(Un)Affordable Animals

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(Un)Affordable Animals

By Ken Shapiro, PhD, on Animals and Society Institute
April 2010

When the captive orca uses the food fed to him by his captor as bait to secure his own food, he is acting to restore his agency. Warkentin goes on to suggest that his action is also an "expression of resistance."

The recent incident involving the captive orca, Tilikum, and a trainer raises the question of agency in nonhuman animals, itself the subject of the most recent volume of the ASI Human-Animal Studies Book Series (McFarland and Hediger, Animals and Agency, 2009). The following comments borrow heavily from Warkentin's contribution to that edited volume ("Whale agency: Affordances and active resistances in captive environments").

Warkentin relates a series of incidents that took place in Marineland, Canada. A captive orca whale spit fish, given to him by his human captors, to the surface of the pool. When a gull tried to eat the fish, the orca seized the gull. Subsequently, several other individual orcas were observed engaged in the same activity.

Agency implies the capacity for autonomous activity, where activity is behavior that individual makes happen or chooses. The concepts in most theories of animal behavior do not permit such a robust notion of activity (cf. instinct- and stimulus/response-based theories). Affordance," first described by Gibson (The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception) is Warkentin's candidate for one that does. Affordances are "opportunities for action." The chair affords the opportunity, potential, or possibility of sitting; the tree affords climbing; the pool swimming. Affordances also describe interaction with others. The presence of another individual could afford the next meal or someone to groom or be groomed by. The wall of the pool both permits and blocks some possible actions, both for those in and out of the pool. In these terms, an individual animal's world (umwelt) consists of the continually changing combination of that animal's capabilities and the environment, natural or artificial, available to him or her.

The world of a captive animal is greatly reduced in the affordances available to him. He is typically fed rather than afforded, given the opportunity to secure, his own food. This reduction in possible autonomous activity is a reduction in agency.

Returning to the earlier example, when the captive orca uses the food fed to him by his captor as bait to secure his own food, he is acting to restore his agency. Warkentin goes on to suggest that his action is also an "expression of resistance."

I suggest that this set of ideas provides a helpful framework as we struggle to understand and take remedial action with respect to the incident at Sea World.