Effects of the ‘Blackfish’ Documentary to the Seaworld, Workers and Animals
The ‘Blackfish’ is a 2013 American documentary film directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaites about an orca called Tilikum involved in the death of three people and the distress of killer whales in captivity. The documentary centers on Tilikum, an orca who spent 30 years of intense internment after being taken from his home ocean off of the coast of the Pacific in 1983. The formation of the film was started after the death of Dawn Brancheau, who was Tilikum’s trainer. According to the documentary, Tilikum together with other whales were confined at the Seaworld where they would swim and perform tricks to amuse tourists. The documentary attributes Tilikum’s aggression to the fact that being in captivity might have hindered his creative and emotional stimulation, freedom and also due to harassment from the other captive whales. Tilikum is purported to have been found with bite marks which were as a result of harassment from the other whales. This and other factors contributed immensely to Tilikum’s aggressive behavior towards his trainer Dawn Brancheau and the deaths of the other two individuals.
Tilikum is said to have been captured from his mother at a mere two years of age and taken to Seaworld where he was aggressively attacked by other orca whales. According to the documentary, the captivity of these orcas from their home oceans/breeding places causes extreme stress to the orcas especially when they are separated from their mothers since this tends to break the otherwise important bonds between the orcas and their offspring. These broken bonds together with other factors such as confinement, forced tricks and deprivation of food as punishment as was the case with Tilikum are a violation of the animals’ rights as well as triggers of violence from the whales. The documentary further argues that in the wild, the orcas are able to swim freely and in large surface areas as opposed to Seaworld and other marine parks where the orcas can only swim in small circles to amuse tourists and live in small tanks that can be equated to the size of a human bath tub.
According to Gabriela Coperthwaite, such confinement makes it hard for us to realize the intelligence and abilities of these whales. She also asserts that the life span of the orcas in confinement is much more reduced than their life spans out in the wild (Wobbler in the addendum). The documentary insinuates that Tilikum together with the two older orcas were held in a holding tank in the dark for hours; an act the documentary describes to be barbaric. Researchers responding to the documentary also argue that there is no known documentation of orcas having killed humans in the world but in marine parks, there are evidences of such death related reports. The filming of this documentary has had several effects on Seaworld, the trainers and animals in general in the following ways. (Palmer 2014)
Effects of the ‘Blackfish’ Documentary to Seaworld
The ‘Blackfish’ documentary is thought to have been quite damning to the Seaworld community as a whole. This is because it mostly portrayed the errors of the Seaworld staff and officials in the way it handled the captive whales. The documentary presented the whales in a sympathetic manner that made people question whether the Seaworld officials were treating the orcas in an acceptable manner or whether they were justified to have the orcas in the first place. This is especially true where the documentary shows the numerous efforts the whales put in place to guard the young ones from being captured and the heartbreaking scenes thereafter of a mother whale crying uncontrollably floating motionlessly on water after her young one has been captured and separated from her. This highly reprehensible act together with the gruesome circumstances the orcas were subjected to at Seaworld brought a backlash amongst viewers and a public uproar. The documentary led to an overall reduced attendance of people to Seaworld. This is because the orcas were purported to be mistreated hence violating their animal rights and this is thought to have dampened people’s interest in visiting Seaworld and other related parks (Dewell 2014). As a result, Seaworld decided to stop breeding the whales in captivity and they subsequently stopped using Tilikum as a sperm donor.
Seaworld has also suffered immeasurable financial losses since the debut of the documentary. This can be widely attributed to the reduced attendance of people and tourists in general. (Stossel 2015) Another contributing factor to these losses is the pulling out of partners from Seaworld. For instance, Southwest Airlines, a long term partner with Seaworld pulled out for fear of being perceived as supporters of animal cruelty by animal rights activist groups. In addition, several celebrities such as Willie Nelson, Heart, and Barenaked ladies to say the least boycotted their performance and concerts at Seaworld citing their decisions to have been prompted by the release of the documentary. Criticism from such high-profiled people proved to be a blow to Seaworld’s image. This is said to have been a disadvantage to Seaworld considering the money in tickets that would have otherwise been earned. Seaworld was also slapped with lawsuits by some of their investors due to reduced earning after the documentary was aired, others citing the fact that Seaworld was not fully truthful in their report of the conditions under which the whales were kept as their reasons for suing. (Pedicini 2014) The film also highlighted the fact that the trainers were improperly trained thus posing risks to their lives as they deal with the giant mammals. A matter which would put off prospective investors. This therefore tarnishes the name and image of Seaworld. (McCaffrey part 1). Aside from the backlash and public uproar towards Seaworld, the numerous lawsuits and huge financial losses proved to be quite a blow to the image of Seaworld in general (Pedicini )
Effects on the Animals
The biggest selling point of ‘Blackfish’ is that it created awareness about the suffering and repugnant circumstances that animals in captivity were subjected to in the name of entertainment. The airing of the documentary made it necessary for measures regarding the safety and ethical treatment of animals to be undertaken. (Mitra 2015) Such measures include the New York’s proposed legislation that bans keeping orcas in captivity and the amendment to the agriculture act that requires updating of Animal Welfare Act in relation to the captivity of whales. The documentary also prompted Seaworld to move the orcas from the small holding tanks to a considerably larger space for swimming. ‘The Blackfish’ documentary acted as a cautionary tale to Seaworld and other such like parks and to people that would want to startup such a business. Animal rights activist groups such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) were strengthened by the film and became even more vocal in their fight against the mistreatment of animals. (Villarreal 2014) Years on, the documentary is believed to have pushed Seaworld into making a major decision of stopping their breeding of orcas and training them for performances despite this having been quite a profitable business for them. This was as a result of immense pressure by activist groups such as Peta through their sustained activism through physical protests and online campaigns through their website SeaWorldofhate.com. This type of pressure also had a hand in Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus’ decision to move their elephants to a larger conservation area (The Black Fish effect 2014).
The documentary also portrayed the forced training of orcas to perform tricks for entertaining tourists and the public to be barbaric. An act which would deter such animal training in future. Bills that would prohibit the importation or exportation of whales for entertainment have been suggested. A move that many feel would also apply to wild animals in general when passed. In a personal interview with Wobbler which can be found in the addendum, the confinement of the orcas and several other wild animals’ stunts their growth thus there are suggestions that these brilliant animals ought to be allowed to live in their natural habitats (Wobbler, in the addendum). For instance, Tilikum’s health is deteriorating and he is said to be dying as a result of an infection of the lung and since he is often given antibiotics, his body has become immune. Generally, one of the motives behind ‘Blackfish’ is to dissuade people from the notion that imprisonment of animals in zoos and entertainment parks is acceptable. A motive that when embraced would allow animals to remain in the wild. In future, any park that harbors wild animals would be compelled to treat them with care to avoid the shame and negativity that ‘Blackfish’ brought to Seaworld.
Effects on the Trainers
To many, ‘Blackfish’ was an eye opener into the hazardous/risky working conditions the trainers were exposed to while tending to the killer whales. Attacks by the orcas to their trainers were termed as negligence on the trainers’ part but a closer look through the documentary showed that the attacks had little to do with the trainer’s expertise but rather depended on the orca’s distress due to being kept in captivity. In essence, the attacks were just a cry for help from the whales. Seaworld was also slapped with lawsuits for exposing the trainers to poor working conditions. (Pedicini 2014) The release of ‘Blackfish’ pushed for several precautionary measures to be put in place to ensure the safety of the trainers while dealing with the whales. For instance, the trainers were provided with horse pipes while massaging the whales as opposed to their initial hand massaging. Barriers that would keep the whale from the trainers were put in place to reduce injuries from whale related violence (Sherwood 52-58).
At Seaworld, a floor that could lift a whale out in the event of a person falling in the water was fitted in the pool to farther ensure the safety of the trainers. The exposure of several documented injuries and even worse, deaths that were termed as negligence of the trainers by the employers in an effort to continue making money were later proven to be untrue thus forcing the employers to put the safety of the employees above their need for making money. However, despite the numerous advantages especially to the animals that come with the closure of Seaworld and other marine parks, it also comes with some negative effects. For instance, although the closing of such parks is seen as a humane gesture, it was not as helpful because it also means the end of working for the trainers as this would lead to joblessness amongst trainers who mostly had a passion of working with the orcas.
Consequences/Ramifications of the Problem
The problems arising from confining wild animals as in the case of the orcas are many and dangerous as portrayed from the interview which is in the addendum. Besides subjecting them to unfamiliar lonely territory, recent studies suggest that a good percentage of new infectious diseases originate from animals that belong in the wild for example the highly infectious monkeypox disease is said to have been brought about by a Gambian rat from Africa. The manner in which some of these animals are captured is heart wrenching, cruel and a gross violation of their rights. Some people would argue that their capture can be equated to human kidnapping as by portrayed by ‘Blackfish’ based on the reaction of the mothers as in the case of the orcas’ separation from their calves.
From my interview with Wobbler that is in the addendum, he argues that the stress of being separated from their pods or family-like structures causes emotional stress to the animals thus making them lash out in anger to their trainers during performances (Addendum). Sometimes these violence leads to deaths as was the case with the three individuals killed by Tilikum. The continued confinement of these animals puts them at a risk of extinction. This is true in the sense that their lifespan is reduced and they tend to die young in captivity. While in captivity, experts argue that their primal instincts are taken away and they are susceptible to diseases. The conditions under which the captured animals are kept in are nothing short of a human prison. They are at times kept in small enclosed areas surrounded by wire meshes and electric fences thus limiting their movements if any.
Solutions to these Problems
Tougher laws should be put in place to deter the importation, exportation and capture of animals for entertainment purposes, the same rules should be put in place to govern the handling and treatment of already captured animals in zoos since they can no longer be released in the wild again. Animal activist groups should be unanimous, vocal and unrelenting in the fight against confinement of wild animals and fair treatment of the animals already in captivity. Rescue missions should be purely and precisely for the purpose of conservation and for the educational aspect of it. For the already captured animals, seeing them without necessarily performing tricks and stances is satisfactory. The building materials should also be changed. For instance, Seaworld should avoid using cement for building the pools and tanks because the whales were affected. Tilikum has no teeth as a result of the cement (Palmer 29). Zoos and parks ought to come up with new natural inspiring encounters for the animals and the visitors. In the case of animals captured for rehabilitation, there should be a move to set aside bigger conservation areas to allow the free movement of the rehabilitated animals as was the case with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s decision to move their circus to a 2000-acre conservation area. They should also research about which whales to place together. This is because these whales live in pods that they harmonize with and this is the reason why Tilikum was always bullied by the other orcas because they were from different pods (Villarreal par 3&4).
In conclusion, wild animals are definitely a thrill and such an allure, and they no doubt generate a lot of income to any government from the influx of both foreign and domestic tourism. Humans are generally known to explore bonds with wild animals. This has however proven to be a challenge in the sense that keeping these animals from their natural for the amusement of people goes hand in hand with the violation of their rights and such. This is true in the sense that their bonds are broken thus they should be left in their natural habitats where they are able to live their lives freely, mate freely and maintain their primal instincts.
‘Blackfish’ debate spurs legislation. (2014, Mar 23). La Prensa
Dewell, K. (2014, Apr 13). Opinion: Zoos problematic for captive animals, population viability – the collegian.
EDIT: The blackfish effect. (2014, Jan 14). University Wire
Mitra, M. N. (2015, winter). Animals are persons, too. Earth Island Journal, 29, 17-21,24-26.
Palmer, M. J. (2014, spring). International Marine Mammal Project: Keeping up the fight in Greece and Japan. Earth Island Journal, 29, 17.
Pedicini, S. (2014, Sep 29). Aquariums scale back amid battle over keeping whales in captivity. The Herald
Pedicini, S. (2014, Sep 11). Lawsuit claims SeaWorld misled stockholders. Orlando Sentinel
Sherwood, B.(2016).“Strategic Map for Exploring the Ocean-World Enceladus”. ActaAstronautica 126: 52-58 Web
Stossel, J. (2015). Green tyranny. New York: CQ Roll Call.
Villarreal, M. (2014, Feb 05). ‘Blackfish’ inspires awareness of wild animals in captivity. University Wire
Wobbler, Samuel (2016, July 07). Effects of ‘blackfish’ documentary personal interview Par 2-3
Appendix: Interview Write-Up
As a prerequisite to writing this paper, I interviewed Mr. Samuel Wobbler who has been a marine biologist and cetacean expert for over two decades now. With a vast knowledge on the behavioral, cultural and emotional characteristics of these mammals and with such a long term experience, I had no doubt that Wobbler had an unquestionable understanding of this topic. Here is a write-up of the entire interview.
Me: What are the general behavioral and social adaptations of orcas?
Mr. Wobbler: Whales or orcas are born to live in family-like structures. They live in social units known as pods the most important being the mother-calf pod. The calves mostly live close to their mothers for a period of nine to twelve years which explains the strong bond between them. Whales are generally very social and are known to help an injured member of a pod. At times, they refuse to leave behind an injured or dying whale, a trait that hunters mostly exploit in order to catch them.
Me: In your understanding based on your research and studies, what is the average distance an orca can swim in a day and what is the proven lifespan of a whale in the wild? Would you say that there it is any different for whales in captivity?
Mr. Wobbler: Yes, there is a very huge difference to the effect that when out in the ocean, whales are known to travel up to 2000 kilometers and their overall lifespan is about 60-70 years for a male and 80-100 years for a female orca. In captivity however, the whales can only swim in a small area and their overall lifespan is greatly reduced. Orcas in captivity are usually characterized by a collapsed dorsal fin which in my opinion is as a result of limited swimming space; a trait quite uncommon amongst whales in the wild
Me: From a scientific point of view, is there any difference in growth in a whale kept in captivity compared to a whale out in the wild?
Mr. Wobbler: As a matter of fact, the difference is quite enormous. Generally, an average whale can grow to the size of a school bus but captivity stunts the growth of these cetaceans. This stunted growth can be attributed to several factors such as the limited space, a difference in diet and the overall emotional and physical stress these whales are subjected to.
Me: Whales are said to be generally quite friendly to humans. What do you make of such violence as was the case of Tilikum?
Mr. Wobbler: In fact, when in the wild, whales are one of the most gentle and friendly creatures to a point that there is only one documented incidence of orca to human violence. The chances of such violence from orcas to humans out in the wild are slimmer to none despite the fact that man and whales have shared the ocean for over a thousand years. However, this is sadly not the case when these orcas are kept in captivity as proven by the numerous injury reports emanating from violent’ orcas to their trainers and worse even death. Such violence from these otherwise friendly creatures is triggered by several factors. First while in captivity, the orcas are much more susceptible to anger and subsequent violence as a result of years of confinement and isolation under unfriendly conditions. The distress caused by being in these circumstances may force an orca to retaliate against his/her trainer.
Secondly, orcas in the wild are able to live in pods or family units for their life time which means living in harmony. In case of disagreements within a pod, an orca has ample space to flee. This is however very unlikely for orcas in captivity since they are forced to live with other orcas who are not compatible or might not be of the same pod. These leads to violence amongst themselves and since there is nowhere for a captive orca to flee, it leads to physical and emotional distress.
Me: There is a notion however that orcas are mostly brought for educational purposes, the fact that they perform tricks is their way of bonding with humans. What is your take?
Mr. Wobbler: Getting knowledge about these orcas is the best way of bonding with these animals without necessarily having them perform forced tricks failure to which they are punished. Orcas in captivity tend to mute their senses due to the monotony of being in the same place and doing the same thing over and over for years. Besides, there are numerous books and researches on the behavioral set up and adaptations of whales that make up for good reading materials without necessarily having to keep them captive.