Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why I can't go to SeaWorld again: a comment on the movie Blackfish

Growing up in Florida, my interest in science was spurred by my love of the ocean. I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist at a very young age. Later, I thought that becoming a trainer at SeaWorld would be the perfect job. My subsequent interest in animal rights and environmentalism made me lose my fondness for SeaWorld.

My dolphin encounter.
When I visited my family in Florida in 2012, my mother suggested that we go to SeaWorld. I figured it was a good compromise as I certainly did not want to go to Disney and I did feel some obligation to let my son experience the place that once brought me such joy. We had a nice day in the park. I touched a dolphin for the first time and got so excited that I flashed back to my younger self. At the end of the day, we went to see the orca show. In past visits, this was always my favorite part, but it had been the better part of 20 years since my last trip to SeaWorld. During the show, I started crying; I eventually realized that I was crying for these poor whales, who were stuck inside this relatively small tank in an overly warm tourist attraction. After that experience, I concluded that I would probably not come back to Sea World.

Last week I watched Blackfish on Netflix, which solidified my opinion. The documentary explores the story of the killer whale Tilikum, who has been linked to the deaths of three individuals during his time in captivity. The documentary is based primarily on interviews with former SeaWorld trainers as well as killer whale experts. The main complaint against SeaWorld Orlando (SWO) in the film is that they did not accurately represent the threat that Tilikum, who had killed one trainer before arriving in Orlando in 1992, might pose to the trainers there. According to the trainers interviewed in the film, SWO never made that history or the incidents that may have precipitated that event known to the trainers. Later, Tilikum was involved in the strange death of a tourist who allegedly wandered into the tank. SWO claimed that hypothermia killed the man, rather than by an attack by the killer whale.

In February 2010, trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum. SWO claims that Brancheau's death was due to trainer error. The other trainers in the film argue that this was not the case. A lawsuit by OSHA eventually forced SeaWorld to remove the trainers from the tanks with the animals. SWO isolated Tilikum and kept him from performing, as least until until 2011. However, Tilikum is not likely to leave the park as he has been incredibly profitable as a breeder: the bull orca has sired 21 offspring during his time in captivity. According to the film, Tilikum is frequently found nearly immobile for hours at a time in his tank. They speculate that his large size and his treatment while in the Sealand park in British Columbia may be the reason for his erratic behavior. 

In addition, the film charges that SeaWorld does not accurately present scientific facts about killer whales. Science education and species preservation has always been a strong defensive point for the park. However, comparing the talking points of the former and current trainers and tour guides with the facts, it seems that teaching people the science of killer whales is not a priority for the park, especially if the facts can make the organization look bad. For example, whales in captivity frequently have a dorsal fin that is flopped over. SeaWorld claims that this is common in the wild as well. However, the killer whale expert interviewed states that this is only observed in about 1% of whales in the wild. The park also claims that the whales in captivity have a similar lifespan to those in the wild; in fact, captive whales live 30-50 years while those in the wild live 50-90 years. In the end, the film confirmed my view that SeaWorld is just another theme park, which puts its own interests above both those of its animals and its workers.

The film ends with a powerful scene, as the former trainers go on a whale watching cruise; they all seem emotional as they observe a pod of killer whales in their natural habitat, jumping and swimming in the open ocean with their family intact. The film succeeded in making its case against the capture and captivity of whales. It convinced me that I should never go back to SeaWorld. Now I just have to break the news to my mom.

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