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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Well, God bless Willie Nelson.

The country legend has canceled a coming performance at SeaWorld Orlando because of a CNN documentary called Blackfish, a profoundly disturbing account of the theme park’s exploitation of captive killer whales.

If you haven’t yet seen Blackfish, download it today. The film has been shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination, with good reason.

Last week, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart also scratched a SeaWorld show amid the outcry. The rock group has roots in Seattle, which isn’t far from the site of brutal roundups of baby killer whales during the late 1960s and early ’70s.

The early minutes of Blackfish present footage of one such expedition, and it’s heart-wrenching to observe the misery of the adult whales as the young ones are netted and loaded on ships. (Those that died were slit open, loaded with weights and sunk to conceal the evidence.)

One of those captured whales is still performing as “Lolita” at the Miami Seaquarium. Another that was snatched 30 years ago from the waters off Iceland is in the Shamu extravaganza at SeaWorld Orlando.

Its name is Tilikum, the subject of Blackfish. At six tons, “Tili” is said to be the largest bull orca in captivity. It’s also one of the most volatile and emotionally damaged, involved in three human deaths.

The first occurred in 1991 at a cut-rate attraction in British Columbia. A young student worker was killed after she slipped into a tank holding Tilikum and two other orcas. The facility closed permanently after the tragedy, but Tilikum was purchased by SeaWorld and put on display in Orlando.

In 1990, a man slipped past employees and climbed into Tilikum’s tank at night. The next morning the man was found dead, mutilated and draped naked across the whale’s back. Cause of death was ruled to be drowning or hypothermia.

Then, in February 2010, Tilikum fatally mauled a veteran trainer, Dawn Brancheau, as horrified tourists videotaped the sequence. SeaWorld said the accident was Brancheau’s fault, implying that she somehow agitated the whale with her ponytail.

The accusation infuriated other trainers, some of whom speak out in the documentary. After a hearing, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ruled that SeaWorld subjected its trainers to a hazardous environment, and ordered barriers erected to separate the whales from the employees.

A federal judge agreed. The company has appealed.

Orcas are complex, highly intelligent mammals that in the wild would be traveling vast distances in close-knit family pods. Captive specimens spend their days in glorified guppy ponds performing stunts designed purely to amuse paying customers.

In a toothless response to Blackfish, Michael Scarpuzzi of San Diego SeaWorld defended the company’s “educational presentation” of orcas, and noted the thousands of uneventful interactions between trainers and whales during “exercise, play and enrichment.”

  • tdm3624

    Just watched this documentary. It was pretty good. It’s disturbing that SeaWorld downplayed the danger orcas pose to trainers.If SeaWorld had advised them of the risk (up to and including death), and paid them accordingly for that risk, I don’t see why someone shouldn’t be allowed to take that risk. People do it all the time in professional sports like football.

    • Independent1

      I don’t think the real issue is the safety of the trainers. I think the documentary is raising the question in the minds of many as to whether or not it’s okay to imprison animals for years, away from their natural environment, just for the entertainment of humans that can afford to pay for a trip to places like Sea World? I have to admit that Sea World was one our families favorite parks to visit in Florida when our children were growing up. But we didn’t understand then that these wonderful creatures were actually suffering as much as they do in captivity.

      Thinking more about it now, it’s becoming my feeling that if people want to see whales, there are plenty of whale watching companies, not only here in Maine, but also in many coastal towns and cities around the country; where people can pay to sea whales, many varieties of them, in their natural environment, instead of having places like Sea World subjecting Orcas to what amounts to torture for years on end.

  • Of course, Free Willy also wound up serving as a prime example of why this practice can’t just be halted and the orcas released either. They DID release Keiko, the orca from that movie, and the first thing it did was seek out human contact.

    I’m also not sure what to think about the allegations that SeaWorld “downplayed” the risk. I had the privilege of going to school with a couple of people who wanted to do exactly that when they grew up; the danger was part of the appeal for them.

    My advice to all would be to consider a policy of honesty and compromise. Animal rights activists need to accept the fact that, given most captive orcas have been such for decades, that releasing them would be even more unethical, and that, for all of its faults, captive training is the only reason we haven’t as a nation returned to whaling. SeaWorld etc. in turn need to be very open about both the ethics and the danger of their practices and try to reform their business model whenever the possibility presents itself.

    • amphiox

      Before that “seeking of contact” with humans, Keiko swam across the entire Atlantic Ocean, a journey of months where he lived as a wild Orca. In the last year of his life, he was put in a bay where he was could come and go as he pleased, and he frequently did. He socialized often with other wild Orca. What does it matter if he was still attracted to humans some of the time? What does it matter if his circle came to include both humans and other whales? The important thing was he chose it, and was allowed to choose. That is the very definition of “free”. As far as I am concerned, the release was successful, and it would be a great thing if every captive cetacean could be treated the same as that.

      Is Jane Goodall not free because she chooses to spend a lot of her time away from other humans and socializing with chimpanzees?

      • Except that the people he was interacting with had little to no experience with orcas and were interacting with him in a completely uncontrolled environment. Consider that Dawn Brancheau, the trainer killed in 2010, was a ten-year veteran professional orca trainer, now imagine people whose only experience with orcas was watching the Shamu show trying to do what she did.

        The sad reality is that this is a crap situation from which there are no fix-all solutions. “Free Willy” romanced the “set them free” approach, but I hardly see how that was any more responsible than any of the alternatives.

        • amphiox

          You are a human on a ship. You see a killer whale in the wild. It is very friendly, seeming to seek contact with you. BUT, you are a human being ON A BOAT. In this particular case, a VERY BIG boat, a boat from which Keiko would have had no chance of even touching any of the humans on board, if the humans had not, on THEIR part, deliberately sought him out, and come closer to him, leaning over the ship rails.

          In a situation like this, what happens next in on YOU, the presumably intelligent human being, who, being FREE, chose to interact with a 6 tonne animal, apparently friendly, in the wild.

          I find your false equivocation of the options in this situation an untenable argument.

          There were many options available, none of which were ideal. But that DOESN’T mean that they were, by default, identical in worth. And it doesn’t matter by what metric you measure it, there is no reasonable argument that what was done with him in the attempt to free him was not better by orders of magnitude than the alternative of keeping him captive.

          If you want to talk about safety to humans, humans encountering a friendly Keiko in the wild and CHOOSING, as FREE WILLED INDIVIDUALS, to continue to interact with him, were not in any significant degree more danger from him than human tourists that would have encountered him in captivity.

          If you want to talk about safety to Keiko himself, the risks he was exposed to as a whale with a dangerous fascination for humans, vis-a-vis ship strikes or aggression from unfriendly humans, was still much less than the damage to his health he would have accrued had he remained captive.

          And if you want to talk about Keiko’s emotional health, there’s just no comparison whatsoever.

          There is simply no way that any humane, reasonable person could deny that of all the imperfect options available with respect to what to do with Keiko, that was WAS done, the attempt to release him and all that followed from it, though not a perfect option (as if such things exist in real life for anything, ever) was BY FAR, the best of all those available, imperfect options.

          And it is exactly the kind of thing we should do for all captive cetaceans, with the process improved based on what we learned with Keiko.

  • Chumba Wumba

    While altruism enabled our ancestors to survive in the bands and troops of primeval times, altruistic cooperation cannot work outside of small homogeneous groups that share common ways and perceptions.

  • One Thirsty Bear

    Selecting one’s government, through democratic processes or otherwise, is by no means a guarantee of liberty.

  • ExVariable

    Unfettered worship of democracy can be dangerous because democracy is often confused with liberty, may be diametrically opposed to liberty, and is often exploited by those pursuing their own egotistical agenda.