What Are We Talking About?

By Christine Longé

The anthology Impulse to Speak exists in isolation, ironically, from the orca sanctuary and pro/anti-aquarium debates. This passion project originated as a new solo theater piece in 2016, whose roots sprang from my childhood-seeded obsession with the orca species, thanks to the film Free Willy and my fourth grade teacher who, to my deep admiration, enrolled our class to sponsor a young Southern Resident orca. The question planted back then remains my curiosity now: what do the orca have to say?

What is the orca’s perspective of experiencing abduction from their home waters, from their tight-knit families? Do they remember every last detail, and do the details replay in their minds and bodies? How would they describe the sensation of flight, and their prolonged hiatus from water in the journey between? What do they sense from their cement confines? How many times do they attempt communication clicks with another species of orca in their tank, and do they merge multilingual sound patterns to invent a novel language? What do they think of those undersized chlorinated bathtubs; of seasonal trainers and audiences; of themselves? What do they overhear? What’s their take on eating frozen fish? Do they know they’re hundreds and thousands of miles away from their memorized migratory routes? Do the orca born in captivity connect with their wild instincts? I want to hear from them.

The funny thing is, the orca have been telling us. They’ve expressed emphatic opinions for the sixty-plus years that marine mammal tanks have sold a hot ticket. They’ve been vocal to the nth degree, vocal and physical. They clearly communicate through self-destructive behavior, lethargy, and displays of aggression (toward orca and humans). Impulse to Speak proposes what the captive orca has said, keeps trying to say, or might want to say. Their imagined words are translated for human understanding in various literary forms. The anthology invites contributing writers to explore their commonality to the cetaceans. Writers share their own lived experience through the parallel story of the orca; the two are interwoven. The orca is as much an individual as the writer who sought them out. They speak to one another. It’s a listening art more so than it is a writing art.

When I consider the dramaturgical approach and wonder “Why make this anthology now,” I want the work to shine a curious, investigative, self-reflective light on human behavior. In other words, I have more questions. Why are we holding these orca captive, not to mention many other wild beings? How did we arrive at this point of holding cetaceans hostage for ticket sales? Why are we still here, in an apathetic don’t-fix-what-isn’t-broken routine that ceases to economically and environmentally serve our communities?

To that, I answer: Why do humans contain that which is wild? “Contain” as in cages. For zoos and aquariums, there’s something to be said of awe and a human desire to understand. I suspect it’s all rooted in fear: defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” I witnessed this dictionary explanation within my nephew’s behavior at five years old. He grew hysterical when I guarded a delicate indoor spider from his crushing hand. I witnessed the angst spread through his young body as I explained that the spider had no harmful intent. He demanded, with increasing screams and flowing tears, to kill it. My nephew’s instinctual adrenal response to stressors was in perfect working order; of the three, he consistently opts for “fight.” My close proximity to his early childhood development within a loving family has provided ample evidence of nature versus nurture. No one taught him to kill insects or anything “icky” or “scary;” he decided that for himself, informed by his own natural, untamed instincts, and by a lack of broader understanding and perspective.

How humans behave toward non-human beings says a lot about our relationship with wilderness as well as an inner wildness. I wonder how much of the mistreatment of our wilderness is rooted in the various offshoots of white supremacy; it’s well known that indigenous peoples (of the global majority) demonstrate reverence to and stewardship of all life forms. Maybe it’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum. The biological chain of events is that a human feels the fear, then projects that fear-feeling onto the external Scary Thing, which informs an immediate story of it being a threat, even though that perceived threat was projected from an origin of insecurity. The ultimate effect of outwardly conquering the threat is to inwardly attack oneself, thus creating a repeatable pattern of fear, and punishment for that fear. If humans attack what is feared, it’s possible that we fear and attack –or subdue– our inherent wildness. “Wildness” as in an indescribable sense of power or force found within a knowing of life’s interconnection.

For thirty-two years, I was socially conditioned to never admit fear or insecurity, yet jump at my own shadow; ignore my intuition and instincts; push aside my fierce appetite for grand ambitions; and settle for leftover scraps of resources. I’ve been extracting myself from the ways in which I’ve experienced categorization, containment, and cute-ification. Living within those learned and self-perpetuated limitations sometimes feels preferable and safe, albeit a false safety like Stockholm Syndrome. The frightening prospect of maintaining a deeper attunement to my intelligence and inherent compass has me in a constant tug-of-war: wanting to grow into my fullest potential versus wanting to remain a small seed.

I’m not suggesting that a person must flee the city, ditch technology, or hunt squirrels in order to embrace one’s inner wildness. Instead, I ask: What is it like –energetically speaking, maybe mentally– to live with ferocity, free and unfettered from projected ideas of what we’re “supposed to” do? What’s it like to notice all the environmental sounds, scents, cues, rhythms, cycles, seasons? To align and ally oneself with environmental neighbors like birds, trees, and the rest? To remember that we physically embody the same chemical compounds as stars in the heavens, plants in the jungles, and fellow mammals roaming and swimming the globe? My friend and mentor Beth Slattery recently pondered the ways we humans “dance around our own wildness without fully embracing or taming it; it seems a very confused place to be.” I have to quote her because I couldn’t agree more.

In the dominant human ideology, there’s only room for one at the top of the mountain. It’s no wonder that people, ancient and modern, have killed off fellow predators to the point of extinction and the brink of extinction, including many ecotypes of orca, the ocean’s apex predator. Humanity has a long, complicated history with actions of ownership, territorial warfare, and eliminating any threat of perceived harm. Every one of those repetitions over time has left us quite perplexed about our place in the worldwide ecosystem; not as directors, but as equal participants. If humanity wants to survive the global crisis-of-all-crises at hand, then we need to retire the notion of “it’s either ___ or me,” and the dire consequences of executing that mindset. It’s us. The harder humans tug away –resisting, distancing, denying, rejecting our natural instincts and reality of interconnection– the worse the whiplash when the living planet snaps everything back into balance.

I sense, on some level, that aquarium and marine mammal park corporations recognize how their original business model faces extinction. Maybe the real question of the pro/anti-aquarium debate is what to do with the empty spaces once the orca are gone, one way or another. In the era of Greta Thunberg’s influence, it’s time to either adapt, or die out. Meaning, it’s time to get creative. What evolution follows for acres of cement? Drain the tanks and convert the grounds to skate parks? Avant-garde art galleries? Concert arenas and performance venues? Quirky conference centers? Or just redesign the general porpoise (ahem, purpose) of aquariums from zoo-like displays to actual education centers, with earthier recreations of aquatic habitats such as estuaries, marshes, river beds, tidal pools, etc? Allow regional wildlife to return, settle in, and call it a nature reserve? Moving forward, what makes sense?

Think about how much fresh water (and added chemicals) more than 200 aquariums require to maintain an appearance of cleanliness and credibility. I doubt they’re using rain barrels to source their H2O. Do we really want to keep pumping a precious commodity like water in that high-consumption fashion when we’re collectively facing unpredictable rainfall, droughts, and suffering food crops throughout the U.S., the world, not to mention our own backyards? (Looking at you, Seattle Aquarium and Seattle City Council…) Consider the children who visit and live near aquariums and marine parks. What are we teaching: that “wilderness” consists of concrete, metal and glass? What are we telling ourselves about meaningful environmental stewardship? How do we undo and un-build all these structures of separation, isolation, and entrapment?

How do we undo and un-build all these structures of separation, isolation, and entrapment? This question specifically refers to aquarium tanks, but the allusions to human societal oppression are unquestionable. It’s a centuries-long load to unpack. I explored the metaphors of captivity in manners both subtle and obvious in the original script development from 2016 through 2019. In one workshop, my appearance in a bikini intrigued the audience as I tested the parallels of male domination and female objectification. I used an inflatable kiddie pool as a set piece to play with the tension within the identity of a wild predator cloaked as docile playmate. I struggled to balance the tightrope of dialogue-style storytelling and choreographed storytelling. The idea’s complexity, breadth and depth benefited from several theatrical devices, but it soon grew cacophonous. From 2020 to 2021, I followed an opportune bread crumb trail of prompts to adapt the story from playscript to persona poems to today’s growing anthology. The orca surviving captivity call for as many collaborative voices as possible.

Impulse to Speak holds space for reflective thinking and conversation led with open hearts. An impulse to speak looks like lungs inflating. An impulse to speak sounds like our motion to slice the silence. An impulse to speak feels like our resonant presence. An impulse to speak smells like the salty currents of our brisk blood. An impulse to speak tastes like a wetted tongue poised to conduct a symphony. Impulse to Speak is the coastline where land mammal meets aquatic mammal in hopeful reconciliation. One story at a time, this anthology addresses the reality of the situation so that we humans can locate the blossoms and barbs within our collective responsibility. I’m optimistic that by sharing breath and voice, together we can welcome bravery and vision.


The moral dilemmas of whether to release captive orca to manufactured pens offshore, and whether aquariums should be ripped up and relegated to the past, prod me to take a neutral stance, albeit with open ears. If I have an argument in the debates, it’s a vote for marine parks to wholly reimagine their use of water and land to become an outfit more suited for supporting global ecosystems increasingly in crisis. I’d prefer to retire the practice of caging as a means of preservation and “educational” display, considering the wake of technological and cinematic advances. Let us discover a more holistic harmony in our stewardship of all things free and wild; a style of stewardship that prioritizes balanced coexistence and habitat protection. Every one of us is creative and thoughtful. There are many areas for improvement here, and even a “least ideal” action step offers progress.

I appreciate the scientific efforts that defend captive orca relocation into sanctuary pens and into dynamic, life-giving water. I’m confident that ocean sanctuaries would provide a vast improvement in any captive orca’s health and well-being. I believe that it’s completely possible for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut (also named Tokitae) to have a successful reunion and happy life with her Southern Resident pod. I wonder, though, about the artificially-bred orca offspring who’ve never seen or heard or hunted prey. What about the calves of captivity who lack a clear retracing to their respective oceans and families? What survival lessons were they taught by their mothers and grandmothers, per orca culture, before they were separated from their matriarchs to populate other parks? Drawing out their thread of the freedom journey reveals complicated knots of ethical and logistical questions. This massive undertaking is no simple task, and I’m grateful for all the conversation and action inching us toward expansive epiphanies.


One Response

  1. I’ve always been drawn to these creatures of the sea. I love this idea of trying to understand what they might be trying to communicate with each other and perhaps even to us…as well as what does it say about how we choose to treat our fellow passengers. I wish we didn’t default to using our fear, or even our curiosity, as a means to create harm.