. National curiosity in this topic has recently been sparked by the film Blackfish, which documents the savage cruelty behind SeaWorld’s use of orca whales as entertainment for park guests. Fans of the movie and those who attended Mr. Goodman’s talk, learned that orca whales have highly evolved brains that equal and in some areas surpass the cognitive capabilities of human beings. They have tribe-specific language and cultural behaviors, exhibit problem solving, and with only one documented exception have never exhibited aggression towards humans while in the wild. In nature, they can live for over a century and daily swim hundreds of miles across open ocean. These whales have specific personality traits. They experience joy, shame, guilt, empathy, and despair. In captivity, the lack of stimulation due to tiny enclosures and separation from their families leads to what humans easily identify as physical abuse, depression, and insanity. For me, the most heartbreaking moment of the film Blackfish came when a mother whale was separated from a newly birthed calf. She responded with an hour’s long anguished cry in a voice never heard by the trainers before. It was revealed that the timbre of her call was specifically designed to reverberate across miles of open ocean in the hopes that her calf would hear it and return to her safely. Unfortunately, this emotional and exquisite solution for a lost calf was trumped by the unnatural process engineered by her human captors to transport her calf to another park.
After speaking about the mistreatment of these creatures, Mr. Goodman spoke of the legal framework and its horrible inadequacy in confronting the problem of orca whale captivity. The Animal Welfare Act was created based on incomplete scientific inquiries conducted over 40 years ago. Animal welfare regulations are seldom adhered to and the USDA has utterly failed to enforce its own regulations regarding the rampant animal cruelty at SeaWorld. Furthermore, the Endangered Species Act and state animal cruelty laws have proven difficult to apply and their lackadaisical enforcement has allowed such injustice to continue. Mr. Goodman spoke about his organizations’ attempts to pressure the USDA to enforce its own act. Whales are kept in incompatible confinements. When whales that are of different tribes in nature are held in captivity together, a common practice, they attack each other and cause tremendous physical harm to themselves and others. Mr. Goodman shared with the audience a disturbing image of a whale who had lost all of his teeth while attempting to bite through an enclosure. Despite such damage being a common facet of orcas in captivity, SeaWorld continues to disregard citations for inadequate compliance with the law. Mr. Goodman concluded his explication of the legal framework with a talk on a recent lawsuit initiated by PETA which attempted to grant constitutional rights to orca whales under the 13th amendment. Although the judges were not persuaded in this case, Mr. Goodman and others of like mind remain confident that they have moved the national conversation in a positive direction regarding mankind’s respecting the rights of animals.
The lunch concluded with a more personal story of two whales named Hugo and Lolita who were captured and put on display in the Miami Seaquarium. Hugo, unable to bear the transition from the ocean to a concrete bathtub bashed his head against the wall of his enclosure until he died. Lolita has lived in the “Whale Bowl” for 40 years. She is an endangered species and PETA aims to establish that she has been harmed and harassed due to the inadequacy of her enclosure. The hope is that the Seaquarium will be barred from renewing its license for failure to comply with the Endangered Species Act. Stories like this one may account for the more recent public opposition to SeaWorld practices and it is the hope of all people who oppose animal abuse that it may one day become socially and economically infeasible to hold these whales in captivity. Make no mistake, as Mr. Goodman’s work made painfully obvious, no enclosure can adequately meet the needs of these creatures and no orca captivity program can safely protect these animals from physical and psychological harm.
What then does it really mean to be human? The cynical answer is that we are the only creature capable of engineering mass extinctions or capable of intolerable cruelties toward other living beings whose only crime is a failure to look like we do. What is our legacy? A failure to demonstrate empathy towards the voiceless? I do not believe that creatures capable of such civilization, such wonders of technological achievement, and such profound philosophic depth can long ignore the suffering we cause among our evolutionary cousins. Orca captivity is barbaric, inhuman and a gross violation of the rights of a highly intelligent and deeply feeling creature. The work of people like Mr. Goodman makes apparent that generations to come will one day look upon such practices with eyes filled with shame and disgust.