Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Orcas in the pen

I saw a Shamu show in 1977. Now that’s a long way back. The place was Sea World San Diego. It was a terrific show, featuring astonishingly large animals in very small pools. The trainers were all very fit, loud and smiley and yelled things like “yee-hah!” a lot. It was like a blue-water rodeo. Our little daughters were thrilled and wanted to take home a stuffed toy Shamu as well. We enjoyed the whole sloshing, glossy, superific experience.
It makes me feel a bit squirmy now. Maybe I’ve just grown up, finally, but now you couldn’t pay me to go to such a show. Last week another Shamu (how many of them have there been, I wonder?) was in disgrace after hauling trainer Dawn Brancheau into the pool, killing her.
Since then we’ve seen people weeping at poolside as the show went on – with the trainers now safely out of reach of those big jaws. If Dawn had been a friend of mine I’ve have shed tears for her too, because it seemed she loved big, bad Shamu and all his other Shamu mates. But it’s the orcas I’m feeling most sorry for.
The UK Independent’s Michael McCarthy wrote an excellent piece (re-run by the NZ Herald) about about why orcas (which are actually big dolphins) should be left alone to run around in their huge natural playground, the world’s oceans. He wrote , “Ending up in Sea World is the orca equivalent of you and me being imprisoned by a lunatic in a cupboard under the stairs.” Right on, Michael.
But of course the sad fact is that humans make a pile of money from locking them up and making them do silly tricks. There are currently 42 in captivity around the world. I guess their presence helps experts get to know them better, so some might justify their capture on ‘scientific research’ grounds. But isn’t that what we deride the Japanese for when they kill Antarctic whales?
Orcas’ survival time, once they’re penned in, is only about four years. In the wild, they can live up to 50 or 60 years. So is it surprising if they get tetchy, stressed and bored? And the trouble is, freeing them all would be enormously expensive. It cost millions for the ‘Free Willy’ campaign, and poor Willy only lasted 18 months when finally let loose, despite lots of care and attention during the transition from pool to ocean.
But we’re all a bit strange, we humans, when it comes to being entertained by other creatures, even other humans. Once, on holiday in Peru, I was ashamed when some of my travel mates insisted that the tour bus stop so they could take pictures of peasants and their donkey ploughing a field. The Peruvians showed enormous grace in obligingly smiling for the cameras. They were given nothing for their time. Then we left them to their subsistence drudgery and rode on in comfort to our next nice lunch.
Not long after that some residents in a swanky Auckland street expressed outrage at the fact that busloads of Asian tourists were slowly cruising past their homes (how dare they!) to take photos of householders trimming roses.
If orcas can talk to each other – and I have no doubt they do, even if we can’t fathom the language – I wonder what they say about us beastly humans?