There is a scene in the documentary Blackfish in which, via archival footage, we see a young Jeffrey Ventre during his SeaWorld trainer days giving a spiel to his audience during a show when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a large killer whale comes flying across the haulout on which he’s standing and goes skidding past him within inches, then plunges back into its pool.
Ventre seems genuinely surprised, and the footage shows him talking to one of his fellow trainers (Mark Simmons, it turns out), saying: “You dork!”
By all appearances, the moment captured in the footage seemed to underscore the extent to which those trainers are actually at the mercy of the whales they’re supposed to be controlling and their whims. After all, even a minor deviation in their routines could result in disaster for the humans in their pools: If the orca had been a few inches closer and come out a few seconds earlier, Ventre would have been pancaked.
But in reality, as Ventre, explained to me recently, the whole stunt was planned. “The orca was Taima, and yes it was a staged behavior,” he said. “It came off well because Taima (later banned from waterwork with humans) came up early.”
So in many regards the moment seemingly demonstrates the extent to which the trainers actually could control the killer whales. But even that, Ventre says, is a deeply deceptive illusion: “The spectacle of the production,” he said, “does center around SeaWorld's ability to manipulate and control the world's top predator.”
That all seemingly came to an end this week, with SeaWorld’s announcement that it would immediately cease its orca breeding program, as well as its circus-style orca performances. Future orca shows, the company says, will emphasize “natural behaviors”, though the company insists it will not consider seapens or other options for the remaining orcas in its collection, saying “the orcas at SeaWorld will stay in our parks.”
Outside of the relatively cloistered world of animal-rights activism (as well as the business-investment world), the announcement seemed interesting and even momentous, but not necessarily world-shaking. But make no mistake: the paradigm shifted in an important way this week, announcing, potentially, a deeper social change. Something profound and, if sustained, deeply good: a deep shift in humankind’s relationship to the natural world, and ultimately to each other.
Seeing any killer whale in the flesh inspires awe, captive or wild. Even behind the glass and concrete of a captivity pool, it’s hard not be struck by the majesty of the animal: It is so big, so powerful, so beautiful, its intense intelligence unmistakable.
In the wild, seeing orcas is a joyous, inspirational thing, because it feels so innately right. The animals themselves are spontaneous and joyful in their behavior, even when they are at their most businesslike and distant. You are seeing this astonishing creature doing what it has done for six million years, the rulers of the ocean at home in their realm. It’s genuinely an unforgettable experience.
However, seeing orcas in captivity brings an added twist. The guides at the marine parks such as Sea World and Miami Seaquarium will often tout supposed side benefits they claim that captivity of the animals bring, such as educating young people about the oceans, “inspiring” them to care for the animals they see, and providing important scientific research information that helps the animals survive in the wild. The reality, however, is that SeaWorld’s “education” programs are really low-information affairs geared primarily to propagandize children into visiting the park, while its “science” record is so laughably thin that very few real scientists engaged in conservation work with wild whales take them seriously.
No, what SeaWorld has been selling (at about $100 a head, plus parking, food, and plush dolls) is not an understanding of the animals, but a spectacle -- the jaw-dropping sight of seeing a relatively tiny human mastering these gigantic creatures and seemingly controlling them, as trainers like Ventre and others performed a series of precision stunts before your eyes. The “education” that children receive at these parks is an overpowering message that it is not only right, but admirable, that we humans keep wild animals under our power through a system of dominance and control.
“The story of man's dominion has been told numerous times, most notably in the movie King Kong,” Ventre wrote to me in a thoughtful missive last May, noting that this narrative works well with an astonishingly large and powerful creature like a killer whale: “There are larger carnivores, including sperm whales, but no equal to Orcinus orca in terms of the sophisticated brain, cooperative hunting methods, and killing equipment.
Trainers’ relationships with the orcas, in terms of dominance and control, is complicated, he explained:
I agree that in any given waterwork show or session, the orca is in charge, however, SeaWorld does have the ultimate leverage. Food.
This is why the topic of food deprivation is crucial to the debate and also why it is shameful that SeaWorld is trying to deny its use, lately. It is part of the daily existence of some whales at all parks during different time periods. How else do you get animals to separate from their mothers or stay motionless for teeth drilling procedures?
Predictable whales such as Katina (and formerly her daughter Kalina) have been referred to as "Cadillacs." She has been the matriarch or co-matriarch of the Florida facility for 30+ years. She is known to the trainers as a "business woman," compliant, reliable, and expecting payment. She is well paid in fish. She expects to be paid and SeaWorld keeps her happy. Katina is probably the corporation's single most valuable asset as she has produced many offspring, and runs a tight ship, preferring order over disorder in her artificial pod. She controls things to her liking, and the training management loves that. Kasatka, whom I have never worked with, is also a dominant female, but unlike Katina, and as seen in Blackfish, has a long track record of attacks on trainers.
A predictable matriarch allows for consistent live public shows with killer whales. Without that the show production suffers. Katina has trained dozens of killer whale trainers including myself.
Katina is aware of her situation and as matriarch carves out a life for herself and her offspring to the best of her ability. Analogous to a prison guard being cooperative with the warden to make life better.
Then there are the other animals that are less predictable. Animals that I worked directly with in this category include Taima, her mother Gudurn, Tilikum, and Kanduke. These animals were also aware of their surroundings and were not as interested in working with the training staff. This caused them to have their food amounts cut, regularly, so they would comply with commands or not disrupt shows.
No one knows what he was thinking, but Tilikum has killed three humans, including two of his trainers. For reference, Kanduke was actually more feared than Tilikum, although he lived a shorter life, pre-Internet, so his antics are less known. These orcas (plus Kasatka, Orkid, Ky, Keto) all developed track records that made them unsafe to get into the water with. So, in that sense, they are definitely in charge.
Sociologist Susan Gray Davis discussed the illusory aspect of SeaWorld’s shows last spring during Voice of San Diego’s sponsored debate, between SeaWorld’s defenders and its critics, over orca captivity. While studying the question of what people actually learn at marine parks like SeaWorld, she came to the conclusion that it all came down to entertainment, particularly the big orca circus shows put on at the its various Shamu Stadiums:
I think they are the key to the brand. It’s the model for the human-animal interaction that occurs at SeaWorld. It really expresses a lot of tension, because it combines the fascination with these animals with an enthusiasm for subtly, but maybe not subtly, humans being in charge of the animals. So there’s this big, beautiful powerful wild animal that is also being controlled by a human being. It’s done in a very skillful, very artful way, but that’s essentially what people are seeing in the shows.
So the kind of “environmental” education that occurs at these parks is not in any sense a forward-looking effort that helps young people take a more enlightened approach to their own futures. It is instead a reflection of what the cetacean-captivity industry is really about – namely, just another iteration of the systems of dominance and control that embody traditional Western Civilization, values that we know are killing the planet.
This is something deeply embedded in our culture – so deeply that it may take generations to root out. It comes out of the same components of our wiring that have brought us such depredations as slavery, war, genocide, psychopathy, and environmental degradation.
The enlightened parts of our society have worked hard over the centuries to root out these phenomena, because they understand that they are ultimately self-destructive and ultimately evil – with varying degrees of success. Slavery has diminished dramatically, though it remains a fact in many corners of the underdeveloped Third World and even in the slimier corners of developed society. Genocide is not as common a phenomena as it was a century ago, but the threat of it hangs over us like a dark cloud. War and psychopathy and environmental degradation are very much still with us.
Orca captivity, as it happens, gives us a unique window on the reality that these systems of dominance and control are, in the end, utterly illusory. And perhaps even more interestingly, it is the orcas themselves – and particularly their wild societies, whose foundations emerge from a profound empathy – who may be able to show us a way out.
Animal-rights activist Michael Mountain has written eloquently about how the fear of death has drastically distorted human behavior, particularly in Western Civilization, leading humans to create a domain for themselves separate from the natural world, a system of dominance and control that extends to every facet of human endeavor.
Our central problem, as humans, is that as much as we reach for the stars and create profoundly beautiful works of art, we cannot escape the knowledge that, just like all the other animals, we are destined to die, go into the ground, and become food for worms.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, social anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote that the awareness we humans have of our personal mortality creates a level of anxiety that drives much of our behavior. Certainly other animals experience bursts of terror in the face of death, but for us humans it’s a lifelong awareness, and one that brings about a chronic level of anxiety that we spend our whole lives – and build whole civilizations and cultures – trying to cope with.
And so it is that, to alleviate the anxiety we feel over our animal nature, we try to separate ourselves from our fellow animals and to exert control over the natural world. We tell ourselves we’re superior to them and that they exist for our benefit. We treat them as commodities and resources, use them as biomedical “models” or “systems” in research, and force them to perform for our entertainment in circuses and theme parks.
To the extent that companion animals fare better, this is largely because we’ve come to treat them less as animals and more as family – part of our human “in-group” to whom we can relate a bit like children.
We even enshrine the abuse of animals in our most sacred belief systems. The Catholic Catechism, for example, states that “Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.”
These belief systems also offer us hope in some form of immortality that’s not accorded the other animals. They’re just one of the ways we have of distancing ourselves from the rest of nature, and they’ve become so embedded in our cultures that they’re typically not even questioned, much less stopped.
But, as in all forms of denial, we cannot escape what we are. And the more we try to bend nature to our will, the more we end up harming the planet and all its living creatures, quite possibly now beyond repair.
This fear, as Mountain demonstrates, has twisted Western culture in profound ways, particularly as people have engaged in the machinery of death itself – namely, war. Throughout history, war and conquest have not only shaped our societies but have in turn become products of them, like a dog chasing its tail: Violence begetting violence. Even as we attempt to assert our systems of dominance and control over our world, we sow the seeds of our own destruction.
Moreover, warmaking has shaped us as individuals, since it has always been inextricably bound up with cultural conceptions of heroism and virtue, and these conceptions have in turn driven the shape of how we wage war and otherwise build our dominance systems – fueled, most often, by the urge to eliminate.
The adulation of heroes arises out of a basic human need, as Becker put it in other work, to feel good about ourselves, to know ourselves as heroes. In the West, the heroic task historically has entailed energetically taking up arms to redeem the world. It also entails creating an enemy and naming him; the heroic warrior, after all, needs an enemy against which to fight, something to give his life meaning. The drama that results is a holy war to drive out an alien darkness or disease, and it is a drama that has played out innumerable times throughout the long history of the West.
Yet, as James Aho observes in This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy, the heroic dynamic has played out differently in different cultures. In the East, he notes, the martial-arts hero is perfected by becoming "absorbed in a cycle that is larger than himself," subsumed by eternal spiritual principles with which he has become aligned. But this is not the case in the Occident:
In civilizations that have come under Judeo-Christian and Muslim influence -- which is to say, among others, modern Europe and America -- chaos is experienced as the product of disobedience regarding ethical duties, not mere ritual infractions, as these have been revealed through prophecy. Here, then, the heroic task becomes one not of passively yielding to the Way but of energetically taking up weapons to reform the world after the personal commandments of the Holy One. The Occidental holy war functions to sterilize the world of an alien darkness or disease, not to reconcile man to its inevitability, particularly its inevitability in himself.
This expiative impulse, in the West at least, became closely associated with Christianity during the early Middle Ages, especially in the later phases of the Holy Roman empire, when Church doctrine regarding the nature of sin developed into a deep psychological fixation regarding the impurity of the flesh. It gave birth to a deep streak of eliminationism: the extreme objectification of other people grouped into a target, manifested as the dehumanization, demonization, and otherwise degradation of that target group into an object fit only for elimination.
This streak manifested itself on the European continent in the form of pogroms and inquisitions, of which the Spanish Inquisition is only the most infamous, with its autos-da-fe and multiple pogroms, in which some 3,000 to 5,000 people were executed and thousands more tortured.
Historian David E. Stannard's text American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World explores these historical roots of genocide in European culture in some depth. As he observes (pp.154-155), the Augustinian doctrine of worldly sin equated all the natural world with evil and brutality, including such natural impulses as sex. Indeed, any wild place was conceived of as innately evil; only the purifying power of civilization could safeguard us from death and darkness. Africa was named “the dark continent” for a reason.
Death and sex thus became inextricably bound up in the Western mind: the former was inevitably a product of the latter, and any dabbling in it led inevitably to darkness and destruction. Women, in particular, became conceived of as the font of such impulses.
As Stannard explains, such "learned and saintly medieval urgings" were part of a medieval worldview that created a culture that "became something truly to behold," one in which the effort to purge oneself of base sinfulness gave birth to a panoply of bizarre and painful self-inflictions. He cites a passage from a "not untypical" devout friar, described by Norman Cohn, who
shut himself up in his cell and stripped himself naked ... and took up his scourge with the sharp spikes, and beat himself on the body and on the arms and legs, till blood poured off him as from a man who has been cupped. One of the spikes on the scourge was bent crooked, like a hook, and whatever flesh it caught it tore off. He beat himself so hard that the scourge broke into three bits and the points flew against the wall. ...
Eventually, this hatred of sex was expressed in an abiding misogyny that identified women with the putrefication of the natural world and the source of worldly evil. It also identified the outside world with untamed nature and thus with wanton sinfulness. As Stannard writes, "there also lurked in distant realms demi-brutes who lived carnal and savage lives in wilderness controlled by Satan."
This view of the "uncivilized" world as populated by creatures who were perhaps only passably human also preceded Christianity by several centuries. Greek poets like Homer and Hesiod often described an outside world populated by demigods and other half-human races. Pliny the Elder, in the first century A.D., described in his Natural History peoples of far-off lands with fantastic traits, including people whose faces are embedded in their chests, or have the heads of dogs, or hooves instead of feet, or ears so long or lips so large they use them as coverings. Notably, he also famously provided the first recorded description of Orcinus orca, which Pliny insisted “could be described as nothing other than a gigantic mass of flesh armed with rows of teeth.” Later on, the “orc” was described by various Renaissance poets as a voracious monster who prowled the seas and dined on sailors and maidens.
As this myth-making was incorporated into Christian culture, it was assumed that the strangeness of these "monstrous" races of men described by Pliny, linked to the outcast lineage of Cain, was a product of their innate sinfulness and downcast nature. "So great was their alienation from the world of God's -- or the gods' -- most favored people, in fact," writes Stannard, "that well into late antiquity they commonly were denied the label of 'men.'"
Eventually, by the later Middle Ages, this fascination with "monstrous" races evolved into an interest in the "wild man" who it was believed inhabited the unexplored wildernesses of the world. This was the standard view of the peoples who explorers eventually encountered populations of humans living on the American continents when the age of exploration began after 1492 -- if these were men at all, they were at best only half so.
Thus the eliminationist impulse was transmitted almost seamlessly from Europe to the Americas, where it actually grew in a more virulent form that went hand in hand with an expansionist impulse. Indeed, Americans generally displayed a wanton disregard for the humanity of the native peoples that only intensified as they marched farther westward.
All of this social conditioning came home with a vengeance in the centuries that followed, for the native peoples of the Americas, who had no natural immunity to diseases that had run their course through the European society that brought them to their shores. Whereas smallpox for Europeans produced unpleasant pockmarks and scars, among Native Americans the disease caused huge, gaping wounds and flesh that fell off their bodies, and of course an eventual and horrible death. Other European diseases -- cholera, measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, typhus, influenza, pertussis (whooping cough), tuberculosis, diphtheria, and sexually transmitted diseases -- had similarly disproportionate and devastating effects. And perhaps just as ruthless were the Europeans who encountered these societies in retreat.
This pattern -- weakening the populace with disease, then overpowering them with superior arms and an inhuman ruthlessness and brutality -- was repeated endlessly throughout Americas in the ensuing decades, first throughout Hispaniola and the Caribbean, then in Mexico itself, then in Central and South America. The Spanish conquest of the Yucatan and of Mexico were only the first steps in Spain's larger colonization program in the Americas. The result was the near-utter obliteration of the existing civilizations.
The combination of disease and undiluted eliminationism had a predictable effect throughout the New World. By the midpoint of the 17th century, it's estimated that more than 50 million of the indigenous people in the Americas had perished, some 80 percent of the population. In some instances the devastation was nearly complete; between 1770 and 1850, nearly 95 percent of the Pueblo population in the Southwest was eradicated. By the time Old World diseases had spread to the farthest reaches of the continent, striking the Haida and Inuit peoples of northwest Canada in the early 1850s, the population of indigenous peoples in North America had had shrunk by some two-thirds or more. (There is an ongoing debate over the actual numbers, more of which you can read here.)
The only recorded example of a government effort to reduce the effects of disease on the native population came early in the 19th century, when the United States, according to Abraham Bergman's "A Political History of the Indian Health Service," began providing federal health services for Indians in the early 1800's -- but their primary purpose was to protect U.S. soldiers from contamination from nearby tribes. All the first vaccination programs were in the vicinity of military posts.
Complicating their reluctance to aid people whose humanity was evidently uncertain was the context of their worldview: for much of their early history on the American continent, white Europeans saw the Enemy as being Wilderness, the implacable, alien, deadly swamp whose subjugation it was their mission to impose.
The European conception of wilderness which white immigrants brought to the Americas was complex and shaded, but it was ultimately rooted in a worldview that placed Europe and Christian civilization at the center of the world, the source of civilization and light. The wilderness was the embodiment of sinfulness and evil -- and so were its inhabitants. And their elimination was an essential component of the conquest.
This was true not merely of the human inhabitants, but its animals as well. Threatening creatures -- cougars, bears and wolves especially -- were hunted to near-extinction. Even wild food sources such as salmon were wantonly harvested and their habitat destroyed, especially as dams were erected on every river on the Eastern Seaboard they inhabited. Stocks were not only depleted but intentionally wasted.
Lt. Campbell Hardy, an officer of the Royal Artillery in New Brunswick, observed the mentality in action in Nova Scotia in 1837, where once-plentiful salmon stocks were already plummeting:
"The spirit of wanton extermination is rife; and it has been well remarked, it really seems as though the man would be loudly applauded who was discovered to have killed the last salmon."
Perhaps even more symbolic was the fate of the grizzly bear, which at one time ruled both the Plains and the mountain ranges of the open West. But between 1850 and 1920, grizzlies were systematically and ruthlessly exterminated everywhere humans came into contact with them, effectively eliminated from 95 percent of their traditional range. The same fate befell most of America's timber wolves.
It was all of a piece, the same view inherent in their treatment of the native peoples who dwelt in this wilderness. It was common for colonists to view the wilderness as capable of overwhelming civilized men, even from within, turning them into "savages" and "wild men," while the people who had lived there for centuries were commonly viewed as no less than vile beasts themselves.
Yet, even as Western man made contact with these “human beasts” and proceeded to eliminate their presence, the seeds were sown for the destruction of the very systems of dominance and control they tried to impose on their world.
Native Americans were only the first such ostensible quasi-humans who were victimized by the streak of eliminationism that coursed through European culture, but the genocide of the American Indians established a pattern that was repeated in succeeding episodes.
First there was an abiding and cold-blooded ruthlessness: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” infamously muttered U.S. Cavalry Gen. Philip Sheridan, and soon “The only good is a dead Indian” was the byword of Western settlers. More pointedly, Col. Chivington’s infamous exhortation to his troops before they murdered women and children at Sand Creek -- “Nits make lice!” -- made irrevocably clear that the elimination intended was utter and total and devoid of any vestige of humanity. That trait was manifested with vicious finality in the last of the great Indian massacres at Wounded Knee, when the bodies of the unarmed women and children were thrown into a pit like cordwood -- a scene that would be repeated across the sea more than fifty years later.
Even as the ostensible threat posed by the “wild men” of the Americas was being obliterated, though, white Americans found another target for their eliminationist impulse: African Americans, former slaves now liberated (formally, at least) by the outcome of the Civil War. Initially, blacks in the South were targeted for terrorist violence by night-riding Klansmen and Redshirts during the Reconstruction Era, to such devastating effect that the verdict of the war was functionally overturned, Reconstruction itself nullified, and Jim Crow segregation imposed.
In the years that followed, a mythology (often invoked to defend the memory of the Confederacy) developed about black people, and black men in particular, steeped in the twisted sexual fantasies (and guilt) of European white culture: namely, that black men were sexually ravenous, inclined to rape and assorted sex crimes, and in need of social control. This mythology became the fodder for a thousand lynching bonfires across America.
"The Negro race," after all, was still closely associated with the jungles of Africa, the "heart of darkness" in the European mind; and sexual voraciousness was assumed in such folk, for though tame they might be, they still were scarcely a step removed from wild men of the jungle themselves; still scarcely human. Yet this was a legend for which in truth there was scant evidence, and one that stands in stark contrast to (and perhaps has its psychological roots in) the reality of white men's longtime sexual domination of black women, particularly during the slavery era.
In any event, the omnipresence of the threat of rape of white women by black men came to be almost universally believed by American whites. Likewise, conventional wisdom held that lynchings were a natural response to this threat: "The mob stands today as the most potent bulwark between the women of the South and such a carnival of crime as would infuriate the world and precipitate the annihilation of the Negro race," warned John Temple Graves, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Such views were common not merely in the South, but among Northerners as well. The New York Herald, for instance, lectured its readers: "[T]he difference between bad citizens who believe in lynch law, and good citizens who abhor lynch law, is largely in the fact that the good citizens live where their wives and daughters are perfectly safe."
Lynching violence (which claimed the lives of several thousand black people over the years) soon gave way to race riots -- in which entire black populations were driven out of communities in which they had often spent generations -- and their logical end products, “sundown towns” from which black people were forbidden from setting foot after dark, upon pain of a horrific and brutal death. There were literally thousands of such towns spread all over the United States, in every state and region.
All of these phenomena were essential tools with which whites imposed their system of dominance and control on the rest of the American populace, as well as on one another. Miscegenation -- also known as “racial mixing” -- was outlawed in 30 of the then-48 states.
All this came at the height of the eugenics phenomenon, from 1910-1935 -- eugenics being the pseudo-scientific theory that argued for genetics and racial “purity” as the ultimate distillation of man’s evolutionary climb, producing eventually “superior” races capable of lifting humanity out of the mire of the dark world and into the light of civilization. It ultimately produced some of the darkest atrocities in the annals of American science, including euthanasia and sterilization programs, the legacy of which still haunts the scientific community.
Among the chief objects of eliminationist paranoia promoted by the eugenicists were Asians -- particularly the Japanese immigrants who began coming to American shores in larger numbers at the turn of the 20th century. The eugenicists warned of the dire threat of the “Yellow Peril” -- a conspiracy theory claiming that Japan intended to colonize the United States by sending farmers who would “outbreed” the white populace eventually, and pave the way for the ultimate goal of a Japanese imperial invasion of the West Coast.
The ferment created by this hysteria led to the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act -- also known as the “Asian Exclusion Act” -- which first codified the American concept of an “illegal alien” and outlawed all further immigration from Japan and other Asian nations. Yet because a large number of immigrants remained on American shores, the paranoia never fully subsided, and in fact flared back into full roar after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and in turn produced one of the great atrocities of American history, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
That war, however, proved a critical turning point. The white supremacist worldview had reached its apotheosis in Europe, in the German Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler, once again fueled by conspiracy theories, focused this time on Jews and other “inferior races,” and eventually produced perhaps the most devastating genocidal enterprise in history, the Holocaust, in which some eight million people -- six million of them Jews -- perished. And at the end of the war, when the lid was peeled back and the corpses of the death camps were revealed for all to see, the world turned away, permanently repelled by what white supremacism and its eliminationism had produced.
Fittingly, much of the academic world had already begun to turn away from the Darwinistic evolutionary worldview that undergirded the belief in white supremacy, and after the war embraced with both arms the views that had been gradually emerging from the field of anthropology regarding the folly of branding races and cultures “superior” and “inferior,” a worldview that came be known as “multiculturalism” or “cultural relativism.”
And for that, ironically, they largely had a little Jewish man to thank: Franz Boas.
Franz Boas is today considered the father of modern anthropology, but when he arrived in Alert Bay, British Columbia, in 1886, he was just another student of what was then considered a promising new field, though he had already made something of a name for himself by challenging the current orthodoxy regarding the reigning evolutionary approach to cultural studies, which proposed a model in which societies progressed through a set of hierarchic technological and cultural stages, culminating in a white patriarchy as the summit of evolution. Certainly he had some natural skepticism, as these theories had already been applied in the service of anti-Semites who claimed through the findings of phrenology (the pseudo-science of skull size) that Jews were an “inferior” race.
Boas traveled among the Northwest coastal tribes a great deal and collected information and tribal legends from around the region, but he wound up spending much of his time in Alert Bay, home of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw people, better known as the Kwakiutl. The Kwakwaka'wakw are a fascinating tribe, with a rich and deeply artistic culture. Their totem poles are among the most renowned of all the coastal tribes for their size and beauty, and the tribe’s fierce insistence on retaining its culture even today is embodied by the jaw-dropping collection of ceremonial transformation masks that can be viewed at its cultural center.
The Kwakwaka'wakw also coexisted with killer whales, whom they revered as beings of great spiritual power. Their origin myth, indeed, tells of orcas who came to shore and took on the shape of humans, and when they encountered the whales in their canoes, they believed they were communing with their ancestors, who were being good to them by driving the salmon into their waters. Their legends describe the blackfish as the people under the sea, people who live in villages like their own in a watery kingdom, and sometimes a tribal princess would marry a blackfish prince, and good fortune would befall that family for generations; however, even throwing a stone or launching an arrow in the direction of an orca would bring about generations of misfortune.
It is now recognized that the killer whale societies of the Northwest are functionally matriarchal -- not only are their pods arranged matrilineally, their cultures appear to be arranged as matriarchies, with postmenopausal females actually leading most of the pods in their daily decision-making. Now, there is no indication in Kwakwaka'wakw mythology that the people of the tribe recognized this -- most of their legends describe the people under the sea as being led by male chiefs (perhaps understandable, given the imposing physical presence of most male resident orcas, who can reach 32 feet in length and 14,000 pounds, with six-foot dorsal fins). But it is likely not merely a coincidence that a number of Kwakwaka'wakw villages were led by female chiefs and were decidedly matriarchal societies.
Boas observed this, and noted particularly that these matriarchal tribes had in fact evolved from patriarchal societies that had failed or foundered for one reason or another. It gave him real traction for attacking the notion that all societies naturally evolved into patriarchies. Some of these matriarchal traditions had been transmitted from some of their northern neighbors.
Having made this paradigm shift, Boas turned his attention to a component of white-supremacist orthodoxy, namely scientific racism, or the eugenics-derived notion that race is a biological concept and that human behavior is best understood through the typology of biological characteristics, and he similarly deconstructed it as demonstrably unscientific. Boas demonstrated that skull size and cranial shape, based on skeletal studies he pioneered, was in fact highly malleable, depending on environmental factors such as health and nutrition, and not a stable trait dependent on race.
These findings and many others laid the groundwork for a worldview that ultimately destroyed and replaced white supremacism as the dominant model for modern global society -- replaced it with a model in which all cultures have innate value and, as an ethical matter, deserve our respect; in which entire peoples are not branded “inferior” or “superior” but are afforded the rights and opportunities all people deserve; in which warmaking is condemned as destructive and communitarianism is celebrated as a source of well-being for all people; in which power comes not from what we can personally accrue, but from what we can do to empower the people who share the world with us; in which dominance and control are replaced, as stabilizing mechanisms, with cooperation and sustained mutual well-being.
Fundamentally, that is an empathetic society. Scientists are now discovering that we most advance, evolutionarily speaking, when we are a cooperative society. And ironically, that is the one important lesson that killer whales have to teach us -- namely, that empathy is an evolutionary advantage. It is only a vulnerability in a pathological society, like the Old World from which we are trying to emerge.
As I go on to explain in Of Orcas and Men:
So, perhaps it is fitting that today we can turn to the same wellspring of transformative thought as a touchstone for examining not just our relationship with each other as humans, but our species’ relationship to the world in which we live and to the animals who inhabit it. We would do well to learn from the people who themselves have gleaned real wisdom from being in the world of whales.
The cornerstone of Kwakwaka’waka religious thought is the codependency of all of nature; no part of the natural order can exist without the rest. There is no such thing as self-sufficiency, whether for humans or their tribes, for animals or the supernatural beings whose powers they represent. Humans are somewhat naturally at the center of their universe, but they accept that all other members of their common world possess not just an indestructible and unique quality, but a spiritual and material parity in that world. “Kwakiutl religion represents the concern of the people to occupy their own proper place within the total system of life, and to act responsibly within it, so as to acquire and control the powers that sustain life,” explained Boas’ student, Irving Goldman, in his study of the tribe's theology, The Mouth of Heaven.
These concerns find their clearest expression in the mythology of animals and the supernatural beings who take their forms. In the Kwakwaka’waka world, humans and animals have real kinship, reflected in the view of killer whales as their ancestors; they have social and spiritual ties that can never be severed. Indeed, they believe that when the tribesmen who hunt marine mammals die, they return to the undersea village of their orca ancestors. In this universe, humans are the recipients of powers, and the givers of those powers are the animals and the supernatural forces they represent. Of all the animals in their universe, the orca is the most powerful, one of the few (along with the raven, the otter, and the wolf) capable of giving a man enough power to become a shaman.
Acquiring a worldview like this does not require us to submit to a belief in supernatural beings, but it does require us to abjure our arrogance, which, as we have seen, is already at the core of our relationship not just with killer whales, but our world generally. Killer whales inherently challenge our assumptions of species superiority, as well as supremacy. Beyond being merely physically more powerful (at least, without tools or technology), orcas can challenge us in the realm of intellectual prowess as well, particularly given the added dimension with which they can gather information about our world and their proven ability to manipulate acoustics to do that. It is also hard to argue with six million years of actual supremacy as the undisputed lords of the oceans when it comes to evolutionary success, species-wise.
Before about 1990, we could reasonably plead ignorance about the unflattering realities that orcas present in relation to humans, especially the way in which what we have learned about them shines a spotlight on our own cognitive limitations. The dirty truth of dolphin and orca studies is that they have established fairly clearly that human beings may well lack the cognitive capacity to understand how all cetaceans communicate; we’re just not that acoustically sophisticated.
When we are forced to concede, as with orcas, that we are not unique in our intelligence, that we may not be the only creatures worthy of being considered persons, then we likewise have to reconsider our previous, Western-grown position as special beings somehow separated from nature, with such separation being something desirable instead of the abomination that it would be to someone from the Kwakwaka’waka tribe. It is this latter worldview, one that places humans on an equal, and utterly codependent, footing with nature, as well as the spiritual components that accompany that worldview, that in the cold light of day makes logical sense, especially when we are confronted by the majestic truth that is an orca in full breach or a tall black fin approaching our kayak in the fog.
This realization affects our relationship not just with killer whales, but with all the natural world and with all the animals with whom we share it. It demands that we discard the invented notion of animals as property and recognize that granting them rights does not force us to lose control of the animals we already control; it just requires us to treat them decently.
It also forces us to recognize that we cannot continue degrading and gradually destroying the natural environment that created this bounty of wondrous life, because we are connected to it as deeply as are the wildlife who inhabit it. Our survival as a species, as human beings, of everything that defines us as human, depends on its survival, and so far, it is not looking good for any of us.
This week, however, brought us a ray of hope. The paradigm shifted, perhaps subtly, but irrevocably.
The animal-rights movement, at its core (and despite the occasional fulminations of some of its more thoughtless and self-destructive adherents) is about empathy: Not only does it recognize the existence and rights of the animals who come under the grasp of our systems of dominance and control (whether wild or domesticated animals, or, in the case of SeaWorld’s orcas, an unholy hybridization of both), but it also inherently recognizes that abuse of any animal in our control lessens us: it shrinks our souls. There is a reason that animal abuse is considered an early warning sign of violent psychopathy.
Yet in the end, it is also about confronting the very forces that threaten our extinction: a modern society whose activities threaten to permanently alter the planet’s climate and the biological systems that depend upon it, and whose greed and arrogance and cruelty is threatening to drive not only a mass extinction of other species (including killer whales) on the planet, but ultimately in the end our own demise as well.
But while nature may be “a nightmare spectacular,” violence among our fellow animals is limited to very specific survival needs. It is we humans who are really “soaking the planet in blood.” We like to tell ourselves that people who commit murder and mayhem are “behaving like animals,” but that’s not how the other animals behave. (While, for example, we humans kill approximately 100 million sharks a year, sharks kill maybe five humans, and mostly by accident.)
The truth is that the more we try to distance ourselves from the other animals and place ourselves above the natural world, the more unnatural, irrational and destructive our behavior becomes. We are not outside of nature, and never can be.
Zoos and animal displays and amusements have a long and fairly sordid history in Western Civilization as exemplars of the systems of dominance and control, putting wild things in cages and making them amuse us with tricks, evidence of our ability to dominate. The tradition dates back at least to the infamous animal cages maintained by Henry III and later royalty at the Tower of London, which were opened for public viewing, and continuing through the various menageries and animal collections maintained by the aristocracy throughout much of Europe up through the 20th century.
But the tide has been turning against them for some time, and not merely on the captive-orca front. Elephants -- another large and highly intelligent mammal that in its normal habitat requires extensive room to roam -- have in recent years become a major point of contention among animal-rights activists and the zoo and animal-entertainment industries, enough that recently Ringling Brothers Circus announced it would be ending the use of elephants in their shows. It was one of the first quakes signaling the current paradigm shift.
SeaWorld’s announcement this week, however, meant the giant in the room had moved. SeaWorld is a multibillion-dollar enterprise, and though it has lost much of its value in recent years, it is the force majeure of the marine-park industry. Indeed, Manby’s announcement has already provoked a shocked counter-response from the Association of Marine Mammal Parks, the industry organization, which mostly decried the “assault” that SeaWorld has endured in recent years from the animal-rights sector.
Leading the way, of course, has been virtually everyone associated with Blackfish -- beginning with the director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, whose skill and marvelous aesthetic eye made the documentary so deeply compelling; as well as the film’s cast of former SeaWorld trainers, including Jeff Ventre, Samantha Berg, John Hargrove, Carol Ray, John Jett, and Dean Gomersall, who have been tireless in their efforts to promote the film’s message in the three years since its release. The “Blackfish Effect” has gone beyond simply damaging SeaWorld’s stock value -- it has now brought to an eventual end the period of orca captivity, and even more, has fueled a change in the national conversation about all kinds of animal captivity. There’s no doubt that this is a documentary that changed the world.
Many others deserve real credit too, especially Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, who has been working for a generation or longer for this outcome; Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research; Ingrid Visser of the Orca Research Trust; and Howard Garrett of the Orca Network. All of them are scientists (and, secondarily, animal activists) who work with wild orcas and who have advocated tirelessly from the perspective of a deep understanding of the wrongness of orca captivity.
Manby’s announcement makes mention of the inescapable fact that marine parks like SeaWorld irrevocably changed the public’s understanding, and perception, of the nature of killer whales, and no doubt for the better: We no longer believe, like Pliny, that they are vicious, mindless killing machines who pose a threat to any human in the water. Indeed, we have learned an incredible amount about killer whales in the more than 50 years that they have been held in captivity (though it must be noted that the vast majority of that knowledge has come from studying the animals in the wild, not in captivity). And perhaps the most important thing that we have learned is this: Orcas do not belong in captivity.
It’s not entirely clear that Joel Manby understands that on a deep level. What is self-evident is that, unlike previous SeaWorld CEOs, he is a clear-eyed businessman who can read account sheets and the numbers therein without allowing that to be affected by the pleadings of a corporate culture that had descended into cult-like behavior, sending out spies and fake demonstrators to infiltrate orca-rights activists’ events. In the end, he understood the bottom line: SeaWorld has to transform its business model if it hopes to survive. It can no longer depend on the awesome and illusory spectacle of humans seemingly controlling orcas to make the turnstiles go around and keep their stock prices afloat. It has to change with society -- and society, it is clear, has indeed changed. So Manby pulled the plug on the longtime stonewalling and decided to Do the Right Thing.
However, this whole momentous paradigm shift hinges on what is, in reality, a tiny, almost imperceptible step on the part of the SeaWorld. In terms of visitors to SeaWorld, relatively little will actually change -- they won’t be visibly affected by the end of the breeding program until there are no more orca babies to be seen, and eventually when the captive-born population begins to die out. The new shows will be less circus-like and, one hopes, filled with more factual information about wild orcas than is currently the case. But they will still be taking place in the same concrete tanks.
Manby underscored his lack of understanding of this point in his insistence that seapens or some other retirement/sanctuary scheme is out of the picture -- by dishonestly portraying what orca advocates hope to achieve:
Some critics want us to go even further; they want us to “set free” the orcas currently in our care. But that's not a wise option.
Most of our orcas were born at SeaWorld, and those that were born in the wild have been in our parks for the majority of their lives. If we release them into the ocean, they will likely die. In fact, no orca or dolphin born under human care has ever survived release into the wild. Even the attempt to return the whale from “Free Willy,” Keiko, who was born in the wild, was a failure.
Manby, of course, neglects to mention that had it been up to SeaWorld and the rest of the marine-park industry, Keiko would have rotted in the tiny Reino Aventura pool where he had been filmed and was slowly dying; instead, thanks to the campaign to rescue him from that deathtrap and eventually return him to the wild, he wound up having seven good years of a truly quality life, far superior to what any other captive orca experiences. It only “failed” insofar as he was never successfully reunited with his natal pod, and so eventually resumed the human contact to which he was accustomed, before eventually dying of a respiratory ailment that almost certainly was a legacy of his many years in captivity.
Jean-Michel Cousteau responded eloquently to this passage from Manby:
I urge Mr. Manby to reconsider his statement about Keiko and I ask him to understand that the quality of Keiko’s remaining years were significantly enhanced by having an opportunity to live in an ocean sea pen with many weeks of forays in the open ocean. The orcas in SeaWorld are living in bare and boring enclosures. These highly intelligent animals deserve to live their remaining years in natural environment under human care. The overwhelming evidence of orca distress in captivity is far too great to ignore. It is a fair request for Mr. Manby to continue to listen to the public. Not only has the public been asking for years to end the capture and breeding of captive orcas but the public is now asking to finally close the chapter of captive orca history by retiring the remaining captive orcas and, at a minimum, allowing them the opportunity to swim wild under close supervision of human care in ocean enclosures.
The time has come for us to see orcas in captivity as a part of our past – not a tragic part of our future. Let’s end the show now and retire these intelligent, social, complex animals to seaside sanctuaries.
The thing is, it’s too late for SeaWorld to turn back now, despite the pleadings of their former friends at the AMMP. The ball is rolling now, and the momentum is unlikely to stop until orca captivity has joined slavery and racism as relics of an ugly past.
In the bigger picture, that may seem like ultimately a small thing. But it is the kind of small, good thing that has deeper resonances that ripple through the foundations of our society and the shared reality that makes it possible to cohere, to empathize, and to cooperate. To beat back the darkness.
It is an incremental and yet momentous victory, a ray of light that cuts deep in dark times. In a time when the forces of white supremacism and warlike nationalism, aimed at dominance and control of “those” people, are straining and threatening to roar back to life both in America and elsewhere, we can use all the small good things we can get.