Whale Tale: AFA Staffer Says Bible Mandates Death For SeaWorld Orca
Rob Boston printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 12:52:53 PM EST
On Feb. 24, a tragedy occurred at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. A six-ton killer whale known as Tillikum pulled trainer Dawn Brancheau underwater to her death in front of a crowd of horrified spectators watching a show.

Brancheau's tragic death has led to some soul searching: What should be done with Tillikum? Is it ever appropriate to keep killer whales (also known as orcas) in captivity? Is it right to expect these animals to perform for our amusement?

Relatively few people are wondering what the Bible says about the matter. Luckily, the American Family Association (AFA), the Rev. Donald Wildmon's Tupelo, Miss.-based Religious Right outfit, is on the case.

Bryan Fischer, the AFA's director of issue analysis for government and public policy, is seriously arguing on a blog that the Bible mandates that Tillikum be put to death.

Fischer noted that Tillikum had killed another trainer at a Canadian aquarium in 1991 and a man who jumped into the whale's enclosure at SeaWorld in 1999. The whale should have been killed in 1991, Fischer wrote, because the Book of Exodus requires the execution of any animal that kills a human being.

"If the counsel of the Judeo-Christian tradition had been followed, Tillikum would have been put out of everyone's misery back in 1991 and would not have had the opportunity to claim two more human lives," Fischer wrote.

Fischer cites Exodus 21:28, which states, "If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall go unpunished."  

 "So, your animal kills somebody, your moral responsibility is to put that animal to death," Fischer insisted. "You have no moral culpability in the death, because you didn't know the animal was going to go postal on somebody."

Furthermore, Fischer opines, because Tillikum killed more than once, his owner is now culpable and can be executed as well.

When a friend sent me this column a few days ago, I thought it might be a satire or maybe the work of someone trying to embarrass the AFA. Perhaps some hackers had broken into the AFA's Web site and posted this. It's that kooky. The AFA is extreme - but this extreme?

So I called Fischer to ask. He called me back promptly to confirm that he wrote the piece and it's not intended as satire. He was cheerful and said he appreciated my checking.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Fischer is quite extreme. I heard him speak last fall at the Family Research Council's "Values Voter Summit." He explained to the crowd that Adolf Hitler came up with the separation of church and state and opined that states and local governments don't have to abide by the First Amendment.

Fischer's column has more than a whiff of Christian Reconstructionism about it. Reconstructionists, you might recall, insist that every jot and tittle of Old Testament law be binding on modern society. Thus, gay people, fornicators, those who worship "false gods" or anyone who engages in "witchcraft" (among other things) would merit the death penalty.

Sometimes people ask me why we get so worked up about the Religious Right here at Americans United. Fischer's column, as daft as it is, is a good answer to that question. Here's a guy who wants to kill (by stoning, yet!) a 12,000-pound whale that he believes is guilty of murder - all because of a blind adherence to his fundamentalist reading of the Bible.

If this is the fate that awaits Tillikum in AFA's vision of a perfect society, what do you think is going to happen to you the next time you offend "biblical law"?

Rev. Wildmon might want to consider the unintended consequences of Biblical literalism: if Tillikum is to be killed by stoning, seems to me Rev. Wildmon would have to be standing close enough to the animal to hit it with a suitably large rock. So lets see, a 12,000 pound killer whale vs. a 200 pound man with a large rock? Based on immediate, past experience, my money is on Tillikum. I say this with no disrespect to the late Ms. Brancheau, who literally put her life on the line to give us "civilized" suburbanites a brief look at a powerful but endangered animal. Forgive me for wishing for more people like Ms. Brancheau, and fewer like the Rev. Wild.mon

by markjandrews on Fri Mar 05, 2010 at 01:33:13 PM EST

I find myself in the odd position of sort of agreeing in a broad way, with the AFA. Not based on the Bible, but just out of respect for human life; I understand that this is the 3rd person that this Orca has killed. If that is right, then how many more people will die before it is put down?

I say turn it loose and if it dies, it dies. It will die anyway eventually, and it would only add to the tragedy if it kills another person.

by COinMS on Sat Mar 06, 2010 at 08:53:40 AM EST

This Orca has killed -- and I would suggest that a motive of self-defense should be considered in some of the cases. And certainly human error was involved. The Orca was taken from its natural habitat, confined in much smaller spaces, deprived of its natural community, and put through its paces in a manner which, for all we know, it might have felt as we would feel torture. If it were to be released back to its natural habitat, respect and honor would require that be done with care and such assistance as it needed to return safely -- not just dumped to live or die. In any case, the conditions of its imprisonment, and that of others of its kind, merits reconsideration, particularly in light of the possibility that it is more sentient than it has been given credit for. Those who work with Orca -- and similar species -- are on notice to treat them with caution and respect.

by Khalila RedBird on Sat Mar 06, 2010 at 07:07:02 PM EST

Down Rob, boy! Down! You may not like the concept but there are laws on the book which may well give cause to either demand release or outright order the destruction by death of the killer whale.  

Sever damages might also be awarded under the circumstances you report.  

I suggest you review the below website and other related sources of legal information.

The Vet tells me to toss you two bones and make sure you get a good night's rest, Rob.  That's a good boy.  Down ! Down! That's all right.  Good boy ... good boy!

Most sincerely, Avrahaum


by avrahaum on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 05:05:32 PM EST

As someone who's spent some time in the wild with the beasts (courtesy of Dave Neiwert, who turned me onto kayaking with them), I need to make two points strongly. (I'm even putting them in boldface.)

1. There is no record of a human being ever being killed by an orca in the wild.

2. Keeping orcas in captivity makes them crazy.

This poor critter has been pushed to the limit by his experience in captivity, and is making his anguish clear in no uncertain terms. No, I am not anthropomorphizing: Orcas, along with their dolphin kindred, are quite possibly the second most intelligent animals on earth after us. They are capable of not only language, but dialects within a language; they are tool-using; and they recognize broad and complex kinship ties (aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents) within their pods.

Putting an animal like this in a small, isolated pool for life is the equivalent of putting a human in a tiny solitary confinement cell and leaving them there forever. We are not at all surprised when years of that make people crazy and aggressive; but for some reason, we're stunned that this particular orca is fighting back the only way he can -- and seems likely to keep fighting back until we get the point.

Given how extremely endangered orcas are, destroying him when there are other options would be a crime against the species and the few remaining ecosystems that sustain them. On the other hand, there's also the possibility that he could bring this behavior home to the wild and teach it to others, putting an end to the long detente between people and orcas. (They're social enough that this is possible.) His handlers are facing a tough choice -- but they need to make it, and soon.

Whatever they decide, keeping him is not an option.

by Mrs Robinson on Sun Mar 07, 2010 at 02:24:36 PM EST

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