Friday, February 26, 2010

A Killer Whale’s very bad moment

By Kathleen Parker

Reaction to the horror at SeaWorld, a nightmare seldom seen outside Peter Benchley’s imagination, has run the exhausted gamut.

“Kill. The. Fish.” was one talk-radio host’s suggestion. “Save the whale” has been the sentiment of animal lovers, including the victim’s family. So goes life in the Land of Twitter.

Mostly people want to know: What was the whale thinking? Why did he do it? The truth is probably less interesting than our anthropomorphizing minds might wish. Most likely, Tilikum the Killer Whale simply had a “seeing red” moment. He lost control — and then it was over.

Sometimes the Discovery Channel eats Disney.

This, more or less, is the considered opinion of a former whale trainer and scientist, Heidi Harley, who happens to be my cousin.

Naturally, upon hearing the news of Tilikum, I called Heidi, a former whale trainer and Orca-rider at Miami’s Seaquarium. She now teaches comparative cognitive psychology at New College in Sarasota, Fla.

Basically, Heidi is a dolphin shrink, though she wouldn’t put it that way, and probably wishes I wouldn’t. She remembers fondly her days in the 1980s riding a killer whale named Lolita, whom she describes as “exceptionally good-natured.”

Heidi is an intractable scientist, resistant to even a cousin’s urging to summarize and opine. Data-dependent, she declines to presume anything beyond the observable and provable. She does, however, offer a few objective observations that are relevant and, therefore, interesting.

First, she notes that the whale who mauled and drowned trainer Dawn Brancheau had a history of aggression and probably should not interact with humans in the future except under extremely controlled circumstances. That is obvious in retrospect and doubtless will be the case henceforth. But toward theories of human-like motives (premeditation, for example, as one “expert” suggested), she is highly skeptical.

For the record, Heidi is no run-of-the-mill dolphin shrink. Her accomplishments include teaching dolphins to sing the theme song to “Batman” and creating an alphabet that allows dolphins and humans to “speak.”

The idea that a whale could premeditate presupposes what science cannot prove, says Heidi. Sea mammals have many amazing characteristics, including the ability to communicate within species and to form long-term relationships. But there is no evidence that they can imagine a different world and act to produce that alternative reality, as humans routinely do.

Such “thinking” requires sophisticated cognitive functioning that data do not support. Meanwhile, only a whale knows what a whale knows. This is in part a function of our willingness to love and protect whales. They’re so valued as performers that they’re difficult to access for research, according to Heidi. That’s good for visitors to SeaWorld, but not so good for scientists who can’t pursue study that might provide answers.

What is known — and what is more surprising than “killer whale kills trainer” — is that so few such incidents occur. It is really quite remarkable that humans ever should feel comfortable, and statistically safe, sharing a tank of water with a behemoth creature that — for the most part — exercises significant self-control.

“There’s something remarkably restrained about the animals. That this happened is a tragedy,” says Heidi.

Even when whales and dolphins give signals of aggression, slapping their tails or nodding heads, they are really demonstrating their self-control. When they “see red,” as humans often do (crimes of passion), they simply lose it. No plan, no strategy, just a very bad moment.

What sets off a whale in such circumstances could be any number of factors unrelated to the trainer. Often the spark may come from anger toward another in their group. “You’re the pathetic swimmer in the group, and so they may come after you,” says Heidi.

The question that inevitably arises in these rare instances is, should whales be in captivity and exploited as circus acts? That, ultimately, is a values question. Should we have zoos? Eat meat? Drive SUVs?

Whales born and raised in captivity can’t safely be delivered to the open seas. Meanwhile, arguments can be made that interaction between pampered animals and humans ultimately raises awareness that leads to protection. Not long ago, commercial fishermen used to shoot killer whales on sight.

But if we want to understand more about what causes a massive male predator to destroy a human being in a sunny Orlando pool, we may have to protect whales a little less and make them more available to researchers.

Or else leave them to their own devices, possibly elsewhere.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Who will stand against Uganda's brutal anti-gay law?

In a time of constant calamity and crisis fatigue, proposed legislation in Uganda to execute gays passes through the American consciousness with the impact of a weather report.

Corrupt politicians count on the brevity of the American attention span, but certain items demand a tap of the pause button. How exactly does the idea of executing gays evolve in a majority-Christian nation? Interesting question.

Gays in Uganda already face imprisonment for up to 14 years. Under a bill proposed last October by David Bahati, the government could execute HIV-positive men and jail people who don't report homosexual activities.

We are officially appalled, of course. President Obama called the proposed legislation "odious" in remarks at the recent National Prayer Breakfast. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also mentioned Uganda at the breakfast. Even evangelical mega-pastor Rick Warren made an impassioned Christmas video plea to Ugandan pastors, declaring the measure "unjust," "extreme" and "un-Christian."

Warren's message wasn't prompted by outrage at the treatment of gays, however, but by accusations that he had helped create the bill. Warren's Saddleback Church has hosted a Ugandan pastor who supports the legislation, but the purpose-driven pastor insists he has had no role shaping the proposed law. Though Warren deserves to be taken at his word, other comments he made in his defense are problematic.

In a statement to Newsweek, Warren said: "The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator. However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations."

I'm not so sure about that. It may not be Warren's personal calling to comment on "political process." But is neutrality really an option for one of the world's most powerful Christian leaders when state genocide of a minority is proposed in the name of Christianity?

If we decide that genocide is too political for interference, then what good is moral leadership?

Other evangelical Christians operating in Uganda are less easily excused from responsibility in the country's increasingly hostile attitudes toward gays. Often cited as having stirred the pot are pastors Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge and Don Schmierer, who last March worked with Ugandan faith leaders and politicians to help stop the "homosexualization" of the country.

No, nobody "made" Bahati write the bill. But these three pastors, known for their conviction that gays can be "cured," have been spreading their particular brand of gospel in Uganda, and it seems to have found traction. The three have distanced themselves from the proposed law and say they never encouraged punishment for gays.

This may well be the case. In fact, let's assume it is. Let's further assume that these missionaries have only the purest of intentions and want only to help strengthen the traditional family. Dear Sirs: Uganda isn't Connecticut. A country where gays are routinely harassed, rounded up and incarcerated doesn't need stoking by American fundamentalists on a mission from God.

In an interview with Alan Colmes, Lively said he was invited to the African nation because Ugandans were worried about American and European gays trying to export homosexuality to their nation. Given that Uganda was already rather unwelcoming to gays, it seems unlikely that they needed advice from American preachers. Instead, it seems more the case that Uganda has became a laboratory for zealots who have found a receptive audience for their personal cause.

The proposed law is a case study in the unintended consequences of moral colonialism.

Meanwhile, one would think that Uganda, given its history, would have had enough of executions related to homosexuality and religion. In the 1880s, the martyrs of Uganda were burned to death by Mwanga II, the king of Buganda, who was miffed, by some accounts, when his own homosexual advances were declined by recent Christian converts.

And now Uganda's Christians wish to make martyrs of gays?

Not all do, of course. Some pastors are opposing the bill, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has said the proposal is too tough. Human rights watchers predict the bill will be toned down to exclude capital punishment, but imprisonment is also unacceptable -- and no American should find difficulty saying so.

In a "Meet the Press" interview last November, Warren said he never takes sides, but one wishes he would. To borrow his own words, it is in certain cases extreme, unjust and un-Christian not to.