Monday, December 04, 2006

Orca Said "No"

In case you missed it, a story popped up last week about an amusement park whale that deliberately tried to drown a trainer.

A killer whale that dragged a trainer underwater during a show at SeaWorld Adventure Park, breaking his foot, may be allowed to perform again, park officials said Thursday.

For most people this is the kind of story that makes for coffee break small talk, but David Niewert, whose excellent blog I count among the top three or four in my collection, takes the matter more seriously. His observations are worth a few minutes of your time.

By way of background you might first take a look at why he calls his blog -- are you ready for this?-- Orcinus... Without getting all New-Age-y and stuff at some level he identifies Orca, for reasons he puts into (many) words, as his spirit animal.

They do not, however, mess much with humans. In fact, even though they sit atop the oceanic food chain, and are actually some of the most vicious and powerful predators in the world, the only time they have been known to attack humans is when they are being held captive. And even that is rare. There was one recorded accidental attack on a surfer, who evidently was mistaken for a seal and promptly released after a chomp on the leg. They seem, if anything, rather curious about us.

This is one of the incredible things about encountering them in the wild. They are huge creatures, weighing up to 13 tons, but extremely graceful, and powerful and precise swimmers. In a stationary kayak -- it's important not to paddle into them, not to harass them, to rap on the hull of your boat so they know your location, and to simply let them come to you, if they're going to -- they will glide gracefully under and around you. If they do stop, they'll spy-hop up and examine you. Believe me, you know you've been looked over when an orca does it.

Getting back to the story, it seems this event is not as uncommon as the average reader might imagine. Nor is it without explanation.
...I can date my own daughter's love of all things orca back to a visit to SeaWorld in San Diego we made back in the spring of 2003. At all of 20 months old then, she wanted mostly to spend the day at the big glass windows to the orca tanks, and of course I had to buy the stuffed orca doll. Even today her toy and book collections are riddled with killer whales.
And give the seaquariums credit: it was their exposure of orcas to the public through such venues that transformed the public perception of them from that of dangerous killers to cuddly sea mammals.We were reminded this week, however, that the friendlier stereotype can be nearly as destructive, and that you cuddle them at your mortal peril...

The Humane Society of the United States, which opposes keeping orcas in captivity, issued a statement Thursday suggesting SeaWorld may one day have to kill a whale to save a person's life. "Simply put, keeping these powerful and intelligent marine mammals in captivity and allowing people to swim with them is utterly inappropriate," said Naomi A. Rose, marine mammal scientist for the society.

Rose has more than a point, because the double-edged sword of public exposure to captive orcas is that we get to see all too clearly that keeping these large wild animals penned up in limited concrete tanks is not good for the animals. And even worse is forcing them to perform stunts for the sake of entertaining crowds of people.

Certainly, that was our experience. Having seen them in the wild, I was disturbed by the limited nature of the captive orcas' existences: circling, circling, circling constantly in a featureless concrete tank whose sides constantly echo. For a creature whose primary mode of perception -- its echolocation -- is predicated on sound, seaquarium life must represent a kind of sterile hell. Particularly for a creature accustomed to roaming open seas at will. As much as I was pleased with her interest, I was disquieted by what we saw the orcas forced to endure.

Take your time. This is a long post.
If you don't have time to spend now it's best to come back later when you have a few minutes to reflect on what he says.

No comments: