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The Grey of Mental Wellbeing - Of Orcas and Men

As orca welfare-ists, scientists and conservationists, we are encouraged to conform to certain rules to ensure our research and reports are robust and valid, with no grey areas. Even education by scientists can be frowned upon

Until a time when it is recognised life is not a box without holes and no overlap it will be increasingly difficult to reconnect people with each other, and to carry through that connection with other species we may not understand or relate to at all.

I presented at a human behaviour change for animal welfare conference two years ago and I asked my audience to raise their hands if they had ever or knew someone who had ever suffered from poor mental health. Of course, if captive orcas were present, they likely (based on scientific welfare indicators) would have all raised their fins.

But there is still a stigma attached to mental health. It still frightens people and so only reluctantly did I see hands rise around the silent auditorium.

Today I am stepping outside of the box and away from the stigma and I am raising my hand alone.

Poor mental welfare arises from a lack of biological needs being met. Whether they be physical, mental or emotional. When these needs are not met, it can and inevitably does over long-term periods, lead to suffering; to a disruption of inner peace; a change in behaviour; even physical self-harm and suicidal ideation.

"Oh, but she was such a happy, strong girl." Or "that whale used to be so placcid and would love attention."

We don't really know what is going on inside anyone's minds - how can we when we often do not understand our own?

Different personalities appear to cope better with that inner conflict or suffering. Take these orcas for example: Wild-born captive orca Lolita currently held in the Miami Seaquarium in the USA has survived with little conflict in her small, concrete environment for decades.

Conversely, orcas like Tilikum (a wild-born orca formlerly at SeaWorld, Florida in the USA, now deceased) and Keto (a captive-born male formerly on loan by SeaWorld and now under ownership of Loro Parque in Tenerife, Spain), did/does not cope so well.

As these orcas dragged, injured and drowned their trainers, it is symbolic of what many of us humans do to each other when we are panicked, frightened, angry and desperate for a way out. We grab on for dear life to our nearest human life rafts. And we often drown them too, metaphorically speaking.

At the time of the human behaviour change for animal welfare conference, I presented on the possible social causation of our behaviour change towards the issue of orca captivity and why this may be driving such huge changes for these mammals. 

In an earlier article I wrote

"What if the concrete tank were society? The circus tricks were an unfulfilling job that has no real meaning in the grand scheme of life… The backrubs, the ball to play with, the fish, are the money you need to live? Only, you are never paid quite enough. So you are trapped in this endless cycle, swimming circles day after day. Surrounded by concrete and not wanting to make eye contact in case it is taken the wrong way. Hoping above all hope that you hold a winning lottery ticket, or that a stranger will appear out of nowhere, validating your existence and whisking you off to someplace else."

There has been so much admirable focus on changing ourselves to better the lives of these sentient animals who are suffering at our hands.

But what about changing ourselves for ourselves, to better our own feelings of self-worth and validation as individuals? Would you even know where to begin or how to seek help to achieve that? 

If orca captivity is a symptom of a bigger problem as I recognised it might be two years ago, I guess we must ask: When and how are we going to get to the root of it, first alone and then together? 

After all, as many quotes say, to help the world we must begin first by helping ourselves...

Watch the full presentation here: