As the 6 tonnes of black and white blubber leap out of the water and crash back down, I can’t help but feel butterflies in my stomach. Not because I’m excited to see a killer whale performing, but because I feel guilty that someone has allowed this magnificent creature to be prisoned and forced to perform in this way and that people are enjoying it.
It’s been a week since I watched ‘Blackfish‘ and still the impact of the film is still as strong as ever. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of watching it yet, the award winning documentary film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, highlights the plight of the captive orcas effectively jailed and unearths the truth behind the series of deaths of killer whale trainers hastily covered up by SeaWorld.
Firstly, something I cannot get my head around is how SeaWorld is trying to justify keeping cetaceans in environments like this and how they seem to think that they can compare themselves to land mammal zoological institutions. Yes, in some unfortunate instances zoos can be cruel and I am equally against other animals being kept in unsafe and cruel habitats however in my opinion that majority of zoos and safari parks have methods put in place and excellent enclosures to ensure that this is rarely the case. Take Bristol Zoo, for example. Only today it has come to light that a senior mammal keeper has been suspended for allegedly punching a fur seal when it refused to cooperate with the weighing process, and he has immediately been suspended. Luckily the animal has recovered and is back to its old self but it’s good to see that the zoo does not take these instances lightly and does what they can to prevent it happening again. So…my question is, why hasn’t SeaWorld done anything to stop it’s keepers from harming the animals? The answer is because they don’t see it as cruelty, they see it as entertainment. I was about to say that they may not be causing the killer whales any physical damage but there is definite mental abuse but I would be wrong to do so. ‘Blackfish’ has proven that.
Primarily, ‘Blackfish’ takes a closer look at Tilikum the killer whale, his capture and the events leading up to his various attacks on trainers and it’s clear from the very beginning why this whale did what he did. Captured at the young age of 2 by a group of whale hunters and sold to perform tricks at Sealand in Canada, Tilikum was seperated from his mother and family group at a very early age. Now as orcas never leave their mothers for their entire lives, it’s obvious that this would have caused a lot of psycholgical pain to Tilikum and his family which is not only cruel but a hint at what could have driven Tilikum to lash out at his trainer. A lot of people may argue that there is no excuse for this behaviour still and I have read many comments from people claiming that he is just a “dumb animal” who, like dangerous dogs, deserves to be put down. I can’t disagree more. If a person was kidnapped, locked up and then forced to perform for people then you can expect there to be a certain level of mental trauma and and to an extent a need for revenge. However with animals, there doesn’t seem to be any room for their emotions; they are expected to just get used to what has happened to them and do what they’re told. How can it be right that justice can vary so much between species? People would expect the criminal who kidnapped another human to be caught and then receive a punishment they deserve and yet those very same people would pay to go and see killer whales perform. I think that it’s time people realised that their hypocrisy needs to change.
I’m sure a lot of people will argue that I am hypocritical visiting zoos and to a certain extent I agree, however I like going to zoos because it gives me the opportunity to see animals in natural looking habitats and getting on with their everyday lives. I find it interesting to see how they behave and although I know that there is obviously going to be a difference between their captive behaviour and their wild behaviour, it’s still exciting to see something you would not normally be able to see. Killer whales, on the other hand, do not naturally allow humans to stand on their backs and be catapulted into the air or beach themselves and wave at people so you aren’t really seeing the real whales. On the official Blackfish website, SeaWorld has argued back at these claims, stating that “the behaviours it reinforces are always within the killer whale’s natural range of behaviours”. This is quite clearly a lie as none of this trained behaviour has been observed in the wild; it seems as though they are abusing their intelligence for the benefits of the performance and to draw more money in.
In continuation with the comparison of SeaWorld and zoos, I think that what is quite clear is that zoos don’t need to force animals to perform for people to raise money for conservation projects and if they don’t neither does SeaWorld. Florida is surrounded by a number of marine mammals; North Atlantic Right Whales, Bryde’s Whales, Fin Whales, Humpback Whales, Minke Whales, Sei Whales, Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins, Common Dolphins,False Killer Whales , Risso’s Dolphins, Spinner Dolphins, Rough Toothed Dolphins, Short Finned Pilot Whales, Striped Dolphins, Pygmy Sperm Whales, Sperm Whales, Gervais’ Beaked Whales, Cuvier’s Beaked Whales, True’s Beaked Whales and wild Orcas. Although some of these are a rare and uncommon sight, they are out there and from my experience of whale watching, I can’t help but think that there would be a lot more excitement from seeing wild cetaceans than captive ones. Perhaps instead of encouraging people to pay to watch whales swim around a small pool, they could instead pay to see them on a responsible whale watch and see them in their natural habitat. That way they could see why conservation money is needed so much. I just don’t feel that there is a place for performing animals in our society anymore, not when there are so many other ways that we can see such amazing creatures without harming them.
Another thing I don’t really understand about SeaWorld’s responses to this film is how they don’t even really mention the welfare of the whales in their statements and instead tend to focus upon the trainers safety. I completely understand that after so many incidents and deaths caused by the whales they need to keep this in mind however surely it is obvious to them that keeping whales in captivity, even captive born whales, and forcing them to perform so often is going to cause them some trauma. It has been proven thatorcas have an extra part of the brain that humans do not possess regarding emotion and so if we are so against people being forced to perform, why not whales as well? To me, it doesn’t make any sense.
Likewise, their responses about ‘Blackfish’ also seem to reveal a sense that they have something to hide as they are so against everything that was said in it, despite the many interviews from former SeaWorld trainers. One example is their claim that Tilikum’s reasoning behind his tragic attack on Dawn Brancheau was not mental anguish caused by many years in captivity, it was interest in her pony tail. However, as is shown in the film, he had been subjected to various pony tails throughout his captivity and so it was not a “novelty” as they said. When combined with his brutality throughout and the length of the attack, surely there was something more to it. Not according to SeaWorld of course who also appeared to blame Dawn for her own death. This to me seems to suggest that they were panicking and in need of someone to shift the blame to fast who couldn’t fight back; someone who couldn’t have the park shut down. It all seems a little bit too defensive. Fair enough everybody has the right to defend themselves but even with footage showing their lies about the average life of a whale they still remain adamant that they are correct and everybody else is wrong. I suppose it reminds me of a little sullen child who is convinced that they are right and everybody else is wrong and they’ll try to lie their way out of things.
I know that in this blog I have focused more upon the treatment and harm of the whales as opposed to the attacks on the trainers but if you watch ‘Blackfish’ you’ll understand it more than if I covered it. I just feel that society has developed and grown over the years and supposedly moved on from the days of cruel zoos and yet in some areas, like SeaWorld, it’s still continuing and shockingly people are still finding it entertaining. Killer whales are incredible and intelligent creatures which shouldn’t be kept in small tanks and forced together, unable to avoid confrontation and SeaWorld just doesn’t seem to understand that they own a whale prison. Even with the latest video emerging of a terrified pilot whale trapped on a ledge, they still seem to display a distinct sense of nonchalance about it all claiming that the animals behaved like that “daily and sometimes hourly.” To me, although they do promote conservation, their focus seems to be more on the entertainment side of things as opposed to the welfare which is unacceptable for an animal centre these days and it’s time things changed.
To anybody who still believes that watching killer whales and dolphins perform tricks in small enclosures, forcibly kept together and for the entertainment of no-one but the public, at least watch this trailer of ‘Blackfish’ and then see what you believe. And if you claim that you’re an animal lover and still think this is acceptable then maybe you need to think again.
To help free Tilikum, the wild whale forced into captivity and forcibly bred to produce captive bred whales, please visit ‘Free Tilly’ and sign the petition.
Details of ‘Blackfish’ screenings and DVD orders are available here.