31 January 2018

killer whale has been taught by scientists to copy human speech.

The researchers were studying a 14-year-old female killer whale named Wikie, who had been taught how to copy behaviours in a previous study.

Wikie was recorded mimicking English words like “hello”, “bye bye” and “one two”, as well as the name of her trainer, Amy.

The scientists wanted to understand how capable whales are of imitating noises, so they could understand how whales learn in their natural habitat.

But what about the ethics surrounding this and does it hold any real valid research?

Campaigners were swift to use social media to voice opinions
Talking orcaTalking orcaTalking orca

Orcas are either captured from the wild, breaking up tightly knit family groups in order to bring them into captivity or bred via artificial insemination, which involved the disturbing act of a handler sexually arousing the male orca until sperm can be extracted.

Semen extraction from a captive male orca

Many wild caught orcas die en route to the marine parks or in the nets of the fishing men. Once in captivity, their home is a small, chlorinated pool, which in retrospect could be compared to a goldfish in a goldfish bowl. Most orcas will die before they are a third through their natural life and some, such as Tilikum will unleash their boredom and psychosis on their handlers.

Orcas are often kept in tiny pools like this one where as in the wild they can swim 100km in one day
Orcas are often kept in tiny pools like this one where as in the wild they can swim 100km in one day

The Born Free Foundation released a statement on their website as follows:

“Does the training undertaken by Marineland to have a ‘conversation’ with Wikie provide any value?”

The Born Free Foundation is quite clear on this subject and feel very strongly that  it does not.

“Whilst Wikie is certainly intelligent enough to copy human sounds, at the end of the day this is just another trained behaviour. Wikie does not understand what these new sounds mean and she is certainly not having a ‘conversation’ with her trainers.  It seems to us to be the sort of self-indulgent research to capture headlines but delivers little or nothing of any real value.”

“Put simply, it seems a tremendous waste of time and resources to train Wikie to make new sounds which are not in her natural repertoire.”

Wild Orca in his natural environment – the ocean

“This is extremely disappointing, given that a ban on breeding had established the only viable way  to phase out the keeping of captive whales and dolphins in the country. The previous decree had also included a condition that all facilities expand their pools by 150%.The latest announcement is, therefore, a retrograde step meaning that marine parks in France will no longer need to make even this most basic of improvements to enhance the welfare of the animals they exploit.”

Born Free’s  response to a ‘talking’ orca is the same as it is to a non-talking one – “orca do not, and never have, belonged in a barren captive environment for human entertainment and this latest ‘research’ does nothing to convince us otherwise.”

What we should now ask ourselves is; if Wikie could talk, what would she really say to us? Set me free?