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Robert Bullard

25 06 2013

Robert Bullard





Noc the Talking Whale had Something to Say

6 12 2012
What are they saying?

What are they saying?

Evidence of Beluga Intelligence Raises Questions about Captivity

NOC, the ‘talking’ beluga whale who has become posthumously famous after the release of a report revealing his speech, had the same legal standing as the computer or handheld device that you are using to read this article. After his capture from Churchill, Alberta, in Canada, he became a piece of property, owned first by the Navy and later the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF). He was used in various acoustic experiments for years and was entirely denied the right to control any aspect of his life: the right to bodily integrity; the right to privacy of any sort; and any other right which you and I (thankfully) possess.

Recently, eighteen wild belugas similarly lost their freedom. They were captured off the coast of Russia and are currently being held in a pen in the Black Sea. They could soon become the property of the Georgia Aquarium and other such facilities in the United States. The freedoms they once enjoyed – to traverse the oceans with their families; to socialize with whoever they chose; to live their lives as they wish – have been removed from them, potentially forever.

In both cases, as with every other captive cetacean on the planet, this removal of freedoms and designation as property is in the name of ‘education’, ‘science’ and ‘conservation’. Regardless of the validity of these statements, the question becomes whether the complete removal of rights from these individuals is ethically defensible. The justifications given, whether stated or implied, are that beluga whales are not capable of having emotions, complex thoughts, and do not otherwise possess those human qualities which entitle us to the basic rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. But are these justifications grounded in scientific fact? Are beluga whales indeed lacking these qualities?

There is a burgeoning body of both scientific and anecdotal evidence suggesting that there is much more to a cetacean’s brain than the captivity industry, comprised of places like SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium, might care to admit. These businesses thrive on perpetuating the image that dolphins and whales are suitable for human entertainment and as experimentation subjects. The industry openly flaunts their control over them, displaying them in shows where they are forced to perform degrading tricks every day. The industry profits from their captives to the tune of billions of dollars each year, generating significant motivation to continue withholding rights from cetaceans.

A human being is presumed innocent before being proven guilty. A sentence of jail time requires proof beyond the shadow of a doubt. If the Georgia Aquarium was made to prove that belugas have no more emotional or cognitive abilities than a footstool, they would fail, and would not be able to justify keeping them captive. The onus should be on the industry to prove, beyond a doubt, that cetaceans are nothing more than stimulus-response automatons before being condemned to concrete tanks.

NOC’s spontaneous human speech mimicry is significant in the question of whether belugas belong in captivity. To the scientists at the NMMF, it was an interesting manipulation of his vestibular air sacs and phonic lips, which they conceded as requiring significant effort on NOC’s part to accomplish.  More significantly, however, is the fact that underpinning those physical sounds was an apparent motivation – or a desire – to communicate with humans.

According to Thomas White, director of the Center for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University and author of In Defense of Dolphins – The New Moral Frontier (2007), having desires and the power to make choices in one’s life is indicative of a complex mind and of possessing a sense of self – or self-awareness. While self-awareness tests have not been conducted on beluga whales, other cetaceans with similar brain size and structure have passed these tests. There is good reason to believe that belugas would pass as well.

Contributing to the evidence of self-awareness in belugas is the fact that NOC was not imitating random sounds, like the water filtration system in his tank, or the clanging of feed buckets – he was mimicking sounds coming from humans, which could indicate that he recognized humans as being ‘other minds’. White argues that the ability to recognize other minds is “… a necessary trait of a sophisticated consciousness” and that this ability renders one vulnerable to feeling the emotional pain of being treated unfairly or cruelly at the hands of another mind: “…harm that may result from (a dolphins’) contact with humans could be intensified by the awareness that we are beings with the power to act differently, but choose not to.” Each of us has experienced this kind of exquisite pain, and it is likely that NOC felt it as well.

When asked about what could have motivated NOC to go to such great efforts to make human-like sounds, the lead author of the report, Sam Ridgeway, offered the following: “The whale often heard divers talking over underwater communication equipment… I think that vocal animals like feedback. Perhaps this figured in his motivation.” If one looks beyond this response, however, it does not take a great logical leap to suppose that perhaps NOC had something to convey to the human scientists. The fact that he repeated the word “Out” over and over, while a diver was in the tank with him, does not appear to have figured into Ridgeway’s official conclusions. It is precisely this sort of conclusion that the Georgia Aquarium is banking on – one that places beluga whales into the category of ‘property’, rather than ‘thinking, feeling, communicative being’.

A charming piece of anecdotal evidence provides a further clue into the cognitive abilities of a beluga whale. In this video the whale bobs its head to music being played outside of its tank. According to neurobiologist Aniruddh Patel, dancing, or the ability to perceive rhythms and synchronizing body movements to what is heard, is the product of a complex set of processes – one that was, until recently, among the coveted hallmarks of exclusively human abilities. The act of dancing to a beat is surprisingly complex – it requires creating and responding to a model inside one’s head in relation to what is being heard externally. It indicates the ability to predict and expect. It also indicates that belugas could be vocal learners, just like people. Vocal learning suggests evolution of complex languages – another indication of cognitive complexity.

The evidence suggests that, at the very least, there is a chance that beluga whales are intelligent, have desires, and are self-aware. Because it is impossible to prove that belugas are essentially inanimate objects, they should not be considered and treated as property. If your footstool repeated the word “Off” to you, would you still rest your feet firmly upon it? If you saw some indication that it used complex language, that it could dance, and that it wanted to dance: would you unequivocally deny it the ability to do so?

The captive cetacean industry is trying it’s best to avoid these kinds of questions, instead claiming that they “love” animals and it is through a sense of caring and concern that they must keep these beings captive. They cannot prove that cetaceans do not have emotions or intelligence, yet they are still allowed to deny all freedoms.

When a whale tells a person to get out of his tank, it is easy to think that it was some sort of strange coincidence or that it was an animal looking for ‘feedback’. But it is just as easy, and perhaps easier still, to recognize that the whale looking back at you from within the tank is another self-aware mind.

The people at the Georgia Aquarium have made up their minds about keeping belugas captive. Have you?





Drive-by Panhandling – Do I Smell a New Olympic Sport?

25 01 2011

Today I became a victim of drive-by panhandling.

I was strolling along a sidewalk crowded with people; my attention focused on dodging the foodies heading to the area’s acclaimed restaurants and maneuvering around bouncers standing dutifully at their posts by the velvet rope-enshrined entrances to the various nightclubs and strip joints that line the streets. The atmosphere was positively bustling, with the intermingling of mysterious aromas, together with the din of the ever-present traffic, all cumulating to the point of near sensory overload.

I had just finished crossing an intersection when, upon reaching the opposite side, a beat-up mauve Buick suddenly careened around the corner. A somewhat wizened woman sat perched in the passenger seat, with the window rolled down to reveal her frantic and pleading eyes. Those eyes made contact with mine, and her strangled cry elicited from the window and out onto the streets – “Can you spare a dollar?” – her siren song being cut nearly short, as the car was moving at roughly 25 kilometers an hour.

I stood for a moment, watching the taillights grow smaller as the distance between myself and the car continued to increase steadily. At first I was unsure of what to do. I did, in fact, have a dollar – was I to run after the vehicle, the bill waving in my outstretched hand like some sort of pathetic yet well-intentioned flag, as I attempted to fulfill her request? Or should I have tossed a coin into the open window, (and risk striking her face), in the same manner that one flips a hopeful penny into a wishing well or shopping mall fountain?

As is always the case when I encounter panhandlers (regular features of any cityscape these days), I brim with hippycritical emotions. On the one hand, I feel badly for these people. It is no secret that life does not deal an even deck for everyone, and those unfortunate souls simply have no access to the high cards. I myself am truly blessed, lucky beyond my wildest dreams – I am never wanting of shelter, food or clothing. I should give back, I feel this very strongly – however I am on a tight budget (very tight – I am within a relatively close distance to the poverty line), and there is no way to help them all. Some argue that every penny given by well-meaning people in actuality is supporting destructive habits although, however well-founded these claims may be, this carries with it the distinct aroma of an excuse, serving as a pardon from whatever sense of duty stirs within each one of us for our fellow man.

Needless to say, the woman’s request seemed a little unreasonable to me; however I admire her dedication. Perhaps it was her first experience being in a car for some time, and her newfound ability to reach an unprecedentedly large audience left her overwhelmed, causing her logic to take a momentary leave of absence – replaced with the sheer excitement of opportunistic possibilities that four wheels and an engine can afford. Whatever the case may be, I admire her tenacity and wish her happy hunting. May her floor mats be littered with small change and other tokens of goodwill; and may we all be truly thankful for what we have.





Baaaahhumbug

29 12 2010

Christmas makes me sad.

Since when did a time meant for family, friends and love become transformed into a monstrous, obligatory gift exchange, a time now drenched in stress and defined through commercialized products?

Products. I loathe the very word.

As a child, I looked forward to Christmas morn in anticipation of all the colorful, sparkly gifts I was sure to receive. My family never disappointed – our living room floor was hidden beneath the numerous gift-wrapped packages. My sister and I would tear through the paper gleefully and marvel at those wonderful dolls, toys and trinkets that we had seen on television, which the advertisements informed us we must acquire. And acquire we certainly did.

A hummer really shows that you really don't care.. about the planet


Over the years, the meaning of Christmas has changed. The religious origins seem to have been all but forgotten, which doesn’t necessarily bother me – however, the commercialization of this special day has glossed over the value of human relationships, of being thankful for life, and of cherishing our time on this bizarre plane of existence. I find this to be offensive on the highest order.

Christmas morning has become a dreaded time for me. I pride myself on having as few material possessions as possible: some clothing, eating utensils and perhaps some bedding. The onslaught of gifts I receive is akin to an attack on my chosen way of life, an attack on my very freedom – but I cannot verbalize this for fear of insulting my well-intentioned family and friends who, after all, are only trying to enjoy the spirit of giving. Instead I smile, obediently open each parcel and produce a reaction which I hope is taken as authentic appreciation.

I do appreciate the gesture of my family heaping presents upon me. It is their way of saying, “We love and support you; we are all in this together; we would give our lives for you” – I only wish that they did not feel it necessary to convey this with the exchange of products which, more often than not, represent the exploitation of the natural world and those less fortunate than ourselves.

I realize that I sound like a Grinch of truly epic proportions, but I believe that the Christmas spirit has lost its way. It has been commandeered by industry and now functions as a much-needed prop for our contemporary religion, the Economy. I realize that the dogma of Economic Rationality has afforded us Westernized humans with opportunity and well-being, but it does not sit well with me that we are among the very few who benefit from this arrangement.

When I see people crowding the malls and outlet stores, idling in traffic jams and shelling out their hard-earned dollars on mindless products, my heart weeps. I want to grasp people by the collar and give them a good shake – to scream this is not what life is about! into their faces. No, I would say, you do not need that new video console, nor that large flatscreen TV. Turn away from the propaganda and inwards towards your truth.

Yeah, it totally makes sense to cut down a tree to use for one month then throw away


Last year, as I attempted my Christmas shopping, I found that I could not bring myself to enter a single store. I could feel a vile reaction welling up within me at the entrance of each one, and so I abstained, instead baking cookies and brownies for everyone on my list. However, this form of protest backfired on me significantly: I discovered how unpleasant it is to be receiving without giving – the added guilt was nearly unbearable. The commercial Christmas trap has grasped me tightly within its all-consuming jaws; this year, I once again purchased my gifts (albeit from second-hand stores).

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I should quit complaining and enjoy the benefits of privilege in resigned silence. Maybe this would make me a happier person. Alas, I cannot.

Despite my negativity towards this day, I still wish everyone a merry Christmas: may you wake up every morning and be amazed at the unbelievable gifts which have been bestowed upon us, like self-awareness and the ability to love.

Peace, love, and

Happy holidays!





A night of indulgence/procrastination-turned-hippycritical extravaganza

22 11 2010

Watched this video:
“SLAVES OF THE WORLD UNITE AGAINST BANKING CARTELS DONT COMPLY”
(http://www.youtube.com/watchv=KcnJaw8otRk&feature=player_embedded).

Recommended for those who value money above… well anything really.

…followed by “For the Love of Ray J” (I’ll not provide the link on a matter of principle).

I can report little to no synaptic activity whilst watching the exploits of Ray.

RANKING: a solid 5.75, making this just a little Hippycritical.





Hybrids – Ha!

16 11 2010

About ten years ago, my family bought a Prius. It was the first in the city, and my parents beamed so brightly out of those tinted windows it was enough to qualify as a driving hazard. Yes they were proud – heck, we all were. After all, we were driving a car which occasionally ran on batteries alone! Truly, we were doing our part for the environment.

 

At that time, I was not old enough to posess my driving license (or was too afraid to try.. no I can’t lie – I took the test, failed it, and then stormed out of the DMV despite the fact that I could have re-taken it until I passed. Speaks to my useful character trait of not being able to finish things). However, just last year I obtained said elusive license, and thus began to drive the Prius. Of course, I knew that the mileage wasn’t that great – the best I could get it down to was 4.7 liters per gallon; I know this because there is a small computer screen which constantly updates this information – giving the driving experience, for me at least, a very dangerous video game-like quality. Some days, I would be crawling along at 25 clicks because any more pressure on the electronic gas pedal would kick the engine into sputtering life – and a pang, an oily, rainbow-coloured pang, would drop into my conscience like so many tailings ponds leaks.

 

Despite this, I drove. I drove in the winter, because it was too cold to bike (and if you’ve ever had the pleasure of living in an Ottawa suburb in February, you will understand). But then I drove a couple of times in the spring, because, well – there were puddles everywhere and I didn’t have fenders (those promptly disintegrated a day or so after I purchased them). Then, in the summer I also drove on occasion – because it was so damned hot and the UV index was high…

 

However, I would not consider myself an extreme driver, one who commutes 25k daily or takes the car to the grocery store just down the street. Nay; I use public transportation, despite my loathing of it; I also make good use of the wobbly awkward stilts I like to call my legs from time to time; indeed, they take me to some exciting places like across creek beds where I slip and get a soaker on the way to school. Its aaalll part of the experience.

 

However, the hypocrisy remains. I’ll have to give myself a 5.5 on the hippo scale for this one, although I expect this to diminish to a ZERO HIPOCRISY SITUATION soon enough – for I am about to embark on a journey of poverty so complete, so absolute in its inability to use cars, that I will truly embody the essence of what it means to be a human without a personal automobile.

 

Now, planes are an entirely different story…