Imagine an orca swimming in the ocean and saying the human words “hello” and “bye-bye.” It would be a strange scenario. Onlookers would undoubtedly think that this orca has lost her mind and completely forgotten how to be an orca. In nature it makes no sense for an orca to produce human words, and there is nothing natural about it. Researchers at the amusement park Marineland of France have created such an orca. They have shaped an orca into a being that copies human words. Their achievement has caught the attention of the international media and created sensationalistic headlines such as “World’s first talking killer whale: Wikie the orca learns to say ‘hello’ and ‘bye-bye’” and “Killer whale Wikie ‘talks’ to researchers.” Wikie is not really talking to researchers, of course. She is simply doing what she has been trained to do—mimic human words. The words “hello” and “bye-bye” hold no real meaning or value to her, and for her to produce them is bizarre and abnormal, just like everything else in Wikie’s life.
Both of Wikie’s parents were captured from the wild. Wikie was born in captivity 16 years ago and has spent her entire life performing for paying audiences alongside Marineland’s other captive orcas. The only world she has ever known is a concrete tank. She doesn’t know what a wave looks like. Nor has she seen or chased a live fish. Wikie can swim only a few feet before a wall or a gate stops her. She will spend the rest of her life trapped in a barren, lifeless tank, obeying never-ending commands from her trainers. Nothing about her life at Marineland remotely resembles orcas’ lives in nature. There is nothing natural about the tricks she is trained to perform during loud circus performances, a free-ranging marine mammal swimming in endless circles, nor an orca trapped for life in a human-made world of loud music and yelling spectators.
In nature, orcas have developed their own sophisticated communication skills with distinctive calls and whistles, and each orca pod has its own unique dialect. We know that an orca’s offspring learns by mimicking its mother and other pod members. Orcas have evolved into a complex culture, and the most experienced orcas in the pod pass their tremendous knowledge to the next generation. A mother will teach her offspring to communicate, forage, navigate, and many other skills. One thing, however, is certain: An orca will not teach her offspring how to say “hello” in the language of humans.
It is typical of the dolphinarium industry to disregard everything that is natural in the lives of these complex and highly intelligent beings. Everything about captivity is based on forcing orcas to suppress who they really are and shaping them into whatever is beneficial to humans. This is how captive orcas are coerced into forgetting and quashing what is natural and meaningful to them and surrendering to becoming begging, performing circus clowns that obediently carry out abnormal behaviors in exchange for food rewards of dead fish.
I have seen the killer whale show at Marineland. The show consists of the same old tricks that attract the huge paying audiences. The clearly hungry orcas were made to jump on command and beach themselves on the concrete platform. Surrounded by cheering trainers, applauding audiences, and loud pop music, Wikie and the other orcas at Marineland are as removed from an orca’s natural world as they could possibly be. After the show had ended, Wikie spent her time languishing on the surface of the water and staring into a concrete wall. She had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Her body language was obvious: I am bored. The trainers simply walked away with the empty buckets, and all that was left for Wikie to do was wait for the next show, the next feeding, and the next round of ear-deafening applause. If the researchers at Marineland would pay half as much attention to Wikie’s body language as they are to their own self-serving achievement of training Wikie to mimic human words, then perhaps she would have a chance of a better life. Perhaps then Marineland would realize the cruelty of confining immensely intelligent, ocean-roaming top predators to lifeless tanks and exploiting their hunger to make them perform in money-making shows.
I have enjoyed the sight of orcas in the wild leaping out of the water with such awe-inspiring power, confidence, and control. At Marineland the orcas are rendered utterly powerless in their dependence on humans for food and attention. Here, they jump, not for joy, but for food. By making orcas jump on command, humans take ownership over the orcas’ physical strength and amazing abilities. The killer whale show is all about human superiority and control. Training an orca to mimic human speech is an extension of that control. It empowers humans, not orcas. Wikie will never know what it is like to belong to a close-knit family of wild orcas. She will not be sharing their complex language skills, constantly learning from them, and communicating with them while navigating, foraging, and exploring a vast ocean world filled with diversity, challenges, and activities that are purposeful and important to her species. By human design, Wikie will never even see the ocean. Training her to copy human words drags her even further into a deprived and artificial existence where humans have complete control over her life. It constitutes a disrespectful and utterly arrogant mockery of her astounding intelligence.
If we truly want to understand orcas, then we need to stop treating them like commodities and research objects. And we need to stop toying with their intelligence. The research and training that Wikie is subjected to will never benefit orcas in the wild, nor will it ever benefit Wikie. The dolphinarium industry will use it to put forth the argument that humans need to continue keeping orcas in captivity for the sake of doing more research. It will become the industry’s newest excuse for incarcerating orcas for life in small tanks where their intelligence is exploited to fulfill the desires of humans.
We must let these amazing beings live their lives, wild and free, in the oceans that have shaped their existence for millions of years. We must stop invading their space by capturing them and breeding them in tanks where their natural abilities can find no expression at all. We must stop claiming ownership over their lives. Orcas have a fundamental right to swim for as long as their hearts desire, free of any human-made barriers. They have a right to communicate in their own sophisticated orca language over vast distances, nourishing their strong social bonds and raising their young in the ocean, surrounded by family members. We do not have the right to take all that away from them.
If humans are to ever be able to understand orcas, we need to change the way we treat them. We need to respect them for who and what they are in their world, on their terms. We need to respect the space that naturally exists between them and us. Respect, I find, is the highest form of inter-species communication that there is. Sadly, it is also a communication skill that we humans have yet to master.