Yet again, using animals as a form of entertainment has come under attack, this time for the condition and mental well-being of a whale population at Tenerife’s Loro Parque, where a number of killer whales are on loan from SeaWorld. It would appear from mobile phone footage that a killer whale made a deliberate attempt to beach itself on the area surrounding its enclosure.
For the most part, when an event such as this occurs people tend to go to either end of a continuum. On the one hand, there will be those who will anthropomorphize the unfortunate creature and see such behaviour as an attempt by a long-suffering animal to terminate its own life. In other words, it is an intelligent and self-aware life form. On the opposing side, there will be those who see it as the natural, but perhaps anomalous behaviour of an animal in captivity. Worthy of care and compassion but still merely an animal.
I tend to find myself with the former group of people. There have been numerous studies of cetacean cognitive functions, all of which state that they have a high level of intelligence and even problem-solving ability. Studies have ranged from the frankly bizarre, where a young researcher called Margaret Howe lived in a specially constructed flooded house with a bottlenose dolphin called Peter in 1965 to the much more scientific studies performed in the decades since.
In general, the scientific consensus is that cetaceans, killer whales included, have a high degree of intelligence, sociability, and self-awareness, in some cases matching and even surpassing that of the great apes. Indeed, scientists have discovered that they have a high concentration of spindle neurons, which allow for the rapid flow of information across the brain structure in an even higher density than that of humans.
In situations like this, there is a strange disconnect between what we recognise as intelligence and how this colours our own perception of suffering. Being an upright, bipedal mammal, we can look at chimpanzees and gorillas and see our own fairly recent evolutionary history. We are looking at a species that probably isn’t living that differently to how very early homo sapiens lived. In some odd sense, we see ourselves. You’ve probably watched a nature documentary and thought to yourself: ‘they’re so human sometimes.’
You would have to go much, much further down the tree of life to find some commonality between ourselves and a killer whale. They’re aquatic and predatory for one. They have fins rather than arms and have a totally different form of communication and sense perception. This might explain why some callous individuals took selfies with the beached whale at Loro Parque. It might also explain why something such as the death of Harambe the gorilla can make the international news networks and float around social media for days after. We can relate to the suffering of fellow primates, cetaceans are a psychological stretch for us. It is telling that there has never been a marine zoologist as well known as Jane Goodall or a cetacean David Graybeard.
The sad events at Tenerife’s Loro Parque will probably be another nail in the coffin for using animals as a form of entertainment. SeaWorld has already stated that they will be phasing out their killer whale shows in response to criticism and decreased revenue. I expect other organisations will follow suit eventually and most of these places will see a gradual decline, in a similar manner that circuses that use animals have been seeing for decades.
For the most part, the overwhelming response to this has been an outpouring of concern for what many people now consider another sentient being. This is a positive development and should prove that our ‘circle of sympathy’ is expanding, not only to include other humans but the animal kingdom as well.