'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Orca Resistance at Sea World 

The three whales, including Haida’s newborn calf, were sold to Sea World for five million dollars.

Of course, Counterpunch posted the article in response to the orca attack upon a trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando yesterday that resulted in the trainer's death. My wife, after reading the media coverage, was startled by the discovery that the killer whale in question, a whale named Tilikum, had a history of attacking trainers, even killing one in Vancouver in 1991. Indeed, SeaWorld acquired him after the attack by including him among the aforementioned three whales purchased upon the closure of the Vancouver facility.

In this instance, Tilikum was literally more valuable in dollars than the trainer who died, Dawn Brancheau, more irreplaceable, and hence, if forced to choose between commercializing Tilikum, and protecting the trainers from serious injury or death, SeaWorld predictably chose the former. Even worse, SeaWorld deliberately purchased a belligerent killer whale because of the lucrative income stream associated with him. And the trainers, including Brancheau, played along, working with Tilikum, despite the risk, as manifested by Tilikum's involvement in a subsequent 1999 death as well as an attack by a different whale at the San Diego SeaWorld location in 2006.

There is nothing new about this. The willingness of people to acclimatize themselves to abuse more readily than animals has long been recognized. Consider, for example, this passage from the B. Traven novel, The Carreta, wherein he describes the conditions by which cart drivers, carretas, and their oxen worked in order to transport goods around southern Mexico in the early part of the 20th Century:

. . . There was a limit, however, beyond which the oxen could be worked without a break. When they got too low and exhausted and were not given a rest at grass, they finally refused to rise to their feet while on a journey, and then not the best of feeds or any other persuasion could urge them to go any farther. Blows had no effect. Oxen will very often act as mules do. They lie down, refuse food, and die.

Oxen and mules required a break of three or four weeks in good grass three or four times a year; and they got them. Oxen and mules were costly, and therefore suicide on their part was expensive for their masters. The carretas never had a holiday. They worked day by day, Sundays and holidays, by day and by night, in rain or tropical glare, in sandstorms and thunderstorms of such violence that the sky seemed to burst. The carretas too sometimes lay down by the way; but they did not commit suicide by exhaustion. That was the privilege of oxen and mules. And if a carretero perished by the way, or fell down a ravine while hoisting a carreta out of a hole, or got under the wheels, he was no loss to his employer. Carreteros did not mean the outlay of a centavo, unless it was that the employer took over the debt of a carretero to a previous master; and this debt would be little compared with the money an ox cost, even if the employer were left with it unredeemed due to the mishap of a carretero.

Brancheau undoubtedly worked under conditions more favorable than the carreteros, but, in the end, she was less important to SeaWorld than Tilikum, enslaved as he is, and she accepted it. One shudders to imagine the liability waiver that she was required to sign before she was hired.

Clearly, it was, by capitalist standards, a rational approach for SeaWorld. Even if one accounts for a substantial wrongful death civil judgment, given that SeaWorld's insurance will likely account for most, if not all, of it, and that SeaWorld has made substantial profit off both Tilikum and Brancheau, the balance still comes out quite well in favor of SeaWorld. Add Tilikum's proficiency as a breeder to the ledger, and there is no longer any doubt.

According to SeaWorld, he was quite the stud, having bred 17 calves. It may be conservative to estimate the value of each of these whales at 1 million dollars each, given that Tilikum was part of a three whale purchase for 5 million 19 years ago. Tilikum and Brancheau found themselves ensnared in a web of exploitation at the cost of Brancheau's life and Tilikum's liberty. We can only hope that killer whale and dolphin shows at amusement parks go the way of bear baiting.

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