Thursday, September 30, 2010

A "family" whose language you can't speak

The Miami Herald has a story about the long-lived killer whale Lolita who lives at the Miami Seaquarium. Now, I don't doubt that the people who work with Lolita are doing all that they can do to make Lolita's life comfortable. However, I found this quote rather disappointing:

Keiko died, according to Balcomb, because he could not integrate back into a pod and join their new society -- which is important for the animals. Lolita wouldn't have that problem, he thinks, because they have identified her family and she might still speak their unique dialect.

He has proposed an idea to the Seaquarium: connect Lolita, via satellite image or telephone, to her pod in Penn Cove, just to see what happens.

The Seaquarium has said it's not interested. As far as the staff is concerned, Lolita already has a family. They are her family.

The Seaquarium can never substitute for Lolita's family. Killer whales that organize in family groups (some travel in small groups) have complicated social structures and even different cultures and as the above excerpt notes, individual languages. During the time when Lolita was captured, people were capturing significant numbers of wild killer whales for public display. They took many from these close-knit family pods. One captured orca's family pod followed him for miles, calling out to him. There is simply no way that humans can provide this kind of social environment. They don't speak her language, and contrary to the sentiment expressed by one of her caretakers in the article, they can't make up for the lack of room to swim and move by being nice to her any more than a human could get used to being in a tiny room for the rest of his or her life.

The orca brain has evolved to be very complex. Lolita is certainly intelligent enough to communicate fairly sophisticated comments to other orcas, and to understand a social hierarchy. Orcas, like humans, are self-aware. So she's probably able to understand that she's missing out by not being able to communicate to anyone around her.

Some people no doubt believe that the emotional pain caused to a few orcas is worth it if we can learn more about them and perhaps convince the public that they are amazing enough to warrant conservation efforts. That is a matter upon which I think reasonable people can disagree, and I don't necessarily believe that pro-captivity people are evil. SeaWorld has done a lot of good work. But let's not pretend that we can replicate her family environment and lifestyle, any more than a pod of orcas could replicate a satisfying human life for one of us.

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