Sunday, March 7, 2010

Whale Kills Trainer

It always is portrayed as being a dream job. Training whales, dolphins as well as other similar intelligent creatures is portrayed as the kind of job that many who love animals would do at no cost if possible. Getting paid for frolicking with such animals could well be icing about the cake, cream in your java, and breakfast in bed all lumped into one. With few facilities capable of keep large cetaceans in suitable captivity and also provide sufficient care, the opportunities for such a career are very low. As it turns out, maybe that’s just as well. Such careers unsurprisingly have quite the dark side.

With recent headlines yelling “Trainer Killed by Whale” and the like ubiquitously appearing around the world in print, on TV and the Internet, this is being revealed just how disturbing captivity is to such intelligent creatures as whales and dolphins. Tilikum, the killer whale that killed his trainer at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, was actually involved in two previous deaths. Trainers were made aware of the potential violence of Tilikum and special precautions were to be regarded with Tilikum that aren’t typically extended to other whales in captivity. Tilikum had apparently been obviously irritated earlier in the day, refusing to perform and misbehaving in general.

While this incident is extremely sad and unfortunate, it raises a great number of concerns. Cetaceans are thought to be by many philosophers and ethicists to be non-human persons. Cetaceans, in addition to great apes and elephants, are amongst the few non-human creatures known to pass the mirror test. The mirror test involves placing a mark of some sort on a part of the animal that the animal is able to see only by looking in a mirror. When the animal sees the spot on themselves in the mirror, the animal recognizes that the spot is on him or herself. One example is, if a dot is placed on the forehead of a chimpanzee, the chimpanzee will recognize that the dot is on their own forehead when he or she looks in the mirror. Cetaceans have exhibited this self-awareness similarly when a pen mark is placed on their body. Upon viewing the mark in a mirror, they’ll either preen in front of the mirror or make an effort to remove the mark. If a pen without ink is utiliz! ed, causing no mark, the animal will look in the mirror to observe what was done and just go on his way when he sees nothing there. Self-awareness and intricate social behavior and communication are essential elements attributable to non-human persons.

If these creatures are indeed non-human persons, than there is the huge question of our right to keep them in captivity. Given that they’re self aware, and that they’ve got great social needs as humans do, how should keeping them in virtual solitary confinement possibly be justified? That “dream job” suddenly begins to take on several ethical dilemmas.

Most of those that would consider training such creatures as Shamu or Flipper would do so out of a deep respect for their intelligence, playful behavior and when it comes to the dolphin especially, their enduring smile. It must be hard to juxtapose those feelings with the awareness that the animals are in captivity, not by their decision. Trainers are in effective jailers, regardless of how gentle, caring and loving they are towards their captives.

The administrators and management of Aquariums that keep cetaceans justify their actions through the claim of research, much similar to the Japanese whalers justify their slaughter of hundreds of the animals every year. True researchers say that little is often learned from captive cetaceans as they are so removed from their natural habitat. In the matter of the large killer whales, the animals are unnaturally isolated as they would normally live in pods of no less than five other whales.

Most of the difficulty with the debate over whether these creatures should continue being kept in captivity or released lies in the uncertainty of whether animals who have been born in captivity could survive in the wild. However, it’s been shown that Killer Whales that were caught in the ocean and brought into captivity are readily accepted into their pods upon release. There’s little justification for keeping wild-caught animals.

Aquariums are scrambling to breed cetaceans in captivity. There’s growing stress to release the whales and dolphins and also the seals and walruses. Successful breeding would give the aquariums some seeming justification to keeping the animals, as they would supposedly have little chance for survival in the wild. Of course they are scrambling. The animals bring in hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. And while it is almost self-evident that keeping such creatures is wrong, money often is the deciding factor, in spite of the ethics involved, in any such situation.

True research institutions don’t keep such creatures, even ones which are less intelligent. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, for instance, has an exhibit that often contains large animals such as sun fish, sea turtles and Great White Sharks. These creatures are only kept for short durations after which they are released. They’re animals that are difficult to research in the open ocean and little is understood about them, so short term captivity can be justified. But even for these animals, that are not considered self aware and that live commonly solitary lives, it’s felt that it might be unjust to keep them in captivity for an extended length of time.

Let’s at least start with this as a model – short term captivity and reports of the actual research accomplished. Once the research becomes obviously repeated and nothing new is being learned, a ban on captivity unless new scientific studies are approved by some governing panel. Situated nearby the proper habitat, some of these animals could possibly come and put on a show voluntarily. Given that would be a true dream job, without ethical dilemmas associated.



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