The story of Tilikum the killer whale illustrates, in a rather horrible fashion, the weird contradictions in the way we relate to nature these days.
For those who haven’t followed the case, Tilikum is a prize exhibit in Sea World, Florida. The day before yesterday, it was being patted by its trainer, one Dawn Brancheau, when it reached up, grabbed her ponytail and then drowned her. It subsequently emerged that this is the third death in which the whale has been implicated. On a previous occasion, it, and two other whales, drowned another trainer; later, a man who broke into the enclosure was found dead in the tank.
The death – as well as another recent incident in which an orca killed its trainer – has sparked much discussion about the ethics of keeping huge animals in tiny tanks. ‘Tilikum is a casualty of captivity; it has destroyed his mind and turned him demented,’ explained Russ Rector, a former dolphin trainer involved in the Dolphin Freedom Foundation. ‘If he was a horse, dog, bear, cat or elephant he would already have been put down after the first kill, and this is his third.’
What’s interesting, though, is how difficult we find it to think about animals as animals: that is, as living creatures that are neither objects nor humans. That is, Rector’s response involves the same anthropomorphism that led Brancheau to think of the whale as a friend. Where she saw her relationship with Tilikum as akin to that with a human buddy, he creates a narrative in which the whale becomes the Man in the Iron Mask. Those kind of responses might be an advance on the Cartesian attitude to animals as simply animated machines but they still miss the point that animality is still fundamentally Other.
It’s something about which I’ve been thinking a lot lately, partly after researching slaughterhouses for my book Killing and partly, more recently, after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s (very annoying) book Eating Animals. On the one hand, it’s difficult to watch industrial slaughter without thinking something very wrong is taking place. On the other, the animal liberation movement often, either implicitly or explicitly, draws a parallel with human struggles that seems to me to be fundamentally misleading.
Anyway, I would be interested in what people think. How do we define an animal, and what moral and political considerations follow from that definition?
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