Energy, News, and Climate / Policy

Free Willy?

A few thoughts from last night’s showing of Blackfish on CNN

File photo of Tillikum, a killer whale at SeaWorld amusement park, performing during the show "Believe" in Orlando

As a young girl, I remember being amazed by the whale shows of SeaWorld. I begged my parents until they took me to swim with dolphins. I dreamed of being a trainer and having the opportunity to interact with these amazing animals ever day. I am now a marine scientist that just watched the Blackfish documentary on Orcas in captivity and I would like to share a few reactions to the film.

The accidents and the preceding events mentioned in the film are complete tragedies both to the people who’s lives were forever altered, but also to the whales that were involved. Rather than place blame on “an aggressive whale” or “a trainer’s mistake,” let’s ignore the practiced political statements and consider the conditions that lead to up to these events so we can decide how we should move forward.

A valid point brought up in discussion following the film is “to be compelled to save something, you must first love it.” I completely agree. It is important for people to be able to connect with the animals that we aim to conserve. It is also great to give people the opportunity to see these animals first hand and learn about them in places such as zoos and aquariums. I worked at an aquarium in college and still love visiting them. I think it is worth noting, however, that observing animals in “natural” settings is much different than watching them perform.

The next point I’d like to highlight was from Dr. Naomi Rose. In some cases, zoos and aquariums can make habitats that are completely suitable for the animals they house. In these cases, the previous point stands. Zoos and aquariums are great education and outreach tools. But is it really feasible to make a habitat both physically and emotionally suitable for an Orca? Probably not.

The last thing that really stuck in my mind was a quote from the film: “I think we are going to look back in 50 years and see how barbaric this practice is.” Captivity itself is a highly debated issue that I am not going to dive into, but I think this quote is worth some reflection. Yes, everyone loves to see whales and dolphins up close. Yes, operations such as SeaWorld contribute to rehabilitation and conservation efforts. But do those objectives require that the model of “SeaWorld” we have created remains the same? What if we changed this model? Traded cement enclosures for more suitable habitats? Shifted from an entertaining tourist attraction to a unique educational experience? Included both animal and human well-being as top priorities? The possibilities are endless. I hope that Blackfish will open people’s eyes to these issues so we can start taking steps towards a better (sea)world for everyone.

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