One day last year I met Melanie for Vietnamese. The weather was pleasant, and I needed steps, so I parked at the opposite end of the shopping center and walked the 100 yards or so. On the way I happened to notice a moth on an eave, sitting perfectly still.
And then I noticed that same moth on the way back through, more than an hour later. I began reflecting on how far beyond the meager intellect of an insect the concept of boredom is. Do they think anything but “eat, don’t get eaten, have sex”? Do they even think any of that, or is it all instinctually hard-wired?
An animal’s mental capabilities are a major input into how I feel about how we treat them. I actually first started thinking about our keeping whales and dolphins several years ago, when a captive orca killed trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World in Orlando. Blogged a bit about it then. What I wrote then describes most of why I have a problem with keeping cetaceans, so I’m going to quote a lot of the post here:
It’s highly likely that orcas have considerable intellect. It’s pretty clear that their play is complex. Their communication may rise to the level of language, and there is even evidence for reasoning skills. Moreover, they form tight and stable family units. I suppose that could be argued away as instinct, but I could as easily argue for a basis for real emotion.
Now I’m not much on a lot of the “animal rights” prattle. I believe the human race has many legitimate uses for many different animals, and I don’t give them a second thought. But does that extend to an orca (literally) jumping through hoops?
I’m terribly hazy on that.
I don’t find it far-fetched to consider that a captive orca could be aware of his situation to a much larger degree than nearly any other animal would be. What if he can remember what it is to swim freely, and realize day after day that he’s still denied it? What if he can remember friends and family, and contemplate the futility of hoping he’ll see them again?
Couldn’t it be an intelligent creature who accommodates confinement as best it can (and mathematically, that must be pretty well), but is still capable of “snapping”? This article quotes a marine biologist who says it may well be the end result of chronic neurosis, and honestly, I find that a persuasive notion.
Just last week it was made public in court that Sea World gives its orcas antidepressants and psychoactive drugs. Consider that for a moment. Presumably the animals respond to the drugs, else they wouldn’t be prescribed. If an antidepressant is efficacious for an orca, then doesn’t that strongly suggest significant intellect?
I put the same question to you about the orca that I asked about the elephant last week. If the orca is capable of understanding what’s happening to him, and I believe he is, then how can I look in his eyes and tell him I want him to suffer every day for the rest of his life so I can liberate tourist cash at $30 a head?
To be charitable, perhaps we really didn’t know any better when orca and dolphin shows became a thing. How much knowledge have we built in the past few decades? If we reliably observe destructive and otherwise detrimental behavior in whales and dolphins exclusively in captivity, what should we take away from that?
Do we really need to continue keeping cetaceans for our amusement?