Is a killer whale a moral being?

Philip Hoare, author of "The Whale," has spent years studying these mysterious creatures and what surprises him most is how little we actually know.

Phelan Ebenhack/AP
Seeing a whale kept in captivity, writes author Philip Hoare, is "like seeing Jaws let loose in the municipal baths."

There are so many reasons, Philip Hoare points out, to grieve over the tragedy last week at SeaWorld Orlando, when a killer whale named Tilikum dragged his trainer underwater to her death. Hoare, who spent years following whales while researching his new book, "The Whale," has long been troubled by the practice of keeping the giant creatures in captivity.

"The fact that 200 killer whales have died in captivity since oceanaria shows opened in the 1960s points out the glaringly obvious fact – whales and dolphins should not be kept in captivity," Hoare writes from Australia, where he is currently touring to promote his book.

"The Whale," which was reviewed in the Monitor last week, is "an intricate exploration of history, literature, and science.... a spiritual voyage to understand the whale’s place ... in the world."

Hoare recalls the first time he ever saw a whale in captivity, in Windsor Safari Park, near London, in the 1960s.

"The massive predator entered the pool – basically an overgrown swimming pool – from a gated compound," he writes. "It was like seeing Jaws let loose in the municipal baths. Yet its magnificence was bowed by its state – a fact vividly symbolized by its enormous, six foot high dorsal fin, which had keeled over into an emasculated flop through the stress of captivity. (Newly captive orca often decline to eat, and have to be force-fed)."

Hoare also worries about the whales in the wild, wondering what impact noise and water pollution have on them.

"We anthropomorphize animals at our peril," he points out. "The terrible events at SeaWorld only underline that queasy state. When we take animals into our world, we contaminate their lives, and perhaps endanger our own."

But perhaps what is most troublesome, he says, is how very much we simply don't know about these giant animals.

"Whales and dolphins are intelligent animals," he writes. "That much is clear, not only from the emotional reaction of anyone who was ever looked a whale in the eye - or has been looked at by a whale in turn – but from scientific studies. The sperm whale, for instance, possessed the largest brain of any animal – 18 pounds in weight. Its neo-cortex is highly convoluted, indicating the capability for tool use, communication, and abstract thought. The pre-eminent sperm whale specialist, Dr. Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, believes sperm whales may not only be self-aware, but may have developed their own moral code – even, through that sense of self-awareness, their own concept of religion."

It's a startling notion, Hoare agrees. "It is a stunning, wildly provocative thought," he writes, "but it only stresses how little we know about whales and dolphins, and how much more there is to discover. That much is certain. Almost everything else, when it comes to these mysterious animals, is not."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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