A reader quotes me:
… 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.
This is why I have never been comfortable visiting a zoo. No matter how interesting I may find it to see the variety of animal life from diverse locations over the globe, I can’t get past the fact that these animals are imprisoned and forced to live a life in captivity that bears little resemblance to the life they would experience in their natural habitat. Perhaps their lives are easier not having to navigate the world of predators and other threats to life, but who are we to decide what is better for them? It just seems incredibly selfish of the human race to snatch these innocent animals from their normal lives and dump them into one we see fit to create for them, all to give families something to do on weekends.
The NYT’s Dot Earth blog offered a contribution this weekend from animal law Professor David Cassuto, who pretty much nailed the concept of animal personhood and rights. The whole post is worth reading in light of the orcas discussion, but here is the key passage:
Different traits demand different entitlements. Clustering them all beneath the term “personhood” invites imprecision. By contrast, separating the term into components allows the legal system to treat difference differently while still enabling access to the moral community. For example, acknowledging that animals have the right to be free from the grotesque exploitation of the industrial food apparatus does not require that we also grant them the right to vote. “Human” rights are just that. “Animal” rights should be something altogether different. Recognizing species differences need not mean asserting superiority but rather acknowledging and respecting otherness. Thus, replacing personhood with a cluster concept of rights offers a point of embarkation to a more coherent and egalitarian approach to our relationships with the nonhuman world.
Another reader highlights a case in which the captivity of orcas was put to a legal test:
Last year, five orcas sued SeaWorld for holding them as slaves in violation of the 13th Amendment ban on slavery. PETA filed the suit on the orcas behalf; the five orcas were the plaintiffs, claiming they “are held in slavery and involuntary servitude.” Unfortunately, it didn’t end well for the orcas:
Before the ruling, PETA’s attorney Jeffrey Kerr told HuffPost that the animal rights group’s argument was based on the belief that “slavery doesn’t depend upon the species of the slave, any more than it depends upon the race, gender or ethnicity of the slave. SeaWorld’s attempts to deny [orcas] the protection solely based on their species is the same kind of prejudice used to justify any enslavement. And prejudice should not be what determines constitutional rights in this country … Because they can suffer from the prohibitive conduct of being enslaved, the 13th Amendment protection against that conduct should be extended to them. …
[U.S. District Judge Jeffrey] Miller praised PETA attorneys for striving to protect orcas, but still found that the 13th Amendment “affords no relief.”
It certainly is unconscionable that 45 orcas are being held captive around the world. We should also keep in mind that tens of billions of other non-human animals are held as slaves in atrocious conditions by the egg, meat, and dairy industries – and we can all easily do something about that: simply boycott those products.
Another reader dissents, questioning the character of orcas:
I understand the arguments against imprisoning intelligent animals for our entertainment and I think they make a lot of good points. However, if orcas do in fact possess an “emotional life” more complicated than humans and therefore we should consider them as essentially people, then they are the worst kind of people. The series Planet Earth has a sequence in which a gang of orcas separate a whale calf from its mother and murder it in front of her. They eat its jawbone and then let the massive corpse fall to the ocean. Their rationale? It was fun. They are violent, psychotic murderers. If we are imprisoning them by keeping them in aquariums, then maybe they deserve it.