[Cross-posted at Orcinus.]
Hoo boy. Here we go again.
It seems as though everybody loves Jack Hanna. He's every cable network's favorite TV animal expert -- so plain-spoken, so enthusiastic, and he seems so knowledgable! Gee willikers, you can sure believe what he says, right?
Eh, not so much. At least not when it comes to the subject of SeaWorld, killer whales, and the documentary Blackfish. And a lot of other things associated with all that, too, especially animal rights.
Hanna was recently quoted at length in a paranoid alternative-universe kind of op-ed by Greg Norman at Fox News titled "Fresh off SeaWorld victory, animal rights groups take aim at zoos, circuses and maybe your pet":
Fresh off a victory over SeaWorld and its controversial orca program, animal rights groups are zeroing in on zoos, aquariums and circuses -- and one prominent expert warns your dog and cat could be next.
Ooooh, those scary hippies are coming for your Bowser! Charles Manson has nothing on these freaks!
Norman then goes on to single out Blackfish as the source of the hippie scourge, since it is the film that finally forced SeaWorld to announce it was ending its breeding program and would be phasing out its performing-orca shows, a true paradigm shift that indicates the company at some level realized that its old business model, built on the exploitation of a singularly intelligent and large species, was no longer viable.
But its supporters are in deep denial about this paradigm shift, and SeaWorld's post-announcement ads -- which humiliated their new partners at the Humane Society -- indicate the company still has a long way to go itself. Forget about deep-seated denialists like the nutbars at Awesome Oceans (how's your revenue stream these days, guys?) and, of course, Jack Hanna.
As Norman reports:
Americans may one day find the full agenda of animal rights groups hits even closer to home, said Jack Hanna, host of the syndicated “Jack Hanna’s Into The Wild” TV series and director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
“Animal rights activists believe all animals, including your dog or cat, should have the same rights as people and be free; therefore they shouldn’t be in human care under any circumstances,” Hanna said.
Let's take a long, deep breath here and see if we can restore some semblance of rationality to this discussion. Because otherwise we will be forced to point out that Hanna is just freaking nuts. Not to mention completely full of crap.
You see, animal-rights activists do indeed believe that all animals, including your dog or cat, should have some rights. Period. Full stop. Only a tiny handful of admittedly nutty radicals -- none of them involved in any major animal-rights organizations -- believe that "they should have the same rights as people and be free." Not even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), probably the most radical of the animal-rights groups, goes that far, as you can see from their website, which argues simply that animals have very simple rights, including the right to be free from suffering, but never argues that they have the same rights as humans nor that they should never be under human care.
A more typical approach is that of the Nonhuman Rights Project, a group seeking to establish basic rights for animals, which explains:
We begin by seeking two kinds of fundamental rights for our nonhuman plaintiffs: bodily liberty and bodily integrity.
Bodily liberty means not being held in captivity. For a chimpanzee, it means not spending life in a laboratory; for an elephant, it means not being chained in a circus; for a whale it means not being imprisoned in a park.
Bodily integrity means not being touched without consent or in one’s best interests. For a chimpanzee, it means not being subjected to biomedical research. For an elephant it means not being beaten at a circus. For a whale it means not being forcibly inseminated to make her pregnant.
Do not confuse these fundamental rights of nonhuman animals with so-called “human rights.” Human rights are for humans. Chimpanzee rights are for chimpanzees. Dolphin rights are for dolphins. Elephant rights are for elephants.
Hanna has created a classic straw man. Serious animal-rights activists never argue that animals should never be in the care of humans; rather, they argue that the animals in the care of humans should never have to suffer. That's a big distinction. An even bigger distinction is the difference between having simple rights (such as to be free from suffering) and human rights.
Let's be clear about what that means when it comes to killer whales, however: Every killer whale kept in a concrete tank is in captivity and is suffering. This is why orca activists will never accept the status quo at places like SeaWorld until the animals can be placed into environments, such as sanctuaries, where they will not suffer.
Concrete-tank captivity means, as Dr. Lori Marino explained in Blackfish, that every orca in those tanks is compromised and traumatized and therefore suffering, even if it is in doses they seem, on the surface, capable of tolerating. The deprivation, as I explain in Of Orcas and Men, is threefold:
- Spatial deprivation: Killer whales have bodies that evolved to swim constantly, and in the wild, they do in fact swim constantly -- up to a hundred miles in a day. In marine-park tanks, they spend long hours immobile, and they spend a great deal of time at the surface (which is why the dorsal fins in captive males flops over; in the wild, orcas spend 95 percent of their time underwater, where gravity has no effect on the big dorsals, which are comprised mainly of collagen). Constant swimming in complex environments is what they are made to do, and depriving orcas of that, studies have found, significantly increases their stress hormones.
- Social deprivation: Orcas are highly intelligent animals not only with complex societies that include communications, hunting, and mating strategies but extremely powerful social needs that, in the wild can only be met by social interaction with their own social group. The hodgepodge, frequently random orca societies that are created by marine parks' collection policies have nothing to do with normative orca societies; and nearly all killer whales in captivity are lacking anything like a normative social life.
- Sensory deprivation: Killer whales' primary sense, in the wild, is not their vision, but their echolocation. We puny humans are only now beginning to reckon with just how profound and far-reaching this sense is in Orcinus orca, how utterly exquisite it is: Orcas not only can see everything in the water, they can see inside them. Including each other. And they share their echolocation signals, bringing their minds together in ways we can only begin to contemplate the reality of. Putting an animal with this remarkable set of sensory equipment into a plain concrete tank with smooth walls and linear dimensions is akin to putting a human being into a small, plain room with a lightbulb. The remarkable thing, really, is that more orcas besides Tilikum have not gone utterly insane under those conditions and killed even more trainers than they have.
Jack Hanna, of course, cannot be bothered with considering the ethical dimensions of all this, because he sees something in the SeaWorlds of the world that overwhelms all these considerations -- namely, the fact that they bring awareness of killer whales to the public in large doses that educates and enlightens and gets the public to care about their recovery in the wild.
That, in a nutshell, is the defense that Hanna has presented all along for SeaWorld -- that they so educate and inspire young people so that there can be enough public support for efforts to save the animals in the wild. Check it out.
In 2013, on CNN:
I went to SeaWorld in 1973. I was one of the first visitors there. And I continue to take my kids, their kids now and hopefully their kids' kids, grandkids' kids, that's three or four generations going there.
If I thought one animal there that was being mistreated or wasn't so to speak happy, whatever happy is, and of course some of these guys who know about whales will tell you what happy is and what happy isn't. But that's what I see when I visit these parks. And you know, something? Out of sight is out of mind which means that killer whales back in 40 years ago were out there in the oceans of the world, knowing what they were, what they were, they are out of sight. So that's out of mind.
While Hanna obviates the core issue -- whether the animals are suffering, not whether they are "happy," is what matters, and the former is something that can be scientifically ascertained, while the latter is of course just a fuzzy concept at best -- he is largely right about one thing here: the public was largely unaware of killer whales until the marine parks began taking them captive. And we knew very little about them. But we've learned a lot about them in those fifty years since -- more than enough, in fact, to conclude that -- just as with all large, highly intelligent animals with large spatial needs such as elephants -- captivity is really not appropriate for them at all. We now know that the concrete-tank environment in which we force them to exist causes them suffering.
And of course, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish, made that point in short order. Hanna's reply, however, was even more disingenuous:
SAVIDGE: Jack, what about this point that you know, SeaWorld, of course, really introduced us to these creatures, to these animals, almost where we fell in love, and I think many people would say, they did fall in love, but they are now faced with this horrible dilemma that once people have fallen in love they really care. And then they suddenly say, if I care, how could it be possible that we keep these animals in a cement pool? How do you answer that, Jack?
HANNA: Again, I'm not a whale researcher or whale expert. All I see is what I see at SeaWorld. Animals that seem happy, they're breeding, they're eating. I'm not sure about the life spans. I know they do research in the wild. But is the research in the wild 100 percent? Absolutely not. I've been doing this for 42 years. I've interviewed researchers all over the world about the whale. You know, and I still say that you have to love something to save something. We use the word captivity, by the way.
What is captivity, by the way? The entire world or the national parks -- the North Pole and parts of the Amazon, having been to all these places. The whole world is a national park. They're smaller when you come to SeaWorld or maybe the Columbus Zoo is the largest in the country. But I can tell you know, that our new African veldt is not captivity. Our new polar bear exhibit for $26 million is not captivity. I can tell you that the zoos last year in this country -- gave over $150 million to the animals in the wild in one year. The Columbus Zoo has given $12 million in the last ten years.
Well, Hanna may have a point when it comes to exhibits for animals that can have their need met by recreating habitats, which is one of Hanna's specialties. But as we are learning, there are some animals -- you know, those aforementioned large, big-brained mammals with large spacial roaming needs, such as elephants and killer whales -- for whom that is simply not true. The best we can do for these animals, the majority of whom must remain in some form of human care, is to create sanctuaries where they can have their spatial and other needs met while still receiving that care.
So, for killer whales, "captivity" really is very easy to define: Confinement to a contained concrete pool. And really, there is no sight quite like that of an orca roaming free in the wild to remind you just how far removed their captive cousins are from any semblance of a "happy" life, and how profoundly unnatural their confinement is:
Hanna may want to contend that the environments he provides in zoos for veldt animals such as giraffes and reeboks are comparable to their native habitats and thus adequate for their deeper needs, and they may well be. But he simply cannot hope to pretend that even the biggest concrete orca pool is in any way comparable to what wild orcas experience every minute of their lives.
Moreover, this is part of the kind of mis-education that actually occurs in marine parks like SeaWorld, who love to pretend that they are instilling a love of nature and animals and science education in young children. As I explained recently:
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.
... 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.
Moreover, SeaWorld claims that it is making all kinds of contributions to science by keeping these animals captive, but the truth is that there's hardly any science that makes it out of SeaWorld and parks like it at all, as the debate last year in San Diego explored:
SeaWorld's oft-touted claims that it conducts research that benefits orcas in the wild too (see Sam Lipman's superb debunking for more on this) was trotted out, and promptly became a fiasco when [Naomi] Rose pointed out that, for a company that holds the largest collection of captive orcas in the world (not to mention one that is awash in money), a mere 50 research papers in 50 years' time is an output that can only be described in one word: "pathetic."
Hanna's final argument in defense of marine parks demonstrates just how clueless he has become from his years in his elite-media bubble. See, Hanna thinks because he gets to travel all around the world to see animals in the wild, that it must be really expensive for ordinary people to get to do the same. That's why we pat them on the head and let them go see caricatured versions of the animals in tiny concrete tanks instead, you see.
He explained this to a crowd of adoring fans at SeaWorld once, and repeated the explanation in numerous TV appearances:
If it wasn't for these folks, everybody, nobody would know about the killer whale. And I'm just saying -- touch the heart to teach the mind. And I can't touch your heart some way, or SeaWorld can't, or the Columbus Zoo can't, or the 221 zoos can't, then these animals haven't got a chance.
I wish that all of you could go to Glacier, way up there in Glacier Bay [Alaska], and see the whales, or see them in other parts of the world. I wish you could go to Africa and see the lions. I wish you could go to the Himalayas and see the animals they have there, or to China to see the pandas, the koala in Australia. I wish you could do that, but all of us can't do that. So, to do that, costs tens of thousands of dollars. And everybody can't do it. So that's why we have these parks. Unless people are educated, they can't save anything.
This is, of course, complete and utter balderdash when it comes to seeing killer whales in the wild. You don't have to go to Alaska. You don't have to go to Iceland. You don't have to spend tens of thousands.
It's really a very simple matter to see killer whales in the wild, and any American who can afford to fly to Orlando or San Diego for a family vacation and spend the hundreds of dollars that a visit to SeaWorld entails can afford it, and can do it. It takes a little more planning, but it might actually be cheaper in the long run.
Here's how you do it: You fly to Seattle. Rent a car and drive two hours from SeaTac Airport (90 minutes from Seattle itself) north to the town of Anacortes and get on the ferry to the San Juan Islands there (reservations advisable). It's an hourlong boat ride out to the town of Friday Harbor, where there are lots of hotels and B&Bs for visitors that are generally pretty reasonably priced, especially compared to peak seasons in Florida and California. Then drive out to the west side of the island with a picnic basket and some time to kill and park yourself at the land bank (free parking, no amenities) or Lime Kiln State Park ($10 parking fee, or a Washington State Parks annual pass) and wait. Eventually you will see killer whales, sometimes very close to shore.
This is the view I was afforded last Fourth of July at Lime Kiln.
And it was essentially free for anyone who happened to be there -- just like the whales themselves.
Even if you don't have the time to kill, it's possible to go see the whales by going on one of the many whale-watching cruises out of Friday Harbor, where a seat costs less than the price of a SeaWorld ticket, and the boats take you to where the whales are, so you don't have to wait.
So don't let Jack Hanna and the SeaWorlds of the world fool you. There will (we hope, preservation efforts willing) still be plenty of orcas for ordinary Americans to be able to see for free, long after SeaWorld's last captives die of old age or whatever respiratory ailment gets them first. It won't cost people "tens of thousands of dollars," either.
And there will always be people who love and fight to protect them -- because even if it's not the SeaWorlds out there preying on them, there will always be threats to their well-being. No thanks to the Jack Hannas of the world.