By Eva Posner
Blackfish has been on my DVR since it aired on CNN for the first time in October. I knew I should watch it but I didn’t want to. I’ve never been to SeaWorld, and I wanted to go. I wanted to see the whales. I wanted to watch them jump in the air and wave at me. It’s really selfish, and maybe not the best thing to admit, but I didn’t want to see Blackfish because I didn’t want to feel guilty about thinking the whale show was super cute.
Last night, I decided to woman up and turn it on. Which lead to the most depressing 90 minutes I have spent in front of a TV in a long time, and relief that I never did make it SeaWorld. Because I would have been disgusted with myself.
“Blackfish” follows the story of Tilikum, an orca (or “killer whale”) captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983 who has been at SeaWorld Orlando since 1992. The film follows a history of violence by “Tili” and the three human deaths he has been associated with. The story culminates in Tili pulling senior trainer Dawn Brancheau into the water and killing her in 2010.
It makes a convincing case against keeping orcas in captivity, not only for the whales’ sake, but for the safety of employees at aquatic parks as well.
There are some facts from the documentary that make it a pretty open and shut case for me:
- The mortality rate of captive orcas is 2.5 times higher than their wild counterparts.
- There is no record of an orca ever killing a human in the wild.
- Although in the wild, orcas breed in their early teens and babies never leave their mothers, SeaWorld breeds its orcas at 5 or 6 and separates the families.
- In the wild, orcas live in pods with their families. At SeaWorld, different whales from different families are strewn together in whatever amalgamation will sell the most tickets and result in the most prolific breeding. This causes tension and violence between the whales who ram each other and “rake” each other with their teeth. These acts of aggression have resulted in the injuries and deaths of multiple whales. (Including a serious injury at our local park last year.)
- Housing marine mammals that are not compatible with each other violates the Animal Welfare Act.
There are three SeaWorld aquatic parks in the United States: Orlando, San Antonio, and right here in San Diego. You all know where it is. You can’t miss the signs, or the giant Christmas tree, or those obnoxious summertime fireworks.
SeaWorld San Diego was the home of the very first orca show, done in 1965 by a female orca named Shamu, who became the mascot of the park. What is less known is that Shamu was taken from the wild, and that her mother was killed with a harpoon gun during the capture. Shamu herself became violent with trainers, and died in 1971 at 10 years old.
It’s not only the whales we should worry about; human lives are at stake too. There have been over 100 incidents between captive orcas and humans. With minimal research I was able to find that at least 48 of those incidents happened here in San Diego. And there are likely countless more. It was only 2006 when trainer Ken Peters was attacked during a whale show and dragged to the bottom of the pool by his foot. Orcas have lunged at trainers since then. It’s likely just a matter of time before another serious incident occurs and someone gets hurt or killed.
The movie asserts that the orcas are driven to psychosis by their unnaturally small environments, discipline by their trainers, and unnatural social order in the parks. Whether you buy into whales going crazy or not, the fact is that these are large predatory animals with instincts to hunt. They are not the giant aquatic teddy bears the “Shamu Shows” lead crowds to believe.
After the death of Brancheau in 2010 the Occupational Saftey and Heath Administration (OSHA) cited SeaWorld for “willfull” safety violations and told the company to keep trainers at a safe distance from the whales or put physical barriers up. SeaWorld has appealed more than once, and the decision has been upheld as recently as last year. Although SeaWorld has stopped allowing trainers in the water, they are continuing “dry work”, when the whales are up on a stage or platform and the trainers pet, kiss and cuddle them. Brancheau was doing dry work when she was killed. And that doesn’t even count the contact with the orcas that trainers and veterinary staff have when there isn’t an audience.
The company has also gone on the offensive regarding Blackfish. Although invited to be interviewd for the film multiple times, SeaWorld declined. Now it calls the film one sided and misleading. Friday it took out whole page ads in the U-T San Diego, Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, and other papers to “set the record straight.” The “open letter” can also be found on SeaWorld’s website.
As the municipality in which a SeaWorld park is located, the city of San Diego should do something to end the animal and employee abuse in Mission Bay.
The city currently leases the land that SeaWorld sits on to the company at an extremely cheap rate, where the park discharges massive amounts of polluted water into Mission Bay with near impunity.
Could the City Council vote to revoke the lease? Could the City Attorney sue for animal cruelty and willful endangerment of employees? Could someone bring this up in the mayoral election and see if Alavarez and Faulconer have any ideas?
There will be arguments from opponents of job loss and revenue loss. There will arguably be an effect on the local economy, though I doubt it would be very big considering the deals SeaWorld gets.
What could replace it? Maybe a less cruel theme park. Dollywood? (Yea, I’m Southern.) Don’t we still need a place to build that damn football stadium that we are going to undoubtedly waste taxpayer money on? There’s tons of parking already. We could rename SeaWorld Drive to Chargers Boulevard or something. Everybody wins. Well, the Chargers win. And the orcas. And the trainers who won’t die.
There are holes in this position: For one, SeaWorld is taking the brunt of criticism for an entire industry. There is also a larger issue of wild animals being in captivity that needs to eventually be debated. (I am not advocating shutting down or even boycotting the San Diego zoo. That could be seen as hypocritical.) And to be fair, SeaWorld does do some good conservation work with turtles, manatees, and other species that is largely being overlooked and would likely be misplaced if the company closed.
Maybe we don’t have to close it. Maybe we can just get them to free the whales. And dolphins. And seals.
I know San Diego has a lot of issues and a lot of fights at present. There’s the fight for Barrio Logan, the fight for the mayor’s office, the fight for pensions and a balanced budget that still invests in essential services, children and vulnerable populations. Those only scratch the surface. But this is something we should add to our list. It’s a fight that needs to be had.
I will be doing more research, and will likely write again on the issue. It’s been a while since I’ve been this worked up over a company that wasn’t Walmart or BP.
I will never go to SeaWorld. I will never allow my son to go to SeaWorld. I will never recommend SeaWorld to friends and family who come to town. I recommend you take the same stance. I recommend you pressure your city councilmemeber to take a hard line on the issue. I also recommend you watch Blackfish, because misery loves company and, man, am I sad.