While reviewing the new documentary Blackfish, which tells the story of a SeaWorld trainer killed by one of the park’s whales, Andrew O’Hehir contemplates animal rights:
While “Blackfish” largely focuses on the tragic story of SeaWorld, [trainer Dawn] Brancheau and [orca] Tilikum, the philosophical issues it raises along the way are much broader. As the experts in the film make clear, the more we learn about killer whales, the more we come to understand them as self-aware creatures possessed with high-level cognitive abilities, complex family and social structures, and distinctive forms of communication. While the word “language” remains contentious when applied to whales and dolphins – having been used too promiscuously by New Agers in the ‘70s — in recent years leading scientists have begun to talk about cetaceans possessing “culture,” as well as the psychological and emotional inner lives characteristic of “personhood.” In the film, evolutionary neurobiologist Lori Marino suggests that orca brains demonstrate a limbic system – the apparent seat of emotional life – more complicated than that found in humans.
As our awareness of the complexity of the animal world continues to evolve, and as the expanding human population puts the planet’s other inhabitants in greater danger, certain questions become irresistible. If we come to believe that orcas and other large marine mammals are conscious beings, individuals not unlike ourselves, then by what right do we arbitrarily abduct and imprison them for our entertainment? Or even, as SeaWorld would have it, for our education, for the advancement of science and for the furtherance of conservation efforts? One could argue that when Africans or Native Americans were kidnapped from their homelands and put on display in the great cities of Europe, it ultimately served to broaden human understanding. That doesn’t mean anyone would defend that practice today.
In many cases, we simply cannot know what consciousness is like for, say, an orca or a pig. We can hazard guesses from comparing their brains with ours – but, in my view, the captivity and use of any intelligent animal for entertainment will one day be seen as barbaric. It is a violation of the animals’ dignity. While that may not ascend quite to the level of human dignity, it demands that we cease treating our fellow inhabitants of earth as captive slaves. With the dominion humans have over the natural world comes great responsibility. And right now, we humans are behaving with criminal recklessness toward the planet that gave us life.