by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Stock footage, capture, and captivity
The following blog series is a point-by-point rebuttal to SeaWorld, following SeaWorld's critical reaction to the controversial 2013 documentary, Blackfish. Each blog entry will present an argument made by SeaWorld and a rebuttal by Barry MacKay.
The movie Blackfish is categorized as a documentary. It is more of a polemic, presumably, to some degree, as a result of the inability of its producers to engage SeaWorld apologists in on-camera dialogue. Now, SeaWorld is speaking out, claiming that Blackfish is misleading. We have reviewed two very similar online defenses from SeaWorld (there may be more) and we will address arguments made in both. They are arguments quite typical of what we have encountered through many years from the zoo and aquarium industry.
The Blackfish filmmakers don’t need us to defend their film, it is true—and, they indeed have access to far more information about both the film and SeaWorld than do we. But, orcas and other marine life need all the help we and other animal protection and conservation organizations can provide, in order to counter zoo and aquarium industry propaganda that rationalizes the captivity of such species. This propaganda must continually be critically analyzed if the public is to have any chance of coming to informed opinions. Public opinion is important in informing government policy, which thus reflects public values.
None of us can be immune from bias formed by our own values, and we will state ours; we want what is best for the animals, both as individuals (achieved through welfare) and as species (achieved through conservation) and their supportive habitat (achieved through environmentalism). We have no economic interest in SeaWorld, Blackfish, or orcas beyond support given to us by the public and granting agencies.
Of course, SeaWorld also claims an interest in animal welfare, conservation, and environmentalism--thus the need for critical analysis of their critique of Blackfish.
If you have not seen the film, we suggest you read no further until you have done so. If you have seen it, what we’d like to do here is address at least some of SeaWorld’s more serious accusations against Blackfish, and then our more general concerns about facilities like SeaWorld, Canada’s Marineland, and various other commercial facilities that hold captive wildlife. We assume anyone reading past this paragraph has at least some familiarity with the controversy, and has visited SeaWorld or places like it, and has seen the film Blackfish.
As a brief summary, Blackfish explores the horrific death of one of its trainers, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010. She was killed by Tilikum, the orca who had been involved in previous “accidents” with trainers, drowning one and almost certainly killing a human intruder. The film also explores the circumstances surrounding the capture and captive maintenance of orcas (also known as “killer whales,” as they are highly predatory in the wild—but are actually the largest dolphins—not technically whales, though related to whales). “Blackfish” is another term for the species.
Stock Footage, capture, and captivity:
SeaWorld has claimed, “Blackfish employs false and emotionally manipulative sequences concerning the collection and separation of killer whales: Through stock footage and video mismatched to the narrative, the film implies that the SeaWorld collects killer whales from the wild and separates mothers and calves. NEITHER IS TRUE.” (Emphasis theirs).
SeaWorld has, to date, refused open debate with the producers of Blackfish (or those involved with another movie about cetacean abuse, The Cove). But, one thing they might do is show film of capture that is contemporary or recent. It is extremely difficult to obtain any film of orca capture, simply because the process of wild capture is brutal by nature and cannot help but separate animals, who otherwise live in a communal structure, from their cohorts. Thus, the people who capture cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) do not want us to see the practice.
SeaWorld seems to think it is misleading to show “stock” footage that is forty years old, but does not explain what is fundamentally different in the film from current capture methods. Given the longevity of orcas, how can the age of that film be relevant? Young orcas captured at that time would still be alive in captivity today.
SeaWorld states that it had not collected orcas in 35 years. That, of course, means that they were doing what the “stock” footage shows, up until within five years of when it stopped directly taking orcas from the wild, opting to pay others to do so. Orcas are not a domestic animal, and all orcas held captive were either taken from the wild, or their parents were taken from the wild.
Orcas do poorly in captivity, and captive breeding produces high infant mortality. Thus, captive breeding cannot maintain the captive population required by SeaWorld and similar facilities. That is why they resort to artificial insemination, as documented in Blackfish—even using sperm garnered from freshly dead orcas. While it might be argued by some that it is anthropomorphic to call the process by which the female captive orca is inseminated with such semen as “rape” (the term that would certainly apply to an analogous situation involving humans), the process is neither beneficial to, nor chosen by, the female. It is not natural, nor is it the natural outcome of complex social interactions that occur in wild orca communities. The resulting offspring, if any, are not the result of natural or sexual selection that occurs in the wild.
The term “stock footage” is often used to denigrate points being made about activities done by people or institutions who routinely avoid public scrutiny. The implication is that, by not being current, “stock footage” shows something that no longer occurs. But, unless the nature of the activity has changed in some significant way, the fact that the footage is relatively old or widely available is irrelevant. Film that shows what an atomic bomb blast can do to a structure is now quite old, but that does not render it inaccurate or of no educational value. There is no gentle way to capture an animal whose weight is measured in tons.