Emotional Tales Save Orca Whales?

Credit: AP Photo/ Phelan M. Ebenhack

In a world where the clinical and empirical reigns supreme, is there space for emotion, and the possibility that emotion shapes historical phenomenon?

Armstrong (2013) looks into this and says that there are two reasons as to why science disregards emotion, the first being that emotional realties are ephemeral and hard to document, making it nearly impossible to prove the existence of events where feeling is felt throughout a culture, social group, or population (pg. 169).

The second reason Armstrong (2013) looks at is the underestimation of emotions historical role, and that such attention in this area leads to being viewed as subjectivist, having weak scholarly accuracy, and being considered as ‘sentimentalism,’ viewed as a kind of weakness itself (pg. 169).

Armstrong deploys the story of Opo the dolphin, who graced the New Zealand town of Opononi with her presence, to illustrate the importance of sentimentalism. Armstrong (2013) believes that sentimentality matters because of its everlasting popularity and its importance as a signifier for the sweeping transition of cultural feeling that has, or is about to, take place (pg. 182).

On the Opo event, it is significant because it illustrates the emotional connection between humans and animals, more specifically cetaceans, and what is even more important is that these stories marked a change in popular societal ideology that challenged the notion of modernity’s domination of nature (Armstrong 2013, pg. 180).

Another example of an emotionally charged event signalling a change in the world is the story of orca whale Skana and New Zealand scientist Paul Spong. Skana was sold to the Vancouver Aquarium at the age of 6 when she was captured in 1967, and it was here at the aquarium where she met Paul Spong, a scientist who conducted experiments to gauge Skana’s visual acuity (Zelko 2013).

Skana was passing Spong’s tests with little difficulty until her results plummeted, failing the test 83 times, which Spong discovered Skana was failing on purpose (Zelko 2013).

Spong decided to abandon his clinical approach with Skana and become more involved with her, getting to know her outside of a scientific view which is when he discovered she was experimenting with him, raking her teeth across his feet until he left them in the water so she could clamp down on them, but losing interest when he didn’t react (Zelko 2013).

From this point on Spong came to view Skana more like a person than an animal, describing her as “…inquisitive, inventive, joyous, gentle, joking, patient, and, above all, unafraid and exquisitely self-controlled (Zelko 2013).” Spong decided that to confine an intelligent being like Skana was cruel and so had to be set free and that hunting them was akin to murder, so to set her free he approached Greenpeace, who eventually took up her cause which has led to the virtual elimination of commercial whaling (Zelko 2013). She died however, in 1980 before her release could be realised.

This event was important because it was emotionally charged and demonstrated that emotion could move an individual to action, it also ignited the hearts of advocates who helped to campaign against whaling. It was an event that led to the transition of societies view on whaling.

One other emotionally impacting event was the materialisation of documentary Blackfish. Within the documentary, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite explored the relationship between SeaWorld trainers and orca whales, demonstrating the emotional bonds that grew as the trainers and whales interacted with each other. As the SeaWorld trainers went through different experiences with the orcas held in captivity, their views about keeping them confined began to shift, deepening into emotions of pity and sympathy. Some trainers deliberately continued to work at these marine parks because of these emotions, stating that they felt they needed to stay to take care of the animals the best they could in what can only be described as an unnatural situation.

What arose from the viewing of this documentary was a shift in public opinion about SeaWorld, leading to a dramatic drop in admissions. But what also occurred is what can only be called a victory, part of one at least. An article by ABC News (2016) has reported that SeaWorld has decided to: put an end to its popular orca entertainment shows, stop its breeding programs regarding the orcas, and that the remaining whales would be the parks last.

With developments like these, can we really say emotions do not matter? Or that emotion cannot impact and facilitate a change in society values? Or that emotion doesn’t influence historical events? Who can say? But it must surely have its place.


ABC News 2016, SeaWorld Orca Show Ban Credited to Work of Blackfish Documentary Maker, ABC News, viewed 24 March 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-18/blackfish-documentary-credited-with-seaworld-orca-decision/7256978

Armstrong, P 2013, ‘Cetaceans and Sentiment,’ in L Elizabeth, Y Watt, C Freeman, Considering Animals, Ashgate, pp. 169-182.

Zelko, F 2013, The Whale that Inspired Greenpeace, OUPblog, viewed 24 March 2016, http://blog.oup.com/2013/09/greenpeace-origin-killer-whale-skana/


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