Lori Marino – Turning a Whale into a Killer
There is a concept in comparative anatomy called the “encephalization quotient” (EQ), which is a measure of relative brain size. The higher the EQ, the larger the brain relative to the body – a rough measure of the capacity for intelligence, at least the kind of intelligence that human beings possess. An EQ of 1 implies a brain size roughly in line with the expected, or average, value. Horses, dogs and cats have EQs of about 1. Humans rank the highest, around 7; monkeys and chimpanzees generally cluster in the range of 2 to 3. Is there an animal between humans and the other primates? There is: at 5.3, the bottlenose dolphin might be the most intelligent creature on Earth outside of Homo sapiens, followed closely by the other members of its order, the cetaceans, including porpoises and toothed whales.
If you’ve seen the documentary Blackfish, about a killer whale named Tilikum, you already know how smart and social these animals are. As neuroscientist Lori Marino writes, bottlenose dolphins pass the “mirror test” of self-awareness1. They show “the ability to learn a variety of governing rules for solving abstract problems,” they comprehend numbers, sounds and gestures and perform that most human of intellectual feats, “understanding televised representations of the real world.” They form complex societies and cooperative networks and possess what ethologists call “culture” – passing acquired (learned), non-instinctual knowledge and behavior from generation to generation.
Cetacean brains also share one significant anatomical feature with humans. These are so-called “spindle cells,” unusually large and elongated neurons that seem to play a role in social intelligence, bonding and empathy. The other animals that have them are apes and elephants – which also are the only other mammals who pass the mirror test. These are also animals, Barbara King writes, that show evidence of grief after the death of family members or companions. Consider this account of a (captive) male silverback gorilla whose mate had died: “We first let the male Bobby in with the body and he did try to revive her, touching her gently, vocalizing, and even placing her favorite food (celery) in her hand. When he realized she was dead, he began to call in this soft hoot but then started to wail and bang on the bars. It was clearly a demonstration of immense grief and it was very sad to watch.”
Elephants, who live in close-knit family groups, “may surround a dying companion and, once death occurs, may manipulate the bones of the loved one,” King writes. The body of a baby dolphin who died shortly after being born was kept afloat for six days by the adults in its group, bearing it up on their backs and chasing off attacking gulls.
Dolphins have the misfortune that their upturned mouths appear to be in a perpetual smile, which belies their anguish when they are herded into a cove for slaughter. “Those of us who know dolphins can recognize the sounds of panic and fear in their whistles and body language,” Marino writes. “But the ever-present ‘smile’ of the dolphin and lack of facial expression even under the most horrendous of circumstances is a deception that appears to minimize our concerns for them.” The smile makes them seem friendly – as they mostly are, in the wild – and appealing to humans who will pay for the privilege of swimming with them. The experience is even marketed as a form of psychotherapy, although it’s hard to imagine what the dolphins get out of it.
And, of course, the intelligence of dolphins and orcas, or “killer” whales (who hunt seals for food but do not attack humans in the wild), make them sought-after inhabitants of aquariums and marine theme parks. One of the most arresting scenes in “Blackfish” is of hunters chasing a pod of orcas, in search of young whales to be sold off for exhibition. With planes, boats, explosives and nets, the men surround a juvenile and lift him out of the water, while the adult whales watch helplessly from a short distance away. It is impossible to imagine the anguish of the young whale as he is taken from his mother and tossed into a vat. And the fate that awaits him – to live out the rest of his life in a concrete tank, among strangers, forced to learn and perform tricks before large crowds – must be almost as oppressive to an intelligent, social creature, whose evolution has prepared him for a life of roaming the wild ocean with a close-knit family group. This results, Marino says, in “hyperaggression, a lot of violence, a lot of killing in captivity that you don’t ever see in the wild.” It is, arguably, enough to drive him mad – mad enough to kill, which is what Tilikum did to one of his trainers, on an otherwise ordinary day in Florida’s SeaWorld. [link] Of all the things we have done to animals over the centuries, this is one of the cruelest: driving them to kill.
1. The “mirror test” is used to determine whether an animal displays awareness of itself as a distinct individual. It involves marking the animal in a way that is visible only in a mirror and watching to see if the animal examines the mark. Animals known to pass the test include humans (above the age of 18 months), the other great apes, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants and European magpies.