PETA, orca ‘enslavement’ and Christian concern for animals

Orca (killer whale) show at Sea World

PETA sued on behalf of five orca (killer whales) that it says are enslaved at Sea World (io9 image)

Here in the Bible Belt, there are few things that Christian people find more entertaining than organizations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). We’ve read our Bibles and we know God gave us dominion over creation. If we want to teach four-ton orcas (“killer whales”) to leap, splash, and otherwise entertain tourists in the name of “conservation education,” why not?

So when PETA tried to have a federal court label the orcas’ service as “enslavement” under the 13th amendment, we pretty much took another swig of sweet tea and sniggered.

Down at the church, a few of the old-timers – the ones who were “sword drill” champions in the day – got down to chapter and verse.

What they found was a little surprising.

First, as we all know, the Bible discusses slavery at great length (Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, plus Colossians and Ephesians). In one particularly sly letter, the Apostle Paul urges a slave owner to free his slave, Onessimus, because he has become “a fellow man and brother in the Lord.” Paul then notes that he will soon drop by for a visit (Philemon 1:22). Just checking.

None of this even hints that animals could be enslaved by people. But the Bible does indicate that God has great concern for animals and their work:

  • You  can take a baby animal away from its mother – removing an egg or baby from a bird’s nest – but when you do, you must not disturb the mother, “that it may go well with you and you may have a long life” (Deut. 22:7).  That is to say: when we protect a mother bird, we gain the same blessing from God as when we honor our human parents.
  • Animals get a day off every week. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord … On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter … nor your animals …” (Exod. 20:10).
  • We are  supposed to help animals that have been excessively burdened. Whether a friend or an enemy overloaded the beast to the point of collapse, you’re to help them get the animal up (Deut. 22:4, Exod. 23:5).

And in one of the more often quoted comments about the value God places on animals, God explains his forgiveness of the city of Nineveh, after it turns from its own gods to Yahweh, in this way:

“(S)hould I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people … and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11)

At least as we think about things here in the Bible Belt, slavery remains a matter of human relations. But animals must be treated with great respect, “that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.”

That means PETA has raised a good question of Biblical ethics. Is it respectful to keep an animal, whose God-given nature is to swim at a speedy 30 mph, in a tank where it can barely turn around?

At SeaWorld and other marinas, trainers know that orcas frustrated in captivity may “take out” their rage fatally. One SeaWorld orca, Tillikum, has been implicated in three human deaths, the most recent barely a year ago. Trainers can’t be confident that they “may have a long life.”

So while PETA’s attempt to protect the orcas by way of the Bill of Rights may be flawed, in the Bible Belt, we know that God is concerned about the orcas and their trainers. Why would he not be? Just as he was about that great city Nineveh, its people … and all its animals.

And who knows? That stranger that Shamu is entertaining unaware, there in the front row under the splash poncho, could be Jesus. Just stopping in for a visit. Just checking.

Do you think marine shows and circuses are bad for the animals that work in them?  Why or why not?

See this post on the opinion page of the News and Observer on Saturday, February 11, 2012!

About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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One Response to PETA, orca ‘enslavement’ and Christian concern for animals

  1. Heidi Smid says:

    What interesting thoughts Carlene! I had to chuckle about the Bible Belt references, because you and I both are like (forgive the pun) fish out of water in this part of the country – or at least, like fish in a tank that feels way too tight for comfort. Hard for me to move and even turn around some days, where I am here on the buckle of the Bible belt (at least, that’s how I’ve come to think of it!). Thanks for the perspective on this.

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