Stable vices refer to odd, obsessive, aggressive, and self-destructive behaviors that horses sometimes exhibit in captivity. It’s not a huge mystery to figure out why a social animal like a horse might develop anti-social behavior in cases where it’s not kept with other horses or otherwise poorly treated. But, as I’ve written before, the prevalence of stable vices can be examined at multiple levels. It certainly can be found in many other social organisms kept in captivity, as the very anti-social captive whales discussed below indicate. There are certainly moral and ethical issues that need to be considered when keeping any animals in captivity, and this is often becomes the main focus of discussions about stable vices. But it’s a mistake to say that humans are only the perpetrators of the crime.

We may be victims of stable vices too. I’m not talking simply about the trauma that a captor may experience upon seeing their captive suffer, nor the direct injuries or deaths of humans caused by mad captive animals, but that we are quite literally driven to odd, obsessive, aggressive, and self-destructive behaviors as a result of our far too rapid transition from our ancestral environment to our modern lives.

To appreciate our own stable vices, it may help to shift our frame of reference from horses, which are easy for us to think of–depending on your point of view–as beasts of burden, victims, or loyal animal companions, but not exactly as kin. That distinction is lessened when we talk about whales. We know intellectually that whales are highly intelligent, creative, communicative, and caring, but almost everyone who has been in close contact with them feels some level of kinship—a connection that is deeper than companionship. Evidence of stable vices in a creature as improbably intelligent, emotive, powerful, and strange as us pushes to reconsider our own vulnerability.

That is likely why the new movie Blackfish, a documentary about orca whales in captivity at SeaWorld parks, has made such a powerful impact. The movie, built around the tragic death of a SeaWorld trainer in the jaws of a captive male orca who had killed a trainer at a different marine park years earlier, mostly relies on the accounts of former SeaWorld trainers and orca scientists to document the suffering, and unpredictability, experienced by whales in captivity. All the symptoms of stable vices are clearly apparent in the captive whales—they attack one another (rarely seen in wild pods), they occasionally attack trainers (something never witnessed with humans and wild orcas), and the dorsal fins of all males in captivity droop down pathetically (something scientists in the film claim only occurs in 1% of wild males).

Although the writers have commented that they didn’t want to preach, but let the audience decide how they felt about parks that keep orcas captive, it seems quite impossible to see the movie and leave thinking that that it’s still ok that we keep these animals in cement tanks a fraction of the size of their home range. Many of the things that we recognize as core values in our own lives–like kinship, culture, communication, and emotionality–have already been demonstrated in the yet young and incomplete field of orca science. All of those things are clearly ripped apart when you take unrelated whales and put them in a small tank together.

The most haunting scenes in the movie come from witnesses to the beginning and the end of the process of getting wild orcas to successfully reproduce in captivity. In one scene, a wild-haired man with a thick beard and haunted eyes—you might describe him as an “old salt”– talks about herding and separating young orcas from their families in the wild coast off Washington in the early 1970s (shortly thereafter SeaWorld was banned from taking whales from Washington). Although he claims he fought in revolutions in Central America, he says with tears in his eyes that capturing the whale was the worst thing he had ever done in his life, likening it to kidnapping a child. In another scene, reflecting the more recent past, a former trainer describes the trauma of a captive mother whale when her 4 year old calf is forcibly taken from her to be shipped to another SeaWorld facility. This mother began making vocalizations that none of the trainers had heard before, in frequencies that suggested they were designed for long-distance communication—an effective strategy for finding a lost baby in the wild open sea, but heartbreakingly ineffective when you are stuck in a cement tank.

Scientists like John Tooby and Leda Cosmeides are starting to piece together how our modern human behaviors and beliefs can be relics of our ancestral environment, hopelessly out of sync with the world we live in now. A simple example could be our obsessive consumption of sugars and fats. In the ancestral environment, when gathering any amount of sugar or fat was extremely costly, we never had a reason to develop a shut-off valve for their consumption. We certainly developed shut off systems for other dangers, like keeping your hand in a fire, but we just never got enough of sugar and fat to warrant spending the energy on an automatic system for regulating their intake. Fast forward (literally, in evolutionary time) to today’s world where the price of sugar and fat has dropped to almost nothing (right now if I go hunting and gathering at my local Circle K in Tucson, I can get 44 ounces of Mountain Dew, which rewards me with 170 grams of sugar, for just 89 cents, or about half a cent per gram) and we can literally poison ourselves to death on the stuff with virtually no process in our body or brain telling us to stop.

So we could argue that obesity and diabetes are our own stable vices, manifestations of being trapped in a modern world where life (at least the parts of it that have to do with obtaining calories) is too easy. More complex behaviors we exhibit, like depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and suicidal tendencies, may also be manifestations of stable vices, but untangling the alternate roles of our own deep evolutionary legacy, heritable genetic traits (like genes linked with a propensity toward obesity or depression), and more proximal environmental factors (an abusive parent, growing up in poverty) is a difficult task.

At the very least, we should stop pretending that living the way we do now is ‘normal’ for humans, just as we are starting to realize that there’s nothing normal about an orca living among strangers in a pool and forced to do ridiculous tricks in front of thousands of screaming kids to get food. In his brilliant analysis of Blackfish writer Andrew O’Hehir suggests that “our awareness of the complexity of the animal world continues to evolve” and along with it, our tolerance for pulling complex creatures from their complex natural environments. In this light, the hyper-gleeful SeaWorld ad clips peppered throughout Blackfish provide a poignant contrast to this evolving view. Likewise, our view of our own species’ path to where it is now is evolving, such that viewing our apparent dominance over evolutionary forces as an absolute victory seems as out of touch as a dancing killer whale in a swimming pool.

Published On: August 19, 2013

Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist at the Institute of the Environment at University of Arizona. Rafe’s research includes everything from the historical and current sizes of intertidal gastropods (snails) to developing better ideas for national security, based on natural security systems. He is particularly interested in the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California, its ecological history, and the fascinating people past and present who have lived, worked, researched and journeyed there.

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