What Our Treatment of Orcas Tells Us About Our Societal Health

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
What Our Treatment of Orcas Tells Us About Our Societal Health

image by: TUFKAAP

Most of us would agree that cruelty is unhealthy. And so a recent failure to act by the California legislature gives us a window into another way in which we are a very unhealthy society.

For the purposes of his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, philosopher Richard Rorty borrows Judith Shklar's definition of liberals as "people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do." While I would label myself liberal under an even broader definition, this is the crux of my politics, my economics, my humanity. Cruelty is the worst thing we do. And the knowing, avoidable infliction of suffering is the cruelty defined. 

Clearly, the capacity to suffer is not limited to human. While arguments can be made that some of the least complex living creatures—bacteria, plants, insects, some sea life—lack the capacity to suffer (at least as we know it), those arguments lose cogency as we move toward creatures "closer" to humans. No-one seriously questions whether dogs and cats can suffer, let alone cetaceans and great apes. It's why you can't buy dolphin burgers in the United States. It's why children today will easily live long enough to see the end of testing on chimpanzees. Generally speaking, the more we recognize the capacity to suffer, the harder it is to justify practices that cause suffering.

That's why it is completely shameful that the California State Assembly has chosen not to act on AB 2140, which would have amended the state's Fish & Game Code to make it illegal to capture, hold in captivity, or use orcas for performance purposes.

Consideration of how shamefully we treat animals in general, while apposite here, is too broad for this article. Here we focus simply on this particular shame and the shameful rationale for failing to redress a wrong hiding in plain sight long before Blackfish, the documentary film that generated the current wave of interest in putting an end to orca captivity, was released. According to Assemblymember Richard Bloom, who introduced AB 2140, the rationale for deciding not to act on the bill at this time to give members of the committee who would vote on whether to bring the bill to the full Assembly a chance "to really dig into the information that is out there and come to your conclusions in a fashion that allows careful consideration."

Considering that there is no information out there, none, that contradicts the notion that orcas are highly intelligent and emotional creatures, Bloom's language isn't really about his cohort learning about orcas so much as it is about finding political cover to pass a law that a powerful corporation—in this case, SeaWorld Entertainment, which is owned by the multinational, multibillion-dollar financial-services firm the Blackstone Group—doesn't want.

One of the terrible ironies related to the capture and imprisonment of orcas is that, despite orca's being the top ocean predator, in human history there has not been a single recorded killing of a human by an orca (and only one generally accepted orca attack). So when you consider that over the last 40 years captive orcas have attacked humans dozens of times, including inflicting numerous fatalities, it's pretty self-evident that orcas don't respond well to captivity. As if there was ever any real doubt.

Accepting the definition employed by Rorty in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, most of us would give lip service to the idea that we're liberal.Aside from self-described sadists, who would claim to be in favor of inflicting suffering on the innocent?

But talk is cheap. Any policy—including a lack of legal protection—that allows for the infliction of suffering is an implicit approval of the practice. Inaction is tacit complicity.

So it is that the State of California continues to be complicit in the infliction of suffering on some of the creatures that mostly closely compare with humans intellectually and emotionally. The problem is that even here we perpetuate us/them distinctions. It's not okay for us to suffer. But them? Well, they're just animals.

Near the end of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity Rorty urges liberals—those people who think cruelty is the worst thing we do—"to keep trying to expand our sense of 'us' as far as we can." And there's no reason to confine "us" to humankind. After all, as he points out, "Simply by being human we do not have a common bond. For all we share with all other humans is the same thing we share with all other animals—the ability to feel pain."

Most of us would agree that cruelty—the knowing, avoidable infliction of suffering—is unhealthy. In that light, the crueler a society, the unhealthier that society is. A key to greater health, then, is reducing cruelty wherever we find it.

We find cruelty quite evidently in the tiny tanks at SeaWorld that hold orcas as captives, enslaved for our entertainment. The fact that the legislature of one of our nation's most progressive state's is still failing to eliminate this cruelty despite the problem's literally being put on their desks is a good indication of just how unhealthy our society is.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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