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A documentary critical of SeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales stirs some big ethical questions that San Diegans are continuing to grapple with.
Most of the discussions surrounding “Blackfish” – a documentary that shines a critical spotlight on SeaWorld – have been punctuated with passion, emotions and a lot of anger.
There’s a reason for that: The documentary, and the state Assembly bill it inspired that would drastically curb SeaWorld’s use of killer whales, provoke the kind of heated reaction that can only come from grappling with uncomfortable moral issues. The film leaves San Diego – the original home of SeaWorld – with serious questions to consider that hit at the heart of how we spend our money, entertain our children and interact with the world around us.
Here’s a breakdown of three of the major moral debates the movie has raised and amplified.
It’s a debate that’s gone on for decades.
Animal-rights organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have long panned circuses and zoos, comparing the latter to prisons that can’t match animals’ vast natural habitats.
“Blackfish” focuses solely on the plight of SeaWorld’s killer whales in captivity but viewers could easily come away with the larger takeaway that removing any animals from the wild is cruel – as assessment that has implications for all kinds of businesses that showcase animals, including other big local institutions like the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park.
“Animals are often prevented from doing most of the things that are natural and important to them, like running, roaming, flying, climbing, foraging, choosing a partner, and being with others of their own kind,” PETA writes in a web factsheet. “Zoos teach people that it is acceptable to interfere with animals and keep them locked up in captivity, where they are bored, cramped, lonely, deprived of all control over their lives, and far from their natural homes.”
Zoos, aquariums and marine parks argue they’re safe havens for animals and that visitors who encounter those creatures in these facilities feel more connected to them and take steps to protect them – both in the wild and in captivity.
SeaWorld is a member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, a nonprofit that advocates for such facilities and organized a 2007 study that assessed their impact. A group of researchers, which included a representative from AZA, queried more than 5,500 patrons of zoos and aquariums. More than half reportedly described an “elevated awareness of their role in conservation as a direct consequence of their visit” and more than 40 percent commented on the educational role these facilities play.
The AZA has also claimed zoos invest in endangered or ill animals and conduct research that helps those in the wild.
Advocates who have rallied around “Blackfish” say SeaWorld’s tendency to tout its research and care for troubled animals represents a deflection from the issue – and doesn’t make up for their lack of proper care of killer whales.
A SeaWorld spokesman told me the park spends “substantial” cash on animal rescue efforts. But SeaWorld declined to reveal a dollar figure, nor would it identify what percentage of its revenue it dedicates such efforts. Meanwhile, the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, a nonprofit affiliated with the company, has granted more than $10 million to more than 500 worldwide animal conservation, research and rescue projects since it was created in 2003. Some bloggers and the Oceanic Preservation Society, a marine conservation nonprofit, have noted that this sum is far smaller than the profits SeaWorld brings in.
Former SeaWorld senior trainer John Hargrove, who appeared in “Blackfish,” zeroed in on a related issue in an interview with L.A.’s KCRW last week: If animal care in captivity is truly the goal, why are SeaWorld’s killer whales still “in the same sterile concrete pools” the park has kept them in for decades?
The company has said it’s sunk $70 million into upgrades to those killer whale habitats in recent years.
Flies aren’t known for their intelligence and many folks don’t think much of squashing a distracting one.
Humans are generally fonder of critters that seem to have more dynamic personalities and pronounced social attachments.
Killer whales seem to fit the bill. In the wild, orcas mostly stick with their family groups and communicate with underwater sounds such as clicks and whistles. They also develop relationships with the humans who regularly interact with them at SeaWorld.
SeaWorld has long benefited from promoting these concepts too. Its killer whale shows, marketing efforts and animal displays have personified killer whales for decades. For a time, the park’s marketing team even ran a Shamu Twitter account where the whale acted like a human who made jokes and interacted with fans.
Some research on orcas has further developed the idea of whales as particularly perceptive creatures.
Lori Marino, a neuroscience lecturer at Emory University in Atlanta who appeared in “Blackfish,” has said killer whales are among the world’s most intelligent animals. (A South African neuroanatomy professor who recently spoke to U-T San Diego disputes this. In the same interview, he also referred to himself as Marino’s “arch nemesis.”)
And more than a decade ago, Nova Scotia-based biologist Hal Whitehead made headlines when he dubbed orcas the second most “cultural” species.
In a 2010 interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Whitehead described orcas’ practice of pushing their calves to go after seals and sea lions in beach areas as an example of killer whale culture.
“They have their way of doing things, which they’ve learned from their mother and their other relatives,” Whitehead told the newspaper.
The question, then, is whether SeaWorld’s care for these demonstrably intelligent, familial animals makes good on the moral obligation many humans feel toward them.
Former SeaWorld killer whale trainers interviewed in “Blackfish” have claimed the orcas suffer from broken teeth because they rub and ram equipment in their marine park tanks, and the whales sometimes regurgitate their food – all out of boredom. The movie also argues captivity can lead the orcas to become violent and shorten their lives.
SeaWorld counters that its animals are well cared for and that trainers regularly modify orcas’ daily activities to ensure they remain mentally stimulated.
Ten killer whales live at SeaWorld San Diego. “Blackfish” alleges they’re suffering in captivity.
Some San Diegans and others have decided SeaWorld’s ongoing confinement of orcas overshadows any good they may do here. Several readers have told me they and their children are boycotting SeaWorld, even if that means missing what was once a much-anticipated field trip or a school dance held there.
They’re uncomfortable – and often angry – that a marine park in their city may be mistreating intelligent marine mammals that can traverse dozens of miles of ocean each day in the wild.
Others are weighing which way to go. One parent told me he and his spouse recently decided not to renew their annual SeaWorld family pass after watching “Blackfish” but opted to allow their child to enjoy a field trip there with classmates. A handful of other readers tell me they’re still mulling whether to believe the charges laid out in “Blackfish.”
Meanwhile, the city continues to benefit from SeaWorld’s presence here. Last year, about 4.6 million people visited SeaWorld San Diego. Many of them visited with the park’s orcas and enjoyed the Shamu shows they starred in.
And in return for its prized 190 acres in Mission Bay Park, SeaWorld paid the city about $14 million in rent in 2013. It also brought in millions more in property and sales taxes, employed thousands of workers and rescued dozens of sea lions.
At least a few high-profile San Diegans are standing with SeaWorld, at least in part because of these factors. On Tuesday, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Councilwoman Lorie Zapf introduced a resolution that declared March “San Diego SeaWorld Anniversary Month” in honor of the park’s 50 years here. The symbolic gesture comes in the wake of the so-called “Blackfish Bill” introduced by a Santa Monica-based assemblyman earlier this month.
Other San Diego politicos have been less explicit about their views. Only Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has publicly said she’s likely to support the legislation, though her public comments on the issue have centered on SeaWorld’s treatment of employees rather than its orcas.
But the sustained uproar generated by the movie, the boycotts by celebrities and others, the regular protests outside of SeaWorld’s gates and even the impassioned pleas in our own comments section make clear that not everyone is convinced that the money SeaWorld generates for the city and the rescue work it does in the wild is worth the tradeoff.
The proposed measure may force both San Diego leaders and residents to decide whether they believe the allegations in the movie and if they support SeaWorld’s current business model going forward.
This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – How SeaWorld’s Pursuit to Personify Its Whales Backfired – and the next in our series – That Time SeaWorld Tried to Slash Its Rent by 70 Percent.