On The Human Wish To Be An Orca

» May 28th, 2014

Here is what an orca whale eats, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “a wide range of prey, including fish, seals, and big whales such as blue whales.” They also consume herring, cod, squid, and octopus. They are actually the largest known marine mammals to kill and eat other mammals, consuming 375-500 pounds of food a day.

In no way bound to the ethical standards of humans, they are, nonetheless, massive destroyers of sentient life. They have to be in order to live. But they don’t, as it turns out, eat humans. Not because they take pity on us. But because we’re too bony and don’t smell right. Plus, they never see us in the wild. We generally don’t swim in their waters.

I mention these details not as a lead-in into yet another story on SeaWorld, but as an attempt to make sense of Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson’s truly bizarre recent claim that, “I would rather have been born an orca.” Evidently he’s serious. “No kidding,” he writes, “I really would.”

Why would he want to be an orca?  Humans, so quick to the pull the trigger on each other, have dismayed Masson so thoroughly—we killed 200 million of our own in the 2oth century–that he wants to join the orca clan because  orcas have “killed exactly zero of their kind.” In this respect—the fact that they spare their own—he adores their “gentle lives.” Intended to be a plea for compassion, Masson’s gambit is really an expression of self-preservation and moral exoneration.

First the self-preservation. Masson’s main problem with humans, at least as he articulates it in the article, is that we kill other humans. This intra-species violence is why he wants to jump ship from humanity and join the “gentle” orca community, a species that shreds to death some of the smartest creatures alive and eats their children. Note that Masson doesn’t condemn humans for killing other species, as orcas do (and he would get to do as an orca), but only for killing each other. So the claim, although hardly his intention, ultimately suggests that Masson wants to leave the human world and join the orcas because he’d be safer and maybe live longer.

Being an orca would also let Masson off the ethical hook, allowing him to become a guiltless shredder of ocean animals while garnering respect from Masson-types as peace-lovers for not killing their own (or humans). In his tirade against his own, Masson writes, “There may be no orca heroes, but nor are there orca psychopaths . . .” What Masson fails to acknowledge is that, because there are no orca psychopaths, there are also no orca animal rights activists. There are no orcas who will stand up and say, “stop the slaughter of our octopi brethren!”

So, if Masson were an orca he would a) destroy blue whales while b) bearing none of the ethical responsibility for doing so. As a human, though, he admirably has assumed the burden of responsibility (writing wonderful books on animals), a burden that he would, if his wish came true, toss off as casually as he did this silly article.


27 Responses to On The Human Wish To Be An Orca

  1. Teresa Wagner says:

    I wonder if he’s ever seen transient orcas brutally kill gray whales. . . killing a baby in front of a mother, then attacking the mother, eating tongue then moving on as the mother bleeds to death. I love orcas. Very much. But his argument about why he wants to be one is truly laughable. If he wants to come back as a “gentle” being he should consider coming as a rabbit or perhaps a deer. I wonder if he thinks no one else does simple research or knows basic facts about wild orcas.

  2. John Maher says:

    Masson’s work contains many rhetorical flourishes and although he personally annoys me to the point of dismissiveness (as he must have also done to Janet Malcolm), he is highly intelligent and creative, especially for one who writes on psychiatry. He probably intended his phrasing to embody a Deleuzian sense of ‘becoming Orca’. If Masson wants to be an Orca I applaud, but I also want to read no more. He should not be so certain about the killing zero of their kind reference as I suspect that might be otherwise even if undocumented and certainly there is intra Orca display and aggression. Even so, who cares? Killing is inevitable and not to be thought of as a shibboleth as there are many perfectly valid evolutionary reasons for killing one’s own kind. Maybe the ethic for both intra and inter species killing is species survival as a whole rather than an ethic of anthropocentric sacredness of individual lives protected onto other species.

    If anyone wants to do an unpaid 3 month field ethology internship in Chile watching Orcas from a rubber dinghy I know of just such a program where you may apply. This offer is open to you too Jefferey if you get bored walking the dogs in Golden Gate Park.

  3. Diane says:

    “So the claim, although hardly his intention, ultimately suggests that Masson wants to leave the human world and join the orcas because he’d be safer and maybe live longer.”

    This sentence is nonsensical. It is clearly not Masson’s intent, as you even state, so why attribute this idea to him at all? He is also keenly aware of the damage human beings do to Orcas. Masson has been an ethical vegan for years. He has done a great deal for animals through his writing, which has contributed greatly to my own evolution in thinking about animals. He does not deserve this silly response from you.

    • James says:

      Silly?! He’s the one who said he wants to be an orca (“no kidding”). Not me. And, if I recall, he was perfectly happy to forgo his ethical veganism when biking through Italy and encountering pasta made with eggs. True. The New York Times even said so.

      • Mountain says:

        Why is it silly to want to be an Orca? Why is it silly to state that preference? I don’t share that preference or the desire to proclaim it, but what of it? As long as they aren’t hurting someone, I thought we were supposed to respect people’s preferences, or at least tolerate them.

        Maybe he’s tired of the omnivore’s dilemma. And liberated from the burden of ethical decision-making, perhaps he’d rather be the hunter than the hunted.

        I don’t think I’d trade being human for anything, but if I were to be another species, I’d still want to be an omnivore. A pig or a raccoon or a coyote; either way, I prefer the freedom of choosing. Some prefer freedom from choosing.

        • James says:

          It’s silly because a) it can’t happen, and b) it’s counter to the goals JMM espouses. That said, we have a right to be silly. I’m not saying he wasn’t free to declare himself an orca. He can declare himself a stalk of asparagus for all I care. It’s still damn silly.

          • Mountain says:

            He didn’t declare himself an Orca. That would have been silly*. He declared that he wished he had been born one. Such a wish is futile, but I don’t see how it’s silly. Maybe it is, but I don’t see it.

            As for it running counter to the goals he espouses, do vegans hold Orcas responsible for the harm they cause? Were he an Orca, he would still cause harm in the world, but it would flow from his nature rather than from his decisions.

            *Would it, actually, have been silly had he claimed to be an Orca? We used to consider it silly when someone who, in all outward appearance, was a man declared herself to be a woman. Now we give respect and weight to such a claim. How is that different from someone who, in all outward appearance, is a human declares himself to be an Orca? Is a transspecies claim less acceptable than a transgender claim?

          • Rhys Southan says:

            Mountain said, “Is a transspecies claim less acceptable than a transgender claim?”

            There is a debate about this. Some people call themselves “Otherkins”:


            There is also species dysphoria:


          • Teresa Wagner says:

            There is also the issue of reincarnation, which millions of humans believe in. Sometimes, people remember past lives as other species and yearn to be in that form again.

      • Diane says:

        So you seem to want to avoid Masson’s full quote on why he expected to eat pasta in Italy – in 2009! – or I’ve offended you in some other way (perhaps by pointing out your previous praise of fishing). It’s your website, so it’s your decision.

        The full quote would enrage some vegans, and others would view it with compassion. Your version, however, is intellectually dishonest, which is why I won’t be reading your website or books anymore.

        • Diane says:

          Fascinating. You don’t print the two replies I sent with Masson’s full quote, but you put up this one, which looks ridiculous out of context.

  4. Layne says:

    This discussion makes me think again (as I do daily) about my cat, whom I struggle to keep to a vegan diet. (Scientifically formulated.)We have come to a truce on that score as long as he is indoors. But he also goes outdoors daily, which bothers my conscience. I know he would be unhappy to be inside all the time, but I also know he hunts.

    Is there anyone else with this dilemma?

    • Mountain says:

      I apologize if this sounds rude, but what gives you the right to impose your preferences on your cat? He’s a sentient being; he makes his own decisions. The ethical consequences are his, not yours.

      When interacting we necessarily impose on them, perhaps to prevent them from being run over or perhaps to keep a neighbor happy. But we should impose as little as possible. There’s nothing wrong with providing him only vegan food; after all, it’s your gift to him. But trying to stop him from hunting is a needless imposition, an unnecessary imprisonment of another sentient being.

    • Teresa Wagner says:

      I understand and share your dilemma Layne. Thank you for sharing your situation.

  5. Taylor says:

    I imagine this is the life he imagines when he imagines being an orca:

    Of course, a cetacean life in captivity is something else:

  6. Kimberley Mae Richardson says:

    The difference between an orca and a human is that we know better and have wonderful access to healthy vegan food. I am completely ashamed to be a member if the human species. Despite my best efforts, I struggle to convert people I meet to veganism. Despite my best efforts I struge to limit my impact upon this planet, never mind make up for the damage I have done in 63 years on this planet. I understand that somebody might want to be anything other than human. Being human is a massive cross to bear if you have understanding and compassion. If I had the choice I would never have been born despite having two children who enjoy life (and came to veganism perhaps by my example but definitely not because of my demands). To assuage my guilt I would be any other animal rather than human so I understand why somebody might want to be an orca.

    • James says:

      It strikes me as paradoxical to want to improve the lives of animals while loathing the only species that’s capable of making choices to accomplish that goal. Look at it this way: you are focussing on the negative actions of humans and, on the basis of those actions, declaring yourself ashamed to be human. But what if you focussed on the positive actions that so many humans take? On that basis, you could bury at least some of your shame and maybe be a more effective advocate for animals.

      • Teresa Wagner says:

        Not everyone experiences and attempts to resolve life’s moral and emotional dilemmas with a purely intellectual, rational approach. Kimberly has described a very genuine sense of guilt that many animal lovers and animal rights people experience. The depth of such feelings doesn’t go away by being told to “focus on the positive.” And those of us listening do well to offer empathy for others’ pain, and respectfully allow them to work it out in their own way, rather than impose an intellectual solution that may work for us. It takes lots of introspection and processing to deal with and comes to terms with such feelings. And that being said, Kimberly or any of us with such feelings may still conclude–after tons of processing AND effective advocacy for animals–that they may prefer to be something other than human. Just because someone has this preference doesn’t mean that they are not and cannot be an “effective advocate” for animals.

        • James says:

          Of course. My response wasn’t “purely intellectual.” By suggesting that someone focus on the positive, I was pointing out an alternative emotional emphasis, one that, in my opinion, might result in more effective advocacy. Potential vegans are going to be less inclined to be persuaded by a human who is wracked by guilt over being born human than one who sees the best in humanity. I did not mean to sound insensitive to the instinct of feeling bad about humanity.

  7. frances says:

    i saw on the movie BlACKFISH a video clip of orcas launching a co-ordinated attack on a seal. it was scary. they are better than people, but then every animal is.

    • James says:

      I don’t understand your comment. You’re acknowledging that orcas kill other sentient creatures, noting that it was scary, and concluding that they are still “better” than people. How, I’m wondering from your comment, are they better (other than better killers)?

      • Mountain says:

        Well, orcas certainly kill far fewer sentient beings as a species than humans do. I don’t know if that’s still true on a per-individual basis (or, for that, on a per-pound basis), but it’s certainly true of the species as a whole.

  8. Rhys Southan says:

    I could see wanting to be born of another species for selfish reasons (I bet it’s fun to be a flying squirrel), but I wouldn’t agree with a guilt-by-association motive. Would he no longer want to be an orca if he’d heard about one orca killing another orca? Why would that matter if he could be born an orca who wouldn’t kill other orcas, or might even intervene and prevent one orca from killing another? If the harms that humans commit bothers him, human was actually the best species for him to be born into because individual humans have more power to inspire change within humanity than all other animals do. (As James suggested in a comment above.)

    In that sense, orca would be a good species for him to be born into as well, but only if he had the aspiration to use his status as an orca to convince other orcas to eat plants and cause less harm.

    Moussaieff Masson wrote: “[The orca] eats what she has been taught to eat, but other than that, causes no harm to any other living being.”

    Vegans often complain that meat eaters eat animals only because they were taught to eat them (habit and tradition). Moussaieff Masson seems to be taking the opposite view here, that tradition and habit are good reasons to eat animals.

  9. Laura says:

    Orcas are obligate predators, they eat those other animals or they starve and die…they have a right to do what they do and it’s the way the system was set up…not by orcas but by some other force. People, on the other hand, can thrive on all plant foods, but they’re wanna-be predators who want all the “yummy” dead bodies but none of the risk and hard work of living in the wild using only their wits and bodies to chase down and kill and eat them raw; no firearms, etc. People are, thereby, largely deplorable, while orcas are not. That’s why Masson would prefer to be an orca, in my estimation. People don’t have to be deplorable…they can easily change and stop participating in and supporting deplorable enterprises like animal slaughter and all the rest of the subhuman customs. We can change our programming, while orcas cannot change theirs.

  10. Mountain says:

    “we killed 200 million of our own in the 20th century”

    It’s actually more than 300 million, just between democide (government killing its own people) and war. If Masson wants to rid himself of guilt by association, he needn’t switch species– he could just become an anarchist. With over 250 million dead through democide (massacres, intentional famine, rounding up in camps, etc) and nearly 50 million killed in war, governments are responsible for more than 95% of all the murders of the 20th century. In comparison, all the gun deaths by private individuals (suicides included) are a fraction of a fraction of a fraction.

    If he’s not ready to go full anarchist (I’m not), he could at least support smaller government. The bigger government gets the more likely it is to kill its own people– liberal democracies killed more than 2 million of their own people, versus more than 200 million by communist regimes.

  11. John Maher says:

    I want to be a wolf. I believe you all misunderstand Masson’s ZoÖpoetics. Wait, I am a wolf.

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