The controversial documentary “Blackfish” (2013), exposes a horrible truth behind the lives of Orca whales in captivity. Since the films release, Sea World Parks and Entertainment has seen profits plummet by 84% with an annual loss of 1 million consumers. As expected, backlash against the organisation continued through protests from animal rights activists as well as the general public who were visibly upset and angered by the treatment of these animals and the cruel history of removing them from the ocean. This documentary successfully reached a wide range of audiences in order to communicate an important and necessary message about animal cruelty, however it also highlighted another important aspect of wildlife in captivity. This important aspect relates to the emotional connection between humans and animals, with the belief that their behaviours and intelligence are a reflection of ours. But are they?
In Blackfish, former trainers shared their experiences working with these killer whales. They reflected on the harmonious and exciting relationship they had with the Orcas. Trainers felt as if they were rewarded due to receiving a warm acceptance from the whales obeying their commands and body movements. There is no doubt that the Orcas intelligence and majestic appearance can overwhelm anyone. However within this ‘humanized’ relationship, ambitious trainers had clearly missed a dangerous point: It’s a wild animal that can display aggravated behaviour at any time. This fact was somewhat lost within the employees emotions and their connection to these Orcas. Blackfish had captured these feelings perfectly, as sadistic scenes caused audiences to show an emotional connection to the whales as if they were “just like us”.
Since these Orcas had been taken from the ocean, Sea World’s management regularly instructed trainers to starve the ones who weren’t willing to cooperate until they performed during a show. Other cruel actions included drilling the whales teeth, separating calves from their mothers, and keeping them in enclosures barely large enough to hold them so they could rest. It was actions like these that truly upset the Orca trainers, relating the behaviours of the whales to those that humans endure when they are experiencing a bad time in their life, including the incident of losing your own child. Unfortunately, there have been a large number of captive Orca attacks on human trainers in the past. One of the most recent attacks was in 2010 on experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World Orlando. Tilikum, the male Orca who killed Ms Brancheau and two others in the past, was labelled one of the friendliest and most harmless of all the Killer whales at Sea World Orlando. Did Tilikum attack Ms Brancheau because she mishandled him as Sea World stated, or was this attack nothing but a cry for help from a frustrated animal that has been deprived of it’s freedom?
The treatment of these Orcas had genuinely caused them long-term psychological issues. Biologist Heini Hediger points out in his research, that “The captive animal does not cease to regard man as an enemy immediately after capture; this decisive change of significance only happens in the course of getting used to the new situation of becoming tame”. He also notes that cages, enclosures and other ‘human’ accessories are of “sinister significance to the animal, and it tries to escape from them because it wants to get away from something”. This can be reflected in the behaviours of the Orca whales having to adjust to an unnatural environment, which in turn places a great deal of stress on the animal. Evidently, Orcas at Sea World Orlando, like Tilikum, were physically and mentally run-down. These humanized emotions could also be seen through the whales collapsed dorsal fin and its loss of structure. Its as if this fin represents a depressed animal, and this only happens to Orcas in captivity. The Sea World Fact checker website claims that the collpased dorsal fin is definitely not related to genetics, but related to stress, reduced swimming (fitness issues), and chemicals used in the water.
There was no reasoning behind capturing these creatures other than for human entertainment. We can say that their behaviours and emotions are “just like ours”, however the real reason for this behaviour is because the whales have failed to adapt safely into a new, small, man made enclosure which in turn causes many psychological issues for them. Orcas simply don’t belong in captivity. As former trainer Carol Ray stated in Blackfish, “The majority of the trainers had a great love and appreciation for the whales, but I am now able to see that it’s so misguided, to claim love for these animals and yet to support them being in confinement, it’s a great hypocrisy, really”.
More to come
1. Archual S 2017, 5 realizations about Orca whales, the wrongfulness of seaworld, after watching the movie ‘Blackfish’, viewed 30th March 2017, <https://democraticvoices.com/2014/11/can-seaworld-justify-inhumane-animal-treatment/>
2. Cronin M 2015, SeaWorld loses 1 million visitors as it clings to Orca captivity, viewed 30th March 2017, <https://www.thedodo.com/seaworld-stock-quarter-four-1012275533.html>
3. Hediger, H 1950, ‘The Problem of confined space’, in G Sircom & E Hindle (eds.), Wild Animals in Captivity, Butterworth Scientific Publications, London, pp. 43-48.
4. Sea World Fact Check 2017, Is the shape of a dorsal fin related to genetics?, viewed 31st March 2017, <http://www.seaworldfactcheck.com/dorsalfin.htm>