Four years ago People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the insurgent organization better known as PETA, sued Seaworld on behalf of five killer whales. That was ridiculous in itself. Animals have protected rights. But there is no legal basis for suing on behalf of an animal that has no say in the suit, however imposing the animal may be. PETA named the five orcas as if they were suing, and did worse. It invoked the 13th Amendment, comparing killer whales to slaves, and arguing they should be freed just like slaves. PETA marketed the lawsuit as groundbreaking constitutional law. The Greenpeace of animal rights can’t be faulted for creativity. It got plenty of attention for that angle before the insulting nature of the suit caught up with it and a federal judge tossed it.
The problem with the lawsuit wasn’t its intent. It was its sensational gamble that making a link between animals in captivity and slaves would capture the public’s imagination and sway judges. Instead of truly breaking legal ground for animal rights, and that has yet to happen, PETA went the lazier route of mooching off the 13th amendment and lost. So did the animals it claimed to represent. Because however mistaken was PETA’s strategy, its intentions were correct, so was some of its reasoning: the animals it intended to save are still in prison, still being tortured for our pleasures. Calling them slaves was unnecessary. It’s bad enough they’re captives, exploited, demeaned.
Killer whales at Seaworld are not just in captivity. They are there to be subjugated to a lurid form of human entertainment. None of it meshes with the whales’ nature even as Seaworld, among so many of its perversions of the wild, pretends to be “educating” audiences about the wild. Orcas’ captivity is cruel. Their confinement is inhumane by any measure. Nothing justifies it, not even the supposed “research” that gives Seaworld cover for its brutality. The animals’ treatment, if a recent book by a long-time trainer of these animals is to be believed, is sadistic. (John Hargrove, the author of “Beneath the Surface,” has his own demons, not least of them his drunken bigotry, now that Seaworld is going Nixonian on his rants by trying to discredit him. But his Southern-white racism toward blacks, nothing new among Southern whites, didn’t keep Seaworld from employing him 20 years, and doesn’t diminish the validity of his conclusions. He’s apologized for his bigotry. The scurrility of Seaworld’s tactics speak for themselves, and Seaworld is apologizing for nothing.)
The circus acts killer whales are forced to perform at Seaworld should turn anyone’s stomach. Those acts are no different than forcing elephants to behave like clowns. Or to put it in terms humans might perhaps understand, those acts are no different than forcing human beings to behave like animals. Last month Ringling Brothers circus announced it will be retiring its elephant acts by 2018. I have no idea why ending something that should have never started 145 years ago should wait another three years, but let’s give the circus credit for finally doing the right thing.
Seaworld is nowhere near such a move. The company is a chain of three water parks that attract 11 million visitors a year. That’s where the problem starts: in the complicity of people buying into what will one day be recognized as depraved and immoral entertainment. One questions how parents and grandparents can in good conscience take their children to these shows. What, precisely, is the difference between taking a child to a cockfight and taking a child to exhibitionism forced on an Orca? Sure, Orcas aren’t getting bloodied and killed by jumping and splashing. But what keeps them there is no less a form of bondage than the motive behind cockfighting: making money off of exploiting the unnatural, humanly-instigated behavior of animals. The captivity does nothing to keep them healthier. It shortens their lives, deadens what soul they might possess (and should offend ours for their sake). These are extremely social animals meant to be in the wild, among their kind, their pods. At Seaworld, they’re caged automatons. They’re reduced to playthings. The same parents who’d curse the living daylight of a man arrested for abusing his dogs don’t think twice about paying $75 a pop to watch a killer whale’s abuse dressed up as a “family show.”
Seaworld in Orlando had the decency two months ago to stop selling $7 fish trays so people could feed dolphins, but it still sells tickets twice that cost and allows people to pet dolphins. The intrusive difference is indistinguishable. It took three death and a judge’s ruling to stop Seaworld from mingling trainers with killer whales during those lewd splash shows crowds love so much. But the shows go on with trainers as drill sergeants, even though the judge said Seaworld makes up claims that aren’t scientifically valid.
Trying to defend itself from accusations of mistreatment two years ago, Seaworld claimed that it had spent $70 million in three years on its killer whale habitats, and millions more in maintenance each year. So what? A Supermax prison for 3,000 inmates in California cost $230 million to build and $190 million a year to run. That doesn’t make its prisoners any less confined, but more so. That’s the point. And it certainly doesn’t make them happy to be there, although lucky for them, they don’t have to put on daily shows for masses of stupid, gaping spectators. That would be illegal. Why it isn’t so when animals, who have less say—who have no say—is incomprehensible. Seaworld’s more recent campaign is focusing on answering criticism about the way it separates calves from their mother. But even the criticism misses the point. Whether Seaworld does it humanely or not (Seaworld’s claims on that score are as suspect as the validity of those scientific claims the judge found to be bogus), it doesn’t address the matter of the Orcas’s captivity, their confinement in shocking conditions and the denial of their nature.
Seaworld in its marketing propaganda peddles allegations of good works, of “research,” of accreditation, as if any of that makes a difference. Its PR flackers sound like the warden talking up the air conditioning and cable TV available to his inmates. The warden, of course, is morally more justified than Seaworld’s flackers: one presumes that the warden’s prisoners have been convicted of crimes. Orcas have not. Only Seaworld has sentenced them to a life of profitable desecration. Happy are the shareholders, for their kingdom is of this abusive world.
Lately the company has seen its profits take a dive, finally. That’s encouraging. Only this will make a difference: when people realize that watching these noble animals being forced to perform for our pleasure is obscene, and keeping them confined should be a crime, even if animal-rights organizations haven’t yet figured out how to prosecute them. In an age of IMAX theaters, enormous flatscreen TVs and masterful wildlife documentaries that place viewers in the maws of creatures and truly educate them about the wild without infringing on the creatures’ autonomy, there’s no longer any excuse for these zoological concentration camps. Ignorance excused them in 1964, when Seaworld opened. Nothing excuses them now.
Orcas born and bred for captivity can’t be freed of course. That’s like sending a lamb to slaughter. But if Seaworld wanted to make good on its bogus claims of being humane, it could do what the likes of Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon did when they figured out that they’d screwed enough workers out of their dignity, and discovered that philanthropy might ease their camel’s journey into heaven. Seaworld could end orcas’ exploitation tomorrow, stop these outrageous shows and build a large, unconfined habitat for these creatures whose rights to the wild Seaworld has ruined, but who could at least live out their days without daily torment. It might be the end of Seaworld. It would not be much to ask by way of atonement of a company that’s spent the last half century abusing killer whales for our repugnant pleasures.