Slaves, Whales, Humphrey the Hippo, and Captive Animal Ethics

The beginning of the end for this barbaric practice began with the publication of "Uncle Shamu's Cabin"...

Whether or not it is excessively cruel to killer whales to keep them at Sea World and train them to do tricks is an interesting ethical issue that turns on utilitarian principles: are whales as a species better served by the public learning to appreciate them through close contact in zoos than by having them be accessible only in the wild, and does this result justify keeping some whales in captivity, performing like seals? Good question. What isn’t a good question is posed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal’s lawsuit against Sea World, suggesting that it violates the Thirteenth Amendment to keep performing whales, because the practice constitutes slavery.

It’s a stupid question. It’s a silly question. It’s an offensive question, equating aquatic mammals with African-Americans.

I listened, jaw agape, as a national Public Radio host listened uncritically and supportively to a deadly serious member of PETA’s legal team as he made the crack-brained argument that nothing in the Thirteenth Amendment suggests that it should only be applied to human beings…nothing, that is, except the fact that the Constitution was written to organize human affairs in America and the Bill of Rights defines the rights of human citizens. PETA, shameless and unethical as always, is misusing the court system to get cheap publicity, and creating perfect ammunition for conservative critics who contend that liberal advocacy groups will twist the law of the land into grotesque shapes for their extreme agendas.

CBS described the lawsuit as “an unprecedented and perhaps quixotic legal action.” Perhaps quixotic? There are ice swans in Hell that have a better chance of surviving than this lawsuit. If performing whales are slaves, so are dairy cows, ranch horses, Flipper, Babe, Lassie, seeing-eye dogs, carrier pigeons, bomb-sniffing canines and Alaskan sled teams. All a court decision supporting PETA’s nonsense would accomplish is to launch the fastest successful rush to  pass a Constitutional amendment in U.S. history. The guest on NPR claimed that Harvard scholar Lawrence Tribe came up with this “whales can whistle ‘Old Man River’ so they must be slaves too” theory. Now we know why he never got that nomination to the Supreme Court. He’s nuts.

Meanwhile, it is time that human beings gave more serious thought to the ethics of keeping non-domesticated animals in captivity. It doesn’t help that the most vocal opponents of the practice are certifiable wackos, but it is still a subject that needs frank discussion and perhaps an international commission study. The fact that periodically such captive wild animals maul and chomp their human keepers—Sea World knows this well—creates at least a prima facie case that the creatures aren’t all that pleased with their living arrangements.

Learning this the hard way recently was the late Marius Els, who is shown with his beloved pet hippo, Humphrey in the video below. Els rescued Humphrey as a hippette, and kept him as a pet, swimming with him riding him, and treating him as one of the family—until the hippo got fed up with the charade and killed him.

I think Humphrey  was trying to tell us something.


8 thoughts on “Slaves, Whales, Humphrey the Hippo, and Captive Animal Ethics

  1. “I listened, jaw agape, as a national Public Radio host listened uncritically and supportively to a deadly serious member of PETA’s legal team as he made the crack-brained argument…”

    This seems to be an all-too-common issue in the media. I wish, for once, reporters and interviewers would CALL SOMEONE OUT when they try to push total BS on the public instead of uncritically relaying it to impressionable viewers as “X claims Y” because then it just turns into political “He said, she said” when it’s usually “He said, she lied” or “They’re both pulling these claims out their butts!”

  2. PETA makes it difficult for me as a proponent of animal welfare. Pointing to PETA’s ridiculous antics (and this latest one really takes the cake) has become a trump card or Godwin’s Law of sorts when I occasionally discuss animal welfare topics with people. Rants about PETA ensue and the conversation is effectively killed.

    It distresses me that the only strategy they can come up with is to bastardize the courts and the Constitution for some publicity. Shout from the rooftops that captive cetaceans don’t afford us a true ability for observation and study because of the massive (and documented!) ill effects on their health and that it debases us to sacrifice them for our amusement. Play videos of orcas turning on their handlers non-stop. Don’t pull out a cockamamie argument that’s deeply insulting to any peoples familiar with true subjugation.

  3. This isn’t even their most recent claim. They now say that the Tanooki suit (a tanooki is a mythical Japanese raccoon suit) that Super Mario wears in his latest game demonstrates that he’s pro-fur.

    I haven’t discussed this issue on the gaming forums I go to because PETA will do anything for attention, just like their counterparts at WBC, I refuse to give it to them any longer. The proper response to either organization’s claims are, “Who said this?”


    “Who are they?”

    “They’re these people who love to try to get people’s attention with the most ridiculous shit and acting like irrespectable jagoffs.”

    “Oh, so they’re jerks. I guess I can keep on not acknowledging them, then.”

    “That’s for the best.”

    Maybe this will catch on someday, and these mountebanks will fade from public consciousness.

  4. Jack,
    Are you sure it was NPR? I looked all through their archives and then used UH’s database and outside of an AP story posted on their website, couldn’t find anything. Do you remember the day or the correspondent involved?


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