Saturday, August 01, 2015

And you thought sharks were dangerous

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, animal rights, performing animals, orcas

What is black and white, smarter than a chimpanzee, but can't walk? It is the apex predator of the oceans, the orca or "killer whale". Until about 90 years ago, an orca was called a "grampus" by many whalers; that's the word used in Moby Dick. Others called them "blackfish".

I once recalculated the Encephalization Quotient of various whales and porpoises, based on subtracting out the blubber so they'd be more comparable to land mammals. Human EQ ranges from 7 to nearly 8, for fit persons (Take a bright individual with an EQ of 7.5, but a sweet tooth. If he fattens up and his weight doubles, his EQ will drop below 7). Porpoises and other "small" toothed whales have EQ's mostly above 4. But even the fittest bottlenose is 40% blubber, so divide 4 by 0.6, and you get – surprise! – something above 6.6! Raw EQ for orcas ranges from nearly 3 to nearly 4, but their percentage of blubber is a bit less, so I'd put their "real" EQ into the 4.5-6.5 range.

I've been to SeaWorld to see orcas perform, including "rocket hop" stunts that throw a human trainer 30+ feet above the water. This was before 2010 when a widely-publicized killing of a trainer led to a ban on human trainers (who are also performers) entering the water with orcas throughout the US.

How is it even possible for humans to work with these creatures? We need some comparisons, and John Hargrove, an orca trainer for 14 years, provides them in his new book Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, written with Howard Chua-Eoan. John was one of several orca trainers interviewed in the film Blackfish, which probed the real story of the death of Dawn Brancheau.

After a performance in February 2010, tensions were high between several orcas, for reasons not clear to the trainers, and Dawn was not in the water, but on a platform next to the pool right at water level, talking to Tilicum, when he moved forward, bit her arm and pulled her into the pool. He didn't try to eat her, but rammed and bit her body repeatedly. She didn't live long, and was partly dismembered. She was the third trainer that Tilicum had killed, but the first to be made known publicly, because this took place in public view.

Do orcas consider us prey? Not really. We don't resemble any of their usual pray animals. Seas around the world are inhabited by a dozen or more loosely related populations of orcas. Some prefer seals, some attack primarily baleen whales, and others eat mainly fish. Being quite a bit smarter than sharks, orcas can tell we aren't seals when they encounter swimming humans, and typically leave them alone. That is in their natural environment. A theme park is hardly a natural environment!

The salt water tanks at SeaWorld parks are big, really big, from our perspective. Roughly the size of a football field, and 40 feet deep, they hold 10-20 million gallons of water, each. But a mature male orca is 30 feet (9m) long and he can weigh 10 tons, though the heaviest male in captivity weighs 6 tons. Take that 6-ton animal, compared to a 200# (90kg) man: the ratio is 60:1. The length ratio is about 5:1. A 15 million-gallon tank sounds like a lot; that is about 1.8 million cubic feet, but:

  • Comparison 1: 1.8 million cu.ft / 60 = 30,000 cu.ft. (850 cu.m.)
  • Comparison 2: 300 ft (football field length) / 5 = 60 ft (18m)
The average house in my neighborhood is a 3-bedroom, 1- or 2-bath bungalow, colonial style, with a full basement but no garage. Indoor volume is about 15,000 cu.ft. The two largest houses on this block are 4-bed and include an attached 2-car garage. Their volume is just under 25,000 cu.ft. That's similar to Comparison 1. On a length basis (Comparison 2), the usual house around here is 30-35' long (10m or less), and the two large houses are 40 ft long (12m). So a captive orca in a SeaWorld park has a pretty big "house" to live in, one might think. Almost a McMansion, perhaps. But he can never go out into the yard. It is perpetual house arrest. A free orca often swims 50-100 km daily, and may dive to 1000 ft (~300m) after prey. You, in house arrest, might take advantage of a treadmill or StairMaster. They don't make those for orcas.

The book has another apt analogy. For about 70 years, some people who fear "flying saucers" or ET's have expressed anxiety over "alien abductions" and "experiments", including breeding experiments, being done by aliens on human captives. Now imagine, you are suddenly subject to imprisonment in your own home, by captors the size of Guinea Pigs…except they are smarter than you are, they have weapons you can't understand, and they control your food supply. Oh, and they teach you silly "behaviors" that you must perform 4, 5, 6, even 7 times daily. They take away your children, subdue you to perform artificial insemination, and take away the children that result, once they are weaned. They also bring in, from time to time, other children and adults with whom you are supposed to share your living space and "all get along." Except these others don't speak your language and have cultural habits you can't fathom. We're not talking moving a Frenchman into an American home. More like tossing Mr. Joe Sixpack in with a warrior from the New Guinea uplands, a Congolese tribeswoman who has never heard the English language, and Quechua-speaking twin toddlers from Peru.

I analyzed orca intelligence above in terms of EQ. The batch of disparate humans described in the prior paragraph would soon develop some kind of patois so they could communicate, and the young twins would probably learn all three other languages available. Orcas in "forced communities" in SeaWorld parks never seem to learn one anothers' languages. Those captured wild were just a year or two old, so they were never raised or socialized by parents. Those born in the parks were, if they were very lucky, somewhat "raised" by their mothers, at least for a couple of years, but were typically moved to another park by year 5, only partway through whatever socialization their mother could teach them. Captive orca groups are thus socially abnormal, extremely so. They cannot communicate vocally to defuse emotional tensions, so they are more violent among themselves than wild orcas.

It is a testament to their intelligence, curiosity, and general good nature, that captive orcas tolerate humans swimming with them at all. If you were in the house described above, and a Guinea-Pig-sized ET came within arm's reach, do you think it would live long? The incidence of "aggressive incidents" and trainer deaths caused by orcas is actually stunningly small.

John tells us there are at present 30 orcas in captivity at SeaWorld parks. Contrary to park press releases, the typical captive orca has a life span of 15-20 years, if they survive beyond a year or two, which half don't. Wild orcas live 30 (male) to 50 (female) years. But a few captive orcas are in the range of 30+ years old. Even if orca "performances" become outlawed, the captive orcas cannot be put into the ocean. They don't know how to behave around wild orcas and would be either shunned, and thus die of loneliness, or killed outright. So we have a 20-to-40-year commitment to these animals, to provide some kind of living for their lifetimes. They are roughly half as intelligent as we are, perhaps more. But that intelligence is different. We cannot ethically keep them as performers, and especially, we cannot keep breeding them. The day must come when no whales are captives in tiny tanks ("tiny" meaning smaller than the Gulf of Bothnia).

John Hargrove loves the whales. He details his life, learning what he had to learn to qualify as an apprentice trainer, getting opportunities that rapidly moved him up the ladder until he was Senior Trainer. A couple of years in France, training orcas who had not yet learned how to work with humans in "their" water…and training the French trainers. He does not stint from telling of the occasional problems with an aggressive or angry orca. I am again impressed that these animals have levels of self-control, and an ability to cool down quickly, that beats nearly any human I've known. John tells of the injuries and traumas, physical and mental, that led him to take a medical leave and then to resign from training, as badly as that hurt him emotionally.

He is deeply conflicted, wishing he could be with the whales, yet knowing that, were SeaWorld management truly ethical, there could be no further human-orca contact beyond caretaking, and many people he loves would lose their jobs. He has become an advocate for the whales. They are the real victims here. No human has yet learned to communicate in depth with an orca or any other sea mammal, in spite of the fact that orcas not only have language among themselves, but several languages around the world. So we have little hope of learning the language of space aliens if any ever show up. Meanwhile, in this "alien encounters of the third (or even fourth!) kind"scenario, we are the aliens, and our captives are totally dependent on us. We have them in a space they cannot escape, and have changed them so they cannot be introduced to "normal" society, anywhere on this globe.

Every one of us needs to spend a few minutes daily pondering that fact.

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