The fish that is black

I wrote recently about visiting Nanjing Holocaust Museum in 2009 (see Notes from Nanjing). Today I found the following snippet in one of my many ‘Thoughts and Notes’ documents, jotted down in a dentist’s waiting room and later typed up:

In January 2012 a hundred raiders on horseback charged out of Chad into Cameroon’s Boune Ndjidah National Park, slaughtering hundreds of elephants—entire families—in one of the worst concentrated killings since a global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989. Carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, they dispatched the elephants with a military precision reminiscent of a 2006 butchering outside Chad’s Zakouma National Park. And then some stopped to pray to Allah. Seen from the ground, each of the bloated elephant carcasses is a monument to human greed. Elephant poaching levels are currently at their worst in a decade, and seizures of illegal ivory are at their highest level in years. From the air too the scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene—you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together, the latest of the tens of thousands of elephants killed across Africa each year. Seen from higher still, from the vantage of history, this killing field is not new at all. It is timeless, and it is now.[1] 

Notice how the final position of the elephants’ corpses appears to make a statement about what was important to each animal; we can find the same idea in Silent Spring, in the chapter ‘And No Birds Sing’ where Rachel Carson describes the spring of 1960 in the UK and a ‘deluge of reports of dead birds’. The relevant part here is a quotation from a gamekeeper, who comments, ‘It is bad to see pairs of partridges that have died together’. What I want to consider in this post is fundamental attribution error, and the idea that animals have an understanding of family.

I don’t mean to insult elephants (or partridges) by suggesting that their understanding of family is the same as my human understanding, for two reasons. Firstly, it seems to me that, just as these elephants seem to have divided into two groups (those that fled, and those that didn’t), people might divide along similar lines. Not every person (or elephant) behaves heroically in such a situation, and may not be surrounded by family members at the time. Furthermore, not everyone places family members (people one has not chosen to be associated with) above all others. It seems to me that, for every elderly skeleton in Nanjing shielding another that he or she believed to be his or her kin, there is probably another skeleton belonging to someone who died trying to protect someone of no blood relation at all (maybe someone they didn’t even know). Returning to the dividing line mentioned earlier, for each of these skeletons, then, I think there is likely to be a further skeleton on the edge of the mass grave crawling over the others in an attempt to save him or herself, who may have been in a crowd of strangers, or who saw his/her relative/friend being shot or maimed, but did not feel moved to risk his/her own life further by intervening. In other words, I think the human concept of family, and how we juxtapose that against the concepts of friends and strangers, is more fluid and layered than it is in the animal world. Consider, for example, how many people dislike (or limit) contact with their closest relations, or feel a sense of foreboding when their closest relations visit. Feelings of dread can coexist with being deeply attached to the relatives concerned, because such feelings aren’t an expression of not loving those people, but of a whole host of other intertwined issues (expectations reasonable and unreasonable, met and unmet; issues around roles, leadership and decision-making; religion, politics, lifestyle choices and so on). I find it unlikely that elephants have such fine-grained, complex feelings towards their parents, children and siblings, given that a. they are elephants; and b. elephants typically live in large, matriarchal groups constructed along family lines. It seems probable that such interactions and feelings are more straightforward for elephants.

Secondly, it seems to me that anthropomorphizing animals demeans both animals and humans. Clearly many species besides humans have a profound concept of which individuals besides themselves are worth protecting at their own risk, but these concepts and the behaviours that flow from them vary enormously. A mother lapwing will fake a broken wing to draw a hawk away from her babies, but in my own garden I have found the pathetic, wrinkly evidence of blackbird parents ceasing to feed a baby that has fallen out of their own nest, even though it is only a few feet away and has survived the fall. Animal societies, physiologies and means of expression are so different from our own that I think it is unhelpful and confusing to talk about animals as if they are people, and as if they experience the same emotions that we do. Richard Perry puts it well, describing the response of a Gigas squid (now usually referred to as a Humboldt squid) when hooked with a fishing gaff, which is  a long pole with a hook or nail in the end, used when the fish is too heavy or strong to lift with a conventional pole. He writes:

it discharged a cloud of ink as its normal reflex reaction to fear (or whatever may be a cephalopod’s equivalent of that emotion)[2]

I watched Blackfish for the first time last week (or, rather, I watched it, went to bed, woke up the next day and immediately watched it again).[3] There is much discussion of the family bonds within groups of orcas: each pod has something analogous to its own language, and adult orcas live with their mothers for their entire lives (their lifespans are comparable to human lifespans, so this is not trivial). The concept of family is, therefore, deeply important to these animals; if anything, the film suggests that it is far more important than it is to humans, who can learn to speak another language if they so desire; can leave and join other family groups (indeed, are often expected to do so); and can often dictate the intensity and duration of family relationships. These are murky waters, therefore; as Aristotle says in his thoughts ‘On Respiration’, ‘Among water-animals, the cetaceans may give rise to some perplexity.'[4]

It seems to me that attributing human emotions to a domesticated animal such as a pet dog makes some limited sense. Dogs have lived in close proximity to humans for thousands of years, and they have been bred by humans to please humans: to be docile, aesthetically pleasing and able to remember their name and a set of commands. Dogs and people, in other words, have a long-standing relationship with (and understanding of) each other that cannot be applied to orcas. Orcas are wild animals that live in the open ocean in vast territories, and could easily go their whole lives without seeing a single human being; as Alan Bauch says in Dolphin, ‘dolphins are totally aquatic animals whose environment necessarily prevents the kind of companionship – and even mutual knowledge – that humans share, say, with dogs’.[5] Moreover, while dogs have spent thousands of years evolving and/or being bred to be obedient and useful companions, orcas have spent thousands of years evolving into things that are good at killing and eating stuff. See, for example, Scott’s Last Expedition:

I was a little late on the scene this morning, and thereby witnessed a most extraordinary scene. Some six or seven killer whales, old and young, were skirting the fast floe edge ahead of the ship … Close to the water’s edge lay the wire stern rope of the shop and our two Esquimaux dogs were tethered to this … the next moment the whole floe under [Ponting] and the dogs heaved up and split into fragments … Whale after whale rose under the ice … [the whales’] huge and hideous heads shot vertically into the air through the cracks which they had made … there cannot be a doubt that they looked up to see what had happened to Ponting and the dogs.[6]

Similarly, in his account of a whaling expedition in the 1950s Of Whales and Men, R.B. Robertson finds himself repelled by orcas, referring to them as ‘the most voracious thing in the Southern Ocean’. His tone when describing orcas is larded with disgust in a way that his description of the butchering (‘flensing’ and ‘lemming’ are the technical terms) of a blue whale is not:

Five killer whales … with … evil black-and-white snouts broken by malignant fang-filled cavities rising occasionally above the water, advanced upon the meal [the guts of the dead whale]. Only hyenas on land and vultures in the air can convey the same sense of remorseless ill-will against all creation that killer whales convey as they slowly approach their loathsome victuals.[7]

The only way in which I think making a comparison with dogs may work is that even dogs can become vicious, unpredictable creatures that will attack a person that has never wronged them if that dog has been abused and traumatised thoroughly enough. This can even be true in a scenario where an abused dog has been rescued and re-homed with a family that love it and attempt to correct or compensate for that trauma. Although the sections of Blackfish that show various killer whales lunging at or attempting to drown people who were interacting with them peacefully a moment ago are shocking, in some ways the most troubling footage (to me) was that which showed some of the same people interacting with the orcas with great affection and talking about the bond that they feel they have with the animals. I found the question of whether that bond was real profoundly disturbing.

The trainers speak to the orcas as if they are enormous dogs, and I think this is because they don’t know what else to do. The film makes a powerful case for the whales being psychologically traumatised, bored, grief-stricken, confused and repeatedly under- and over-stimulated, but we aren’t orcas, don’t live in the sea, and (to misappropriate Nagel) can have only a very limited understanding of what it is like to be a wild orca, or what makes an orca an orca (or what makes a killer whale into a whale that kills).[8] In their recent book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, biologists Whitehead and Rendell put it like this:

For whales and dolphins, living in an utterly different habitat, at the end of a very long, effectively independent evolutionary trajectory, taking what humans do as an ideal seems profoundly wrong.[9]

Naturally, and as with other ideas outside our immediate experience (see Punch drunk), we turn to things that we do understand: other people, and other animals. The sequences showing mother orcas grieving when their offspring are permanently removed from them are heart-breaking, but I feel that how moving it is depends on the frame of reference. Rather than comparing the mother orcas to human mothers, the people making the decisions to separate them from their babies continue to view the orcas as enormous dogs. Domestic dogs don’t much like having their puppies taken away from them, but if it is done at the right point they seem to bounce back from it fairly quickly, and the expectation seems to be that the mother orca should do the same. However, using a human mother as the gold standard of emotional connection wouldn’t be any better (e.g. removing the young orca when it reached sexual maturity, say, and then expecting the mother orca to think this gave her more time for herself). Indeed, since the orca mother and baby are being separated by humans, the idea of judging the intensity of their grief in human terms at the same time as humans are inducing that grief feels pretty queasy. In the wild, orcas live alongside their mothers for their entire lives. We don’t.

Something else I have been turning over in my mind since watching the film is whether the three people killed by the largest killer whale in the film (a male called Tilikum) were also in some way the victims of our tendency to misunderstand animals by projecting human emotions onto them. Several of the former trainers interviewed in Blackfish speak of how mortified they are at the nonsense they used to say about the whales performing ‘because they want to’. Seeing the killer whales doing various complex tricks is impressive only if you consider it remarkable that the killer whale is doing as it was asked rather than killing and eating stuff. Plainly these creatures are easily strong enough, agile enough and clever enough to leap out of the water and touch a ball with their nose or whatever, and the fact that they do so should not surprise us: they are able, receive a fish-based reward for performing such as task, and have absolutely nothing else to do. They are also strong enough, agile enough and clever enough to kill and eat the trainers if they so choose, and the fact that they do this should not surprise us either.

The film makes it clear that there have been many, many near misses: in other words, the truly remarkable thing is that there haven’t been more fatalities. While most of the people featured in the film who worked with the killer whales are shocked and upset that Tilikum has behaved badly (i.e. killed and partially eaten people), there is very little surprise expressed at the people who behave badly: those who capture and kill orcas in the wild; whoever it was that thought buying an orca who is only for sale in the first place because he killed someone was a good idea; those who didn’t bother to tell any of the people working with Tilikum that he had killed a person, during a live show, in front of an audience; those who wrote the nonsense that the staff at Seaworld uttered in good faith; and those who attempted to blame the three victims for their deaths. It is interesting to see Tilikum picked out as ‘a bad whale’ (contrasted with all the other ‘good’ whales) on the one hand, and on the other the faceless mass of venal, callous, stupid, reckless or greedy people. It is as if we believe that whales are fundamentally good and people are fundamentally not.[10]

That brings me on to another very human habit, which is the desire to categorise, just as I did at the start of this post by dividing the elephants into two groups. It seems to me that the managers of Seaworld who continued to allow the whale trainers to work with Tilikum and other whales known to be dangerous took the view that these were fundamentally ‘good’ whales who had behaved badly on some isolated occasions. As Blackfish goes on, it seems that those same managers change their minds, and take the view (after Tilikum has killed and partially eaten his third person) that he is a ‘bad’ whale. However, it doesn’t make sense to make a statement about the fundamental nature of a species (or an individual whale) based on the behaviour of the few animals that can be observed splashing crowds of tourists from a blue concrete tank. The question ‘is Tilikum a bad whale?’ doesn’t make sense, because we have no way of defining the central terms.[11] We cannot explain what we mean by ‘a bad whale’. If we mean ‘a bad whale is a whale that has killed people’ (including two people that worked with him and probably felt deeply attached to him), then yes, Tilikum is a bad whale, but the list of other ‘bad’ whales that had given killing and eating a person a jolly good go was extensive and harrowing: he is by no means the only ‘bad’ whale; there are degrees of ‘badness’; and ‘goodness’ has not been established as the norm. Moreover, all of these ‘bad’ whales are likely to have been ‘good’ whales in their natural context, where their skills at killing and eating stuff would be useful and necessary. We might even say that these ‘bad’ whales are more fundamentally ‘whale-like’ than the ‘good’ whales that don’t make as much effort to kill and eat stuff. Furthermore, if we mean ‘a bad whale is a whale that could or would kill a person if he got the chance’ then we are left adrift in a sea of things that can’t be determined. We can’t determine why an orca kills a person or whether he thinks or feels anything in particular before or after doing so. We can’t determine whether he does this because he is peckish; whether he simply sees the opportunity; or whether it is part of his whale-like nature, although it is worth saying (as is said in the film) that there has never been any record of a person being killed by an orca in the wild. Tilikum has killed three people, but I don’t know if we can even use that to make statements about the fundamental nature of Tilikum (‘Tilikum is a bad whale’) any more than we can use it to make statements about the fundamental make-up of orcas as a whole (‘all orcas are bad whales’). Blackfish makes a compelling case that captivity traumatises whales both physically and psychologically, such that they may be far more likely to unexpectedly turn on their trainers and attempt to kill and eat them than previously thought, and therefore we might feel more comfortable with the statement ‘all orcas in captivity are psychologically traumatised, and therefore will eventually become bad whales’, but again we can’t be sure whether this is part of their fundamental nature brought out by captivity, or whether this is purely caused by circumstance. Fundamental attribution error suggests that the circumstances a person finds himself in contribute more to his actions that the fundamentals of his character, but we cannot apply that with any certainty to Tilikum, because he’s not a person. It seems that the best we can do is to say ‘orcas are very good at killing and eating stuff. Therefore being in a confined watery space with a traumatised orca is not safe’, which is surely a conclusion we could have reached without anyone having to die.

Tilikum now lives in a tank on his own, much like many people who have killed multiple times. As I’ve said, words that humans use to describe human concepts aren’t very meaningful when applied to whales and whale concepts, but if a whale can be said to be lonely, then given all that I’ve said about the duration and depth of the family bonds orcas have with each other, he probably feels something that we might describe as loneliness. I suggest, however, that the difficulty of thinking about this particular whale is that using our own emotions as a frame of reference is inadequate, and using no frame of reference at all gives us no purchase. While the read-across between the massacred elephants in Cameroon and the rape of Nanjing is tempting and obvious, in both instances I struggle to state with any confidence that I understand how any of the people or animals involved felt, or how I might behave in a similar situation. I wrote about my visit to Nanjing that ‘No attempt has been made to understand any of these awful deaths and I don’t feel equal to the task’. Here, I feel that a thoughtful and nuanced attempt to make sense of the deaths of the three people killed by Tilikum has been made. Nevertheless, understanding continues to elude me.


[1] Brian Christy, National Geographic, October 2012.

[2] Richard Perry, The Unknown Ocean (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1972), p. 165.

[3] Blackfish is, of course, a term for an orca or killer whale. Interestingly, Richard Perry uses the same word to refer to pilot whales, which Bauch describes with the charming name ‘pothead whales’.

[4] Aristotle also suggests that dolphins snore, but leaves aside the tantalising question of how he knows this.

[5] Alan Bauch, Dolphin (London: Reaktion Books), p. 7. This is from an excellent series on animals, which includes Falcon by Helen Macdonald of H is for Hawk fame (see footnote below), and Salmon by Peter Coates (see A ‘small, mysterious corpus’).

[6] Captain Robert Falcon Scott, in his journal, published as Scott’s Last Expedition (London: The Folio Society, 1964), p. 56. Readers will be pleased to learn that both Ponting and the two dogs were unharmed, escaping purely by chance.

[7] R.B. Robertson, Of Whales and Men (London: Macmillan, 1956), p. 115. Robertson then describes a crew member shooting one of the orcas dead, ‘drilled neatly behind the eye’, which is explained by another sailor as an expression of ‘loathing quite out of proportion to the damage they do to him and his bonus’ (pp. 116-117), referring to the orcas’ habit of eating the tongues of the dead whales. The comparison with hyenas and vultures is instructive, however, as both these creatures, however unpleasant we may find them, provide a very useful service. Would we prefer that the entrails of the fourteen dead blue whales simply float around the Southern Ocean forever?

[8] ‘Can your allegiances be changed? Can you be trusted? What makes you a chaffinch?’ Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (Falkirk: Jonathan Cape, 2014), pp. 64-65.

[9] Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 27.

[10] I know orcas are dolphins rather than whales (see Bauch, pp. 61-62), but the term ‘killer whale’ is so loaded with meaning here that I’m using the word ‘whale’ rather more loosely than I would otherwise.

[11] I will leave aside the unanswerable question of whether an animal used to swimming hundreds of miles a day in a family group, and evolved to use its size, strength and intelligence to kill and eat stuff can continue to be considered a whale if it lives in a tank a few yards across, away from all its relatives, unable to hunt, and receiving food by hand from a bucket in exchange for swimming about in an amusing way.


7 thoughts on “The fish that is black

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