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!)
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. This is the final entry.
In any social dichotomy of the type represented by SeaWorld’s antipathy toward the film Blackfish, there tends to be certain tactics employed. Usually, it is use of language, by both sides, to support a specific bias or to emphasize those points favorable to a given position. But, there is also the tactic of either using, or abusing, current or former employees’ opinions.
Such opinions are provided in both sides of the Blackfish/SeaWorld controversy. This is, as we say, a commonplace tactic in any polemic that advances a theory, and is usually posited thus: employees supporting the institution being criticized are credible by virtue of having employees’ insider information and personal experience, and employees are considered 'disgruntled ex-employees' if they oppose, to any significant degree, what the institution did.
Employees critical of the institution—and this is most certainly true of employees of the zoo and aquarium industry—face several hurdles. They may be challenging an institution with far greater resources than their own, thus capable of launching “slap suits” against the former employees, costing those ex-workers more money than they have to defend themselves (even though, were they able to afford it, they’d win in the end). Or, the critical employees may wish to continue working in the zoo and aquarium industry, and know that they will be blackballed if they dare to speak out. They risk having their own personal reputations sullied by smear campaigns, since they tend to be less sophisticated, and have far fewer resources, than the owners of the institutions whose claims they challenge. Finally, there is the embarrassment of admitting to having initially been wrong, since most people who work in the zoo and aquarium industry at the trainer or keeper level so do out of a passionate desire to be close to various (normally inaccessible) animal species.
Blackfish may, as its critics claim, illustrate certain parts of the audio narrative with video that shows something very different. Certainly, the structure of the film is inevitably theatrical, designed to generate emotional reaction. It could hardly be otherwise, given the practical need to telescope a wide spectrum of events over time into a watchable length, with entertainment value.
That said, the apologists who are former or current staff seem to miss the point. For example, it is not that every orca calf (not many) born at SeaWorld is separated from the mother—but, rather, that they would not be there in the first place but for such initial separation in the wild. It hardly matters which trainer was standing on the back of which orca; the act of anyone doing this is inherently silly. It teaches us nothing about orcas, beyond that they allow themselves to be “trained” to do tricks and are capable of swimming in relatively tight circles (which, of course, puts trainers at some degree of risk).
There is, in employees’ defense of SeaWorld, an allusion to Tilikum, the orca involved in the “accident” that took trainer Dawn Brancheau’s life. The same orca was also in a tank in Canada in 1991, where another trainer was killed, drowned by the three orcas in the tank. Does it really matter that Tilikum was only one of three orcas? The fact is, a 20-year-old competitive swimmer was in the tank with Tilikum and two pregnant orcas when she was held under water and prevented from grasping a life ring by the orcas. She screamed for help, surfacing three times before dying.
Similarly, Tilikum was in a tank in 1999 when a 27-year-old visitor, who had hidden himself and remained as a trespasser on SeaWorld property after hours, unseen, entered Tilikum’s tank. The intruder’s naked body was later found draped over Tilikum, the man’s body mutilated, genitals reportedly bitten off. Does it matter that his death may have finally been from drowning or hypothermia? Does it matter that he did a foolish thing? He didn’t mutilate himself, and it strains credulity to assume that the orca was somehow not involved in the man’s demise.
And, finally, does it really matter that the report stated that Dawn Brancheau’s arm was not actually swallowed by Tilikum, when an autopsy showed that she had a severed spinal cord, as well as a fractured jaw, fractured ribs, and fractured cervical vertebrae?
And, does it matter that SeaWorld does not, itself, take orcas from the wild, but rather pays others to do so? Does it matter that these young orcas separated from their mothers were older than they were when the photos of them shown in Blackfish were taken? Isn’t the point that the industry couldn’t survive without taking animals from the wild, without separating them?
We fully understand that there are people who think that what is achieved from placing orcas in captivity justifies the practice. Throughout human history, animals and people have been, and continue to be, abused in return for a wide range of “benefits.” The people doing the abusing invariably support it based on their own value systems, and, more to the point, are thereby critical of others who don’t share such value systems. The history of social reform is one of conflict between opposing value systems, after all. We cannot resolve such conflicts here. The dialogue is always valuable, and as we said at the outset, the producers of Blackfish can defend themselves. We would urge SeaWorld to take advantage of their offer to have an open debate.
But, that said, if one’s concern is the welfare of animals, then imprisoning orcas for the reasons described in this blog series makes no sense—and is demonstrably not in the orcas’ interests. It is true that the practice of keeping captive orcas has helped result in a shift in public opinion of them overall, although we believe that it has not resulted in a significantly improved understanding of orcas.
It is long past time for the practice of maintaining cetaceans in captivity to be halted.