6 min read

I Would Rather Have Been Born An Orca

(Photo sequence by Ingrid Taylar)

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is the author of many books, including the recent "Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About Human Nature."

No kidding. I really would. What sets me off can be just about any account of an atrocity, because my first thought is: no orca ever does this. The latest was reading about the "desaparecidos" in Argentina during the years of the junta, the brutal dictatorship that "disappeared," i.e., murdered some 30,000 people from 1976 until 1983. In my latest book (Beasts) I wrote about the fact that humans had killed some 200,000,000 of our own kind during the 20th century alone, and during that same time, orcas had killed exactly zero of their kind. Reading in my favorite new site, "The Dodo" about the female orca who is 103 years old, made me think about her life. She is surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She travels constantly, sometimes 100 miles in a single day. She eats what she has been taught to eat, but other than that, causes no harm to any other living being. Most definitely not to other orcas.

Is it possible to really think about the life of another creature? It is hard, and even novelists have a tough time convincing us what living as a chimp, a wolf, an elephant or a whale would be like (let alone an animal even more remote from us, such as a parrot). Still, it is something that occurs to me a lot recently, as I open my newspaper and read about Syria, and the Ukraine, and as I ponder the history of the 20th century. What is it that appeals to me most? I guess the idea of causing little if any suffering to another being. True, I try to do that as a human, but I find myself part of a species where this is hardly an ideal. My own president sees no problem in hunting down other Americans with a drone because somebody has convinced him they are worth killing and need not stand trial. My heroes, people like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden, are rare at any time in history. And many people would be happy to see them dead, just as the Germans wanted men like Primo Levi (another hero of mine) dead.

There may be no orca heroes, but nor are there orca psychopaths (unless we cage them in an overgrown bathtub for years). They go about their gentle lives without leaving enormous suffering behind them. They never seek us out to harm us, even though you might expect they would, since we kill approximately 1,400 of them every year. No orca has ever killed a human in the wild. Why not? We will probably never know. Maybe simply because they don't kill for fun or even for revenge. They only kill to eat.

Had I been born an orca, what kind of consciousness would I have? Impossible to say. But I suspect I would know that in comparison to that other apex predator, the one on land, humans, I was better off. My life was simple, but the joys I had on a daily basis were enormous and I suspect they were, by and large, greater than the joys of humans. So if somebody offered me a choice, I would choose to be an orca. I wonder how many people think they would have been better off had they been born a different animal?