Hello? Hello Wikie!

To say ‘hello’ is nothing special to us–but, if you’re an orca, it’s news! Wikie, an orca in Antibes, France, can say ‘hello’, he can count to three, and say “bye bye”. Maybe, if you are very credulous and you listen very carefully, you’ll hear Wikie chattering away in some human words. He has a lot to say about us.

Beluga, open mouth
“Beluga whales at Vancouver Aquarium”, postcard nd, John Roberts photo

We can speculate what orcas would say with their ‘gift’ for human speech. Kids visiting the aquarium might hear them say “Thanks for keeping me in this microscopic tank instead of letting me live in the wide ocean!” “Thanks for making me do tricks so I can have food.” “Thanks for the pneumonia, which has taken so many of my family!” I can’t help but guess what Moby Dick would say to Ahab–but Moby is not an orca and nobody has tested Sperm Whales yet.

Just for a moment, what does Wikie’s ‘hello’ tell us not so much about them, but about us? The story would not make it to the news if Wikie could moo like cows, or honk like geese, although that could equally demonstrate his vocal range

Wikie’s ‘hello’ is impressive, no question. It shows that orcas can modulate their sound to a surprising degree.  It can help us understand their individual versatility as they adopt and adapt to the dialects of other orca groups. This is useful, but it doesn’t mean a lot in the bigger picture.Researchers are not claiming that Wikie is calling out ‘hello’ to us like our human neighbour. Instead, Wikie imitates the trainers’ endless but euphoric sounds, their prompting gestures, a fish reward, and performs a whale trick in the process.

Beluga, postcard, aquarium, animal performance,
“Beluga White Whales” Vancouver Aquarium, postcard, nd, David Watson photo

It’s almost impossible for any of us not to feel welcomed by an enthusiastic animal greeting. We talk to our dogs and we hear them chat back. People with pets live longer because they have company. With all that animal warmth we feel that humans and animals are part of one family. Hearing them speak like a human is a threshold. Some animals don’t talk, like snakes, and are more foreign to us. Some do. Whales are known to be intelligent, and they speak, especially belugas and dolphins, and now orcas.

It’s tautological. Instead of saying that intelligent beings talk, we say that talking animals are intelligent. Neither statement is accurate anyway, but the second is particularly facile.

Why does an animal ‘speaking’ human impress us so much? There is no News of people ‘speaking’ like a dolphin. No one expects humans to learn Orca, it seems. ‘Talking’ orca would be far beyond our vocal range and articulation.

SeaWorld, Shamu, 1970s publicity

Orcas are an intelligent species which apparently recognizes an even more dominant, intelligent species–people. It pays to please predators; Wikie lives in a tiny whale pool entertaining humans and getting food. People are patiently teaching them to entertain humans. People speak their own language, but it is a language of power.

This approach goes further. There has been a lot of writing about the intelligence of animals recently, an intelligence of their own (1).  This look at animal intelligence is not exactly new. In 1974, Thomas Nagel’s essay, “What is it Like to be a Bat”, meant a lot to those interested in animal experience  (1974) (2). Bats, or orcas for that matter, are intelligent, but the bat’s experience is completely different from the orca’s. Intelligence comes from our subjective experience. We are made differently; we do completely different things. We don’t experience the same world and so it’s impossible for us to share a mental state. Do we think orcas and humans can communicate enough to say ‘hello’, even if they don’t live in the same universe?

Visitors are delighted to see talking orca.  The message is mixed for us, and it’s part of the circus tradition. There is the ‘wild whale’ character. He or she is huge, turbo-fast, spectacular, and fearsomely equipped with terrifying teeth. Then there is the ‘tame whale’ which displays how humans can train these wild whales to become docile performers. Killer WhaleTame whales perform astounding tricks, they give rides, they balance acrobatic trainers on their noses, but they seldom attack fragile humans (Tilikum, an exception, killed three).

We learn a lot, about them and about us, when we listen to animals–‘Hello’ ‘Hello’?

 

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Notes:

For the overview story on Wikie: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2018/01/30/worlds-first-talking-killer-whale-wikie-orca-learns-say-hello/

1. There are many sources, but a few will give you the gist. Charles Foster, Being a Best: Adventures Across the Species Divide (2016), Jakob von Uexkull, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans with A Theory of Meaning (1934), Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds:  The Octopus, The Sea, The Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016)–there are far too many to list. We could all contribute to a bibliography with brief description for Captivatinganimals.org. See Contact.

2 Thomas Nagel, “What is it Like to Be a Bat”, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 435-450

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