This is my first foray into writing about ethology and I want to stress that it’s a hobby and interest, not a professional career. I’ve had no formal schooling. I welcome to the discussion on this topic, so please comment away if you care to.
Blackfish is a documentary released last year, telling the story of Tilikum, a captive Orca whale at SeaWorld in Florida. Blackfish is widely available on Netflix. Since it was released, there have been numerous calls and petitions for the captive whales at SeaWorld to be released into the wild or to stop SeaWorld from having Orca shows.
Richard Bloom, a Democratic assemblyman from California, is the first to try and enact legislation that would outright ban whale shows at SeaWorld. The bill would also ban the breeding of captive whales and stop their import and export as well. The bill is in its infancy, but has a reportedly high “yes” percentage from lawmakers.
A few years ago, I feel that I would have also agreed to this bill. There are some parts that I still agree with, but I think the bill is far too oversweeping in its reach and isn’t informed by science at all. Richard Bloom appears to be using the documentary (and its director and her associates) as his sole source of information. I think we can safely say that anyone related to the documentary is biased toward the bill passing – it’s very clear in the film that the director does not agree with SeaWorld and how it treats its whales. The film also focuses on the death of a trainer, Dawn Brancheau, by the whale Tilikum during a live performance. There is also much focus on other trainer deaths and injuries done by captive whales, not just in SeaWorld, but in similar venues and parks around the world.
Blackfish has sensationalized what should be a nuanced discussion on captive animals by scientists and conservation experts. I’m a firm anti-capitalist and I’m not denying that SeaWorld is very much a capitalist venture, whose primary concern is their bottom line; however, the documentary has hijacked the discussion with its emotional manipulation and its open ended questions with few answers. There are answers and there are discussions already happening within the science community.
There have been many countless, throwaway comments about just letting the animals go. You can’t. You can’t just let an animal go after living its life in captivity. Should it have been captured or bred in the first place? That is entirely besides the point. Another whale that got attention was Keiko, the star of the movie Free Willy. Supporters led the charge to free Keiko from captivity and subsequently, he was released. The release failed – Keiko returned to seek out human contact, never fully integrating with wild whales. A year after his release, Keiko died of apparent pneumonia. Scientists and biologists had done their very best to teach Keiko to return to the wild, by teaching him to swim out into the open sea and by encouraging him to hunt his own food. They failed – Keiko was born in captivity and had never done these things for himself.
No wild whale has been captured at sea world since the 1970s. All the current animals were born and bred in captivity (again, I am not arguing this point). To release them would result in tragedy. Should the whales be bred? I’m not a scientist and the information I find is extremely conflicting, so I don’t feel qualified to discuss this matter at any length. However, I do believe that nonviolent animals can be bred (even with artificial insemination) to better further learning and research.
What rankles me most is the idea to stop letting trainers be in the water with animals (something already banned in California). Yes, workers should have protections and yes, Sea World is probably pushing trainers faster than they should be (capitalists, I know). However, when you have captive animals, you have to provide mental stimulation. Your dog chews up your carpet at home and what do trainers tell you to do? Exercise! Train! Engage their brains! A whale shows isn’t just a cute, “golly gee whales are cool!” trick. It’s training. It’s engaging the brain. it’s helping their intelligence not burn a hole in their heads. You train and exercise your dog daily (or, you’re supposed to) – that doesn’t change for wild animals in captivity. Yes, SeaWorld capitalized on the beautiful presence of these creatures for a profit and yes, SeaWorld did a bad, bad thing by capturing whales back in the 70s with inhumane ways. However, whale shows don’t harm whales – maybe they harm the trainers, but not the whales.
I fear that sensationalist propaganda like this will tarnish any good that SeaWorld has done, and SeaWorld has done good. They are leaders at conservation and leaders at inspiring future conservationists and scientists. They rescue and rehabilitate marine life. So what, no show? Single people one by one can watch their behaviors? Maybe trainers are saved. Maybe not. I do believe that SeaWorld, and any person or organization that deals with captive animals, should constantly be striving toward making contact safer, more humane, and in line with the current scientific data concerning ethology and behaviorism.
I’m not an expert in these matters, and I don’t pretend to be, but I firmly believe that this bill is being driven by uniformed people and a human desire to “do good.” It requires little thought and that is dangerous to both the whales and humans. I mean, PETA backs this. PETA. Which I think speaks for itself. I encourage everyone to look into the issue more before you make any judgments. Don’t just stop at the documentary – read more, look harder. It won’t hurt anyone.
This campaign reminds me of Kony 2012 and all the stupidity around that, and I think that should really, really say something about how dangerous Blackfish has been.