The Strange and Sad History of Humans and Orcas

Book review: Orca, by Jason Colby

Author Jason Colby’s father was one of the last orca hunters in Washington state, capturing the apex predator from its natural habitat to fill orders for aquariums worldwide. Colby writes this detailed, descriptive but very readable history of human-orca interactions from a place of lifelong personal interest, having witnessed his father’s deep regret over his actions. It also allows him some insight into the captivating emotional aspect of the human-animal connection particular to orcas. Beyond these brief forays though, he stays out of the story and presents a straightforward but painful and emotional history of this woefully misunderstood and horribly mistreated species.

And he answers quite thoroughly the question of why humans ever decided that the ocean’s most intelligent animal should be put on display as a dancing monkey for children’s amusement.

Orca is an intriguing book and I learned a lot from it, but every step of the way was difficult. That’s not meant to discourage from reading it – I think it’s an important topic and it speaks to a much greater element of humanity and the way we perceive and treat each other, so it’s not even only about whales. But it hurts to think about. Humans can be unspeakably awful and ignorant beyond reason.

At the same time, I learned something that complicates the debate about captivity and our treatment of orcas over the past decades. I didn’t know that around the time Ted Griffin – the aquarium owner who first put them in captivity, became obsessed with orcas and began capturing and keeping them, selling others to fulfill orders at aquariums and marine parks around the world – orcas were perceived as pests. They were expendable, and fishermen were killing them at high rates, while the general public feared them at worst and mistrusted and misunderstood them at best.

So this was a double-edged sword: Griffin showed that they were friendly, could be docile, even – his beloved Namu did seem to develop a genuinely affectionate relationship with Griffin. Griffin reasoned that “public display of an orca might reduce” the violence orchestrated by fishermen against orcas that stole their salmon catches and tore through fishing nets.

And of course, there was the ever present idea that the ocean was just too full of creatures so it’s fine to cull some. What various governments, like Soviet, Japanese, and Norwegian, not to mention American and Canadian, have done in this regard is stomach-turning.

Blackfish were considered vermin and dangerous ones at that. The debate at the time wasn’t between whale watching and whale catching; it was between whale catching and whale killing. There was no Marine Mammal Protection Act, no NOAA, no Greenpeace, and virtually no research on the species. Fishermen routinely shot orcas, and scientist thought nothing of killing them to examine their stomach contents. Capture and display had changed all that, as even some of Griffin’s outspoken critics later admitted.

Of course, activists soon got wind that orcas were dying during captures, not to mention horrific scenes occurring in family pods – mothers killed in front of their hysterical babies, animals refusing to leave the sides of their captured family members, heartbreaking separations that couldn’t be confused or misconstrued as anything other than just that – clear evidence of emotional bonds that should speak to any human heart.

Obsessed with his personal adventure, Griffin had failed to appreciate the broader shift in environmental values to which he had contributed, particularly through the transformed popular and scientific view or Orcinus orca. In 1962, his dream of capturing and connecting with a killer whale had seemed visionary, even quixotic. People around the world considered orcas dangerous pests, and fishermen and scientists in the Pacific Northwest routinely killed them. By 1972, however, his adversaries were no longer fishermen who shot orcas; they were activists who feared he might drive the animals from the waters that both they and he loved.

Colby begins the book with some historical context of humans’ relationships to orcas, and turns out it was never a very positive one. Dating back centuries, orcas were seen as either threats to human life or pests, and they were killed for what humans thought was either defense or protection of their livelihoods, like fishing. The majority of the book takes place in the 1960s and 70s, when the orca captivity industry ramped up and we saw a sea change in human perception of the whales, while simultaneously learning more about them and dispelling long-held myths of their natures and behaviors.

“The killer whale, or orca, is the demon of the seas,” wrote Bronx Zoo director William T. Hornaday in 1910. “This creature has the appetite of a hog, the cruelty of a wolf, the courage of a bulldog and the most terrible jaws afloat.”

That is a very unfortunate thing for a zoo director to say. And yet their intelligence has long been known, including from those scientists eager to dissect them. Their brains are bigger than ours. Or take for example in Australia, a curious case of orcas and whalers collaborating, over an extended period of time, on corralling other whale species into a bay, an arrangement beneficial to both sides:

 …Australian newspapers liken[ed] the “killers” to hunting dogs. Yet it may have been the orcas who trained the men – to come when called, to follow them to the hunt, and to do the tough and bloody work of dispatching large whales.

And then there’s Sea World, far from being the only company to put them in tanks and charge money for them to do tricks, but the biggest and baddest by far. Sea World argued in legal proceedings that there would never have been a backlash against orca captivity if they hadn’t educated the public about the whales’ friendliness, claiming their good deeds in saving the species from persecution had been turned against them.

…Rhetoric against the company had grown more vehement..[Some] likened orca capture to social injustice. “We have tried to enslave our black brothers, kill our red brothers and corrupt our yellow brothers,” observed one Seattle resident. “Now we seek to encage our cousins and make them perform as fools in a Disneyland of the Sea for our own amusement.” Bellevue resident G.D. Graham was especially appalled to learn that government officials had been observing the capture. “What a comfort!” he wrote. “Perhaps we should expect to hear next that police officials are supervising mugging and murder to see that they are done properly.”

Reading this book, I felt constantly reminded of my feelings when reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Every time I picked that book up, every time a new chapter began, I was filled with this sense of foreboding dread, of knowing that even if a story of an incident started out sounding potentially positive, it was going to end disastrously. It was the same thing here. Man’s inhumanity to fellow man is a terrible subject, but our inhumanity towards animals, and the arrogance and sense of entitlement we have about our dominance over the natural world, is repellent and dangerous.

Is this book kind of a downer? Yes. Is that a reason not to read it? No. Even in our post-Blackfish world there are still plenty of people who happily support Sea World, or who think that animal rights is a minor issue that doesn’t deserve much attention. I’m of a mind that how we treat creatures more defenseless than ourselves says a lot about our own psychology.

This book will appeal to those passionate about animal rights and the captivity debate, and to anyone who felt deeply moved by Blackfish and wants to understand more about how and why we ever thought orcas belong in captivity. It has its dry moments/sections, particularly those on legal maneuverings and some business dealings, but on the whole it’s detailed, full of fascinating information ranging from natural history to biology to compellingly told anecdotes of the driven, sometimes misguided people and impacting events in the timeline of human-orca relations. 4/5

Orca:
How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator
by Jason Colby
published June 1, 2018 

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9 thoughts on “The Strange and Sad History of Humans and Orcas

    1. Thank you so much! Yes, I think it’s an excellent starting point because it’s really so thorough. Only in relation to orcas, really…there’s a little bit looping in other marine animals but they’re the focus. I didn’t cover the half of it in the review, there’s just so much here. Definitely recommend it! I’ve also heard this is a good one but I haven’t read it yet: https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/heart-of-a-lion-9781620405529/

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, for me too…I cried during both documentary and this book. But I was just so interested in how all of this even got started in the first place and this book answered that question and then some. But yeah, it was not an uplifting read by any means 😦

      Liked by 1 person

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