Thursday, March 18, 2010

Where the wild things shouldn't be

I read this NY Times article a month ago, but it continues to pop up in my mind at random moments, due to the whole story being exceptionally horrific and bizarre. Basically a pet chimpanzee (and some times TV performer) was treated by its owner like a family member, which included access to steak, alcohol, and Xanax (the last two given to him on purpose or not? Not quite clear). Travis the Chimp was known around town, popular and beloved, etc. etc. Then one dark day on a drug and alcohol-fueled freak-out he TORE OFF A WOMAN'S FACE AND HANDS. The officer who responded to the owner's 911 call was accosted by the chimp, and shot him in self-defense. The woman lived, but she is now horribly disfigured and blind. The doctors made a hole in her face so she could ingest liquids through a straw. She appeared on Oprah, and you can see pictures of her online, if you want to fuel your nightmares. The officer who killed the chimp has since suffered from depression and PTSD. The article ends with the most honest and succinct estimation of the fraught reality of exotic pet ownership that I've ever heard:
 “I consider him a victim,” [Officer Frank Chiafari] said. “He should have been in the jungle where he’s supposed to be. Not in a house drinking wine and taking Xanax.”
Then of course, more recently, there was another horrific death involving a wild animal in captivity. A Sea World trainer named Dawn Brancheau was killed by an orca named Tilikum, who pulled her into the water by her ponytail and pummeled and drowned her, all witnessed by park visitors. Tilikum was captured about 30 years ago in the waters off of Iceland, since the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits the capture of Pacific Ocean orcas (although his name mean "friend" in Chinook). He's been in captivity ever since. It turns out that Tilikum, like Travis the Chimp, also has a dark side. He was one of three orcas that killed a BC trainer in a SeaWorld-type park in 1991; the whales tossed her body around their tank like a toy. In 1999 he killed a 27-year-old man who had hidden himself in SeaWorld Orlando after hours so he could sneak in to see the whales. (It doesn't say this in the article, but to me this has "drunk stunt" written all over it.) The next day they found the man's naked body laying across Tilikum, unsure if the man had fallen, jumped, or was pulled into the tank. Imagine the custodial staff walking in the next morning and seeing a 12,000 pound killer whale wearing the body of a naked man as a mantle? Epic.

Guilty?  

It's weird that when we bring animals into our human sphere, we also bring them into our moral sphere. When an animal attacks a human, there are always calls to destroy it--not just for the future safety of others, but as punishment to the animal. Even when people try to defend an animal--like in Travis or Tilikum's case--they refer to it as "innocent," which still implies that the animal just did not know what it was doing, and had it known better, it would have done the right thing, or not, but then we could have at least appropriately judged it by our moral code. (Whenever my mother would complain about our beloved housecat killing and dismembering a squirrel, I took a perverse delight in reminding her "cats are not moral creatures.") The immoral act happened when the animal was captured and brought into the human sphere, and the immorality is perpetuated by people who support the exploitation of wild animals for entertainment.

This article gives a very frank assessment of the business of Sea World, and what the orcas mean to its branding. Short answer: lots and lots of money. Of course, in our society, the money makers are not allowed to say things like: "we won't stop capturing and exploiting killer whales, because we make a ton of money doing it, period." They have to make up reasons why what they are doing is not wrong: "We have created an extraordinary opportunity for people to get an up-close, personal experience and be inspired and connect with marine life in a way they cannot do anywhere else in the world," [SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment President Jim] Atchison said, "and for that we will make no apologies." Absolutely tremendous irony here. You mean I can't get whales in the wild to jump on command? I can't get up-close and personal? I can't ride on their backs or stroke their faces? What damn good are they to me anyways then--fuck it, I'm going to Sea World, where the whales are more like dogs.  There is nowhere else in the world where I can see a whale act like a dog.

The fact that anyone would buy this argument shows that there is a profound misunderstanding of what wildlife is, and where it belongs.

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