The Blackfish Movie Makes You Think

CNN recently aired the Blackfish film by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and it has sparked deep conversations among parents, animal lovers and zoo aficionados. Much of the film is about SeaWorld and the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, by Tillikum, the 12,000 pound orca she trained.

I think this is an important conversation but the reaction to the movie has become very hostile to Sea World specifically and perhaps zoos in general that keep larger animals. I can land a lot of different places on this subject. I think Sea World brings stories to people they likely will not get other places and generally takes great care of their animals. Their trainers are obviously dedicated to their work so it was chilling to hear former trainers talk about their concerns about keeping whales in captivity to do entertaining shows. I hope Sea World does not go away or stay away from challenging stories about sea life. I do hope their educational and interpretive mission grows stronger. It seemed much more important in their programming when Harcourt Brace Jovanivich (textbook company) owned the properties than it has since then in the ownership of Busch Entertainment and then Blackstone Entertainment, the current major stockholder.

The conversation surrounding this and related issues matters a lot. Is it appropriate to keep all kinds of animals in captivity for educational purposes? Should they be in shows that are primarily entertainment and interpretation/education secondarily? Should they be kept in wildlife parks, zoos or aquariums with no conservation messages that explain their presence?

When I was very young (1950s) I saw a chimpanzee that would box any man who wished to enter the ring and attempt to win $50. I first worried about the welfare of the chimpanzee and then watched him knock down every amateur boxer in less than 15 seconds. They were no match for his pugilistic skills wearing human boxing gloves. But it seemed a terrible, exploitive use of a chimpanzee.

Elephants, orcas, belugas, dolphins, chimpanzees, wolves, gorillas, orangutans and many other animals are so social, smart and active, that even the best captive habitats may or may not be enough to keep them physically and psychologically healthy. But people seeing them in captive programs often donate money for research, protection and interpretation that is vital to conservation of these animals. But when the animal becomes just a SHOW with fireworks, loud music and behaviors that do not resemble their natural behaviors at all, is it appropriate? Do we or should we have some ethical sense of social justice for animals?

People have definitely made progress the past 50 years in caring for captive animals. I doubt anyone in the United States (and some other countries) wants to see the boxing chimpanzee at their local zoo or circus. But many animal shows still seem more exploitive than educational. Should we exploit the animals for profit? That is one of the tough questions tackled in the movie Blackfish.

More than 35,000 elephants are being killed annually in Africa for their ivory. We could see their complete disappearance from nature without extraordinary conservation efforts and education must be part of that. African Wildlife Trust, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and others are trying to do more educationally. Does a circus elephant show aid that effort or simply add to the exploitation of elephants?

Some consider mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo to be exploitive, but gorilla numbers have grown from 230 a decade ago to 880 this past year due to tourism that takes people close to habituated gorilla families. Is it too much? Does a gorilla exhibit in a zoo make a valuable contribution to gorilla conservation? I think so. I hope so.

I’m not opposed to animal programs, aquariums interpreting marine mammals or zoos, but I think our ethics about care of captive animals have evolved slowly. It’s essential to keep the conversations going. Let’s be kind to each other in the process. We may not all agree on every decision made about captive animals, but let’s keep talking. Let’s keep adding animals to our sense of humanity and humane care.

Blackfish has a “point of view” you may share or the movie may offend you. I might have suggested that the movie’s script be more clear about the important questions that are being asked so that it would be easier for viewers to sort out the various issues that are threaded throughout the film. The story is much bigger than one corporation’s culpability (or lack of culpability) in one trainer’s death or the welfare of one orca taken from the wild. Unfortunately, many viewers focus on those aspects of the film instead of thinking through all the implications and variations of the notion of keeping animals in captivity. In fact, the movie shares a number of important stories about captive orcas and the concerns of all involved. Thoughtful viewers can expand that discussion to take a hard look at how we interact with other animal species as well.

I urge you to watch the film and take part in thoughtful discussions about these important ideas. Ultimately I hope we see some changes at Sea World but I also recognize these issues are complex and not easily answered. Condemnation of Sea World probably helps no one but encouraging more ethical treatment of animals in captivity while these conversations continue helps everyone, especially the animals who may have landed in our care.

Tim Merriman

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

2 thoughts on “The Blackfish Movie Makes You Think

  1. Thanks for posting on this Tim. I am having a really hard time justifying educational value at the expense of a lifetime of inhumane treatment, as documented in this movie, of even just one whale. This story is just so sad and it’s presently ongoing. The suffering caused by just one whale in captivity is exponentially crushing…the whale, it’s family that it was taken away from, and injuries and loss of life of human trainers just to mention a few.

    I depart with a closing quote by Gandhi: The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

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