Monday, March 1, 2010

Where Killer Whales Belong

An interesting blog post from Susan Orlean appears at The New Yorker; it's about how we interact with magnificent animals like orcas. I didn't think this entry was much different from other posts I've seen the last few days about how we probably shouldn't keep orcas in captivity, until I got to this part:

And here’s the problem: even though I was convinced that whales should be wild and that we should instead just take fabulous videos of them and project them on gigantic high-definition screens, I simply couldn’t resist. I begged one of the trainers to take me to the dock where Keiko was lolling around and let me pet him. I will never forget the soft spongy feel of Keiko’s rubbery skin or the sensation, when he lifted his huge blocky head just above the water, that we exchanged a real look, eye to eye, full of primal meaning and connection. That’s exactly why it’s so hard to do what is right with regards to wild animals, because having such a creature that close really is magical.

My emphasis. It's funny because I sometimes wondered the same thing when I worked with tigers. There's no other word than "magical" that better describes being up close and interacting with an animal like a tiger. It sometimes occurred to me: were we, the humans, being selfish in our justifications for keeping tigers captive? There are many ways to answer this question. In the case of our tigers at Cedar Cove, I think we give them a happy and satisfying life in which they are somewhat pampered, and in which they don't have to worry about hunting down their next meal. And with the rapidly declining tiger population in the wild, it may well be that the only place tigers will live at all in another twenty years or so will be places like Cedar Cove and your city zoo.

But with orcas, you move into a whole new category of animal: An enormous creature for whom movement is essential to life, possessed of high intelligence (I love tigers, but they are not the smartest felines out there) and a tremendous need for social interacting and environmental stimulation. I do think it may be wrong to keep them in captivity. Of course, taking a captive orca and freeing it can lead to the animal's death, as Ms. Orlean manages to avoid mentioning (completely) about Keiko, the whale from the movie Free Willy. But I give her credit for the observation I quoted above, and her post is as a reminder that as humans we always need to keep in mind what's best for the animals we domesticate, give good homes to, or hold captive against their wills. I truly believe the tigers at Cedar Cove are happy. But I know that many other captive tigers aren't, especially those forced to perform for the public (ours at Cedar Cove don't, and never will); and I think about Tilikum, the whale involved in last week's tragedy in Orlando, and about Tatiana, the tiger in San Francisco who was so ill-served by both those who were charged with her care and a few of those who came to see her. I have no absolute answers. But don't forget, humans can cover our own selfish desires in a great deal of knotty justifications. These creatures exist in real time and deserve our best consideration and judgment, always.


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