A couple of minor announcements before we get started:
First, a quick shout-out for the benefit of the SciFi subReddit admins: Yes, I am both who I claim to be and who this circuitos dude claims I am (even though I don’t Twit); and yes, if there’s sufficient interest I’d be happy to do a Q&A.
Second, a random egosurf led me to an announcement that the French translation of “The Island”, which appeared in BiFrost, has apparently made the first cut for the 2012 iteration of the “Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire” (which translates either as “Grand Prize of Imagination” or “Your Big Prick is Imaginary”). There’s a multistage winnowing process — this nomination is more than an eligible but less that a finalist — and “L’Île” falls into the “New Foreign” Category. The official announcement is here but I first encountered the news via the blog of fellow nominist (in a different category) Lionel Davoust, whose logo — as chance would have it — prominently features the creature who I really want to talk about today (and thanks to Richard Morgan for the heads-up on this).
If you got itchy when I started talking about civil rights for vampires/sociopaths, you’re gonna love this: civil rights for killer whales.
Or perhaps more accurately, civil rights for killer whales. Literally. One of these guys, Tilikum by (Human-ascribed) name, killed one of his jailers in broad daylight and, according to the BBC, has been “linked to two other deaths“. Regardless, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has launched a lawsuit in the US District Court in San Diego, on behalf of Tilikum and four other SeaWorld orcas, charging that their incarceration violates the 13th Amendment against slavery— and the judge, while skeptical, hasn’t yet thrown out the case. A bemused fourth estate is all over the story for the moment, although it remains to be seen how much traction accrues to any PETA action that doesn’t involve naked women in cages.
This issue is especially resonant to a fallen marine mammalogist such as myself. I’ve worked with captive marine mammals on occasion, even done a bit of theoretical work on orcas. Over my short-lived and ill-advised tenure with the North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium I grew familiar with the toxic backstage political environment at the Vancouver Aquarium (which, for all its toxicity, was significantly better than anything I ever heard coming out of Seaworld). Back in the nineties I presented an intervenor report at the Vancouver Parks Board hearings on ending the Aquarium’s captive whale displays, which nearly got me a job until I remarked in those hearings on the obvious hypocrisy of the Board itself. (That also resulted in the appearance of the misleading and inflammatory story “Marine Mammal Expert Recommends Euthenasia For Captive Killer Whales” in the Vancouver Sun. Say, if anyone out there happens to encounter Petti Fong standing on a curb by heavy traffic, do me a favor and push her under a bus, okay?)
All these experiences even inspired my coauthorship of a behind-the-scenes story in which we finally crack the orca language and discover that they’re even bigger assholes than we are. One of the few intentionally funny stories I’ve ever written, and lemme tell you it reeks of verisimilitude right down to the names of the characters.
So here we are, with the animal-rights movement putting their money where their rhetoric is and actually trying to get Tilikum et al classified as slaves in a court of law. I’ve gone over the lawsuit itself, and in terms of orca biology and behavior it’s pretty tight. Para 17 goes a bit overboard in describing orca feeding as “social events carried out in the context of an array of traditions and rituals”, which implies some kind of cross-species mind-reading technology that certainly wasn’t in wide use back in my day. Para 41 commits a small lie of omission when it states “In nature, aggression between members of a pod, or between pods in the same resident clan or community … is virtually unknown”; true, but relations between resident and transient pods are somewhat more antagonistic. Still. The stuff on social bonds, brain structure, habitat requirements — not to mention the generally barbaric treatment of orcas in captivity — is pretty much spot-on.
Significantly, Seaworld doesn’t challenge any of these facts. They’ve stated that charges of abuse are utterly irrelevant as far as they’re concerned. From what I’ve seen reported, their defense boils down to two basic claims: 1) The whole case is bullshit because the Constitution only applies to people and killer whales aren’t; and 2) if PETA wins this case, it’s open season on everything from zoos to the law-enforcement’s K9 programs. “We’re talking about hell unleashed,” their lawyer is quoted as saying.
I have problems with both those points.
First, the Property-not-people angle. PETA argues that dismissing orcas as property “is the same argument that was used against African-Americans and women before their constitutional rights were protected”. Sealand rebuts that that’s an entirely inappropriate analogy because “both women and African-Americans are people for which the Constitution was written to protect.” This being yet another iteration of the founding fathers know best argument so beloved by the Tea Party: the Constitution is gospel, and cannot be changed.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the original Consitution define blacks as less than human, too? As in, one slave equals three-fifths of a “real” man, at least for purposes of political representation? Citing African Americans and women doesn’t exactly bolster Seaworld’s case — although they’ve also made the claim that the whole whales-as-slaves argument “defies common sense”, so they’ve always got the Spluttering Outrage and Handwaving defense to fall back on.
More telling, though, is Argument #2: that if the tewwowists win, “All hell breaks loose.” Which is another way of saying “It mustn’t be, so it isn’t”.
Don’t even think about the abuse of the organism, they are saying; it pales in the shadow of the carnage and inconvenience that will be brought down upon us if the whalehuggers have their way. How will the hundreds employed by zoos and marine parks make ends meet? How will the police protect us from evil-doers without furry canine slaves to do their bidding? What about the innocent middle-class family with the pet cockatoo or the beagle in the back yard? Will their doors be the next to get kicked in by PETA’s stormtroopers? The only argument I haven’t heard yet — and I heard it often enough from the mouths of the Vancouver Aquarium’s PR hacks, so I suppose it’s only a matter of time — is Won’t somebody think of the CHILDREN?
I don’t know why we should have to explain the implications of the law to a lawyer, but: if PETA wins, then captive orcas will be slaves. Legally. And good luck making the case that we shouldn’t free slaves because it would force the manager of Sealand to look for another job.
Of course, whether we even can free the slaves — after decades of atrophy and chronic wasting in captivity — is a whole other issue (one dealt with at greater length in that intervenor report I mentioned earlier). Rehab certainly didn’t end well for Keiko. But that’s a logistic issue, not a logical one. We’re not focusing on the nuts and bolts of extended physiotherapy for a creature the size of a school bus; we’re focusing on whether a creature whose emotional and cognitive circuitry is at least comparable to ours, whether something capable of complex problem-solving, complex community relationships, and complex suffering warrants at least as much respect as some brain-dead hydrocephalic on life support— even if it does have flukes instead of feet. You probably know where I stand on that: just two posts back I threw my lot in with the bonobos over the illusory interests of Terri Schiavo.
I don’t believe that any rights are intrinsic. There’s no inevitable law of nature that says we have to show any regard for the suffering of any being — human or otherwise — that doesn’t increase our own fitness in some way. But there’s nothing that prevents such regard either; and if we are going to extend it, we should at least be consistent in the dissemination of our empathy. In that context, Peter Singer was right in Animal Liberation: the question is not so much Can it think? as Can it suffer?
There is no doubt that orcas can suffer. They can suffer far more than those little blobs of cells the right-to-life types get so worked up about, those embryos that don’t even have a neocortex atop their neural tubes. They suffer more than any of a number of vegetative human beings who owe their continued oblivious existence to ventilators and blood scrubbers. Personally, though, I don’t think that will make a difference; I think the defense, for all the incoherence of its arguments, will ultimately prevail — not because they are right, but because it’s just too damned inconvenient to be wrong. If you think too hard about this sort of thing, you’ll recognize the injustice; recognizing the injustice, you might feel obligated to do something about it. But that means making changes in the way you live; that means giving up things you’ve grown accustomed to. It means getting off the couch. Better not to think about it. Better to just look the other way.
The only alternative is to state flat-out that you really don’t care whether abuse and suffering is rampant in the world. The suffering will continue, but at least nobody can accuse you of hypocrisy. Which may be, I suppose, why Sealand’s lawyer came right out and said just that: it’s not about the suffering.
Maybe I didn’t give the dude enough credit.
[Late-breaking Postscript: Even as I format this post for upload, the LA Times reports that U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller has thrown out PETA’s lawsuit on the grounds that whales are animals, not people. Pass the remote and the pork rinds.]