The documentary Blackfish has been making headlines since its release at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2013. Simply put, the film claims to tell the story of Tilikum, the SeaWorld Orlando-held orca responsible for the death of Dawn Brancheau in February of 2010. The film's accuracy is debatable as it clearly has an anti-captivity agenda. In fact, SeaWorld has responded to the film with these ads and this letter, and even the Brancheau family has stated, "Blackfish is not Dawn's story," adding, "Dawn would not have remained a trainer at SeaWorld for 15 years if she felt that the whales were not well cared for."
While the accuracy of the movie can be contested, what is undeniable is its effect. The SeaWorld parks have had an increase in protest activity, photo wire records show a decrease in celebrity visits to their parks, and several bands and artists have cancelled events at SeaWorld. Other anti-captivity projects such as the documentary film The Cove — which shows dolphin hunting practices in Japan, and Death at SeaWorld — a book by David Wise regarding the captive orca industry — have seen a rise is popularity following Blackfish's release. Even the ending for the upcoming Pixar movie Finding Dory was allegedly changed as a result of directors watching Blackfish.
Captivity ≠ abuse
All of this media hype has served to move to the forefront of general thought the treatment and care of all captive animals here in the U.S. This isn't a bad thing. Zoos, aquariums, circuses, wildlife sanctuaries and animal attractions should all be held accountable for the well-being of the animals they keep. While I don't agree with the recent push to elevate other animals to human status and provide them legally with personhood — that is the same rights you and I have as American citizens — I do agree that captive animals need to be cared for properly. There is never a valid reason to abuse an animal, especially if that abuse is simply to have the animal perform. But to argue for the complete dismantling of these facilities and release of the animals is, I think, going a bit far.
If you free Willy, will he survive?
Most of the animals in captivity today have been captive bred. They have never lived in the wild and to release them into a world they have no knowledge of would almost certainly sentence them to death. Of the 54 orcas currently in captivity in the world, only 10 were live-captured — the rest were all captive bred. The live-captures all occurred prior to 1988, and the orcas were all 4 years old or less when taken. To attempt to release these animals back into the ocean would be irresponsible and not in their best interest. If SeaWorld and other animal attractions like it go out of business, where will these animals live? Who will pay for the massive cost associated with their care?
Does the good outweigh the bad?
Animal attractions like SeaWorld have a place in our society. They allow children access to animals they would likely never see up close otherwise, and this close proximity can often stir within the child a passion they maintain through adulthood. Dawn Brancheau is a perfect example of this. Her family contends working with killer whales a lifelong dream fulfilled — a dream which started when she first visited SeaWorld at the age of 9. Most attractions also serve a purpose within the community, providing rescue and rehabilitation for animals and educational opportunities for kids. As a resident of Central Florida I especially see the positive impact these attractions have on marine life. As an example, Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) has earned worldwide attention for its rescue and care of Winter the dolphin, featured in the movie Dolphin Tale. This tiny aquarium provides 24-hour response for assistance with stranded cetaceans, sick or injured marine animals and sea turtle egg protection. And even as a smaller aquarium, CMA has an expansive educational outreach program that kids locally love.
It's unwise to discount Blackfish entirely, just as it's unwise to take it completely at face value. What is wise is talking about captive animals with your children, especially if you plan on visiting a facility that harbors them. How you present these creatures can have a massive effect on how your children see the industry as a whole.
Discussion points for kids
Talk to your kids about the "Five Freedoms" all captive animals should have before you go. While at the animal attraction, look for them and discuss if the facility is meeting these basic needs.
Look up information about the history of working animals in our country, to include police canines and U.S. Army horses. Discuss with your children the partnership humans and these types of animals have shared, and compare it to the relationships of the humans and animals at the attraction.
Watch online videos of animals in the wild to see their natural element and how they behave while in it. Compare this environment and behavior to what you see.
Find out about any rehabilitation or educational efforts the attraction participates in. Look for information about these efforts, to show your child how the facility is helping to better life for the animals in the wild.