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Wednesday, 03 March 2010 04:53

What Would Jesus Do About the SeaWorld Tragedy? Stone the Whale to Death and Sue the Pants Off the Rest of 'Em

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BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White

Oh, if only the folks at SeaWorld would just read the Bible. I've been hankering for a good old-fashioned whale stoning!

The good folks at People for the American Way brought this little "tragicomic relief" to my attention this morning. Ever eager to capitalize on the bloodiest of news, the American Family Association (AFA) put out a release in the wake of that bizarre story last month of the SeaWorld trainer being dragged to her death by a killer whale (who happened to have a couple of priors).

American Family Association’s director of issue analysis Bryan Fischer wrote (emphasis mine):

Chalk another death up to animal rights insanity and to the ongoing failure of the West to take counsel on practical matters from the Scripture.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, "SeaWorld Orlando has always know [sic] that Tillikum... could be a particularly dangerous killer whale... because of his ominous history."

The Sentinel then recounts that Tilly, as he was affectionately known, had killed a trainer back in 1991 in front of spectators at a now defunct aquarium in Victoria, British Columbia.

Then in 1999 he killed a man who sneaked into SeaWorld to swim with the whales and was found the next morning draped dead across Tilly's back. His body had been bit and the killer whale had torn off his swimming trunks after he had died.

What about the term "killer whale" do SeaWorld officials not understand?

OK, first of all, let me explain what Fischer doesn't understand about the term. "Killer whale" is a misnomer on two accounts. The animal is not actually a whale at all, but the largest member of the dolphin family. The name likely comes from what Spanish sailors originally called them -- in English, "whale killers" -- based on the observation that they hunted small whales. Furthermore, there are no documented cases of these animals attacking -- much less killing -- humans in the wild. Because of the double misunderstanding perpetuated by their name (and opportunistic fear mongers such as Fischer), there has been a scientific effort to mainstream the taxonomy-derived name for the animal, "orca."

But it wasn't only in the arenas of linguistics and taxonomy that Fischer displayed his inability to reason. Check out that first sentence I quoted from him. Fischer speciously blames the death on "animal rights insanity." But if the animal rights "crazies" were actually being consulted on this, Tilly wouldn't be held captive as a breeding machine and entertainment vehicle.

The Christian Science Monitor did a series of articles on the SeaWorld tragedy, speaking to several different people who would probably align themselves with what Fischer disparages as "animal rights insanity." Here are a few of the quotes the Monitor published recently:

"Being kept in a small tank like that, especially because he was originally from the wild. I’m sure he had a hard life, kept in a holding pen, not getting a lot of exercise... They’re wild, intelligent animals with a big social structure. They’re really not an appropriate animal to keep in captivity."
-- Nancy Black, lead marine biologist at California’s Monterey Bay Whale Watch

"It’s an unfortunate way to experience nature: to see animals turned into Disneyland animatronic puppets for the entertainment of people."
-- Richard Ellis, a marine conservationist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

"The fact that 200 killer whales have died in captivity since oceanaria shows opened in the 1960s points out the glaringly obvious fact -- whales and dolphins should not be kept in captivity... The terrible events at SeaWorld only underline that queasy state. When we take animals into our world, we contaminate their lives, and perhaps endanger our own."
-- Philip Hoare, author of The Whale.

"These behemoths are denied all of their natural, instinctual inclinations, and we humans tend to think, 'Well, this is just a bad animal.' But it is a wild animal, used to running free in an entire ocean, but now confined to a very small space... The people who run these theme parks are not interested in conservation or protection, they are interested in making money."
-- Joyce Tischler, founder of and general counsel for Animal Legal Defense Fund.

"The vast majority of the orca whales in captivity would be far better off to be returned to the wild. Orcas are unbelievably ill-suited to life in theme parks and can be successfully returned to the wild. We know, because we have done it."
-- David Phillips, director of the International Marine Mammal Project for the Earth Island Institute, led the effort to rescue, rehabilitate, and release the killer whale Keiko, of “Free Willy” fame.

"This is a giant warning sign that society needs to rethink this question of holding large predators in captivity... Having a trainer killed this way can’t justify whatever benefits we get from conservation or protection."
--
Chris Palmer, American University professor and author of Shooting in the Wild.

One of the chief concerns of the religious right in nearly any situation (besides the always relevant question of "What Would Jesus Do?") is who is to blame. Obviously itching to throw the first stone, Fischer calls on SeaWorld to travel back in time 19 years to carry out the favorite of all Biblical death penalty methods on Tilly the Whale:

If the counsel of the Judeo-Christian tradition had been followed, Tillikum would have been put out of everyone's misery back in 1991 and would not have had the opportunity to claim two more human lives.

Says the ancient civil code of Israel, "When an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner shall not be liable."

Of course, since stoning animals to death seems a little archaic (as well as abusively vindictive), Fischer suggests the modern alternative, saying the victim's family should "sue the pants off SeaWorld."

Yeah, that's exactly what Jesus would do.

The comparison of the religious right with those whom they describe as perpetuating "animal rights insanity" takes another interesting turn when you consider the "morality" of animals vs. the "morality" of people. The aforementioned author of The Whales cited by the Christian Science Monitor relates research in his new book that some whales may have a moral code of behavior (emphasis mine):

The sperm whale, for instance, possessed the largest brain of any animal -- 18 pounds in weight. Its neo-cortex is highly convoluted, indicating the capability for tool use, communication, and abstract thought. The pre-eminent sperm whale specialist, Dr. Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, believes sperm whales may not only be self-aware, but may have developed their own moral code -- even, through that sense of self-awareness, their own concept of religion.

No doubt the sperm whale's "concept of religion" is radically different from that of humanity. But I've never heard a whale suggest throwing the first stone.

BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS