Killer Whale
July 19, 2013 6:02 PM   Subscribe

The release today of the documentary Blackfish has SeaWorld, the setting of the documentary, in an unusually aggressive yet defensive public relations battle with the makers of the film. The film centers on the orca that perform in captivity at SeaWorld, and explores the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau by the actions of the orca Tilikum. In January, the documentary series Frontline explored the world of captive cetaceans, particualrly at SeaWorld in their film, A Whale of a Business. posted by Toekneesan (37 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I watched some of this and followed the initial accusations by a former employee. I also followed the Tilikum killings. I find it horrible that we keep animals like this for nothing more than amusement. I think the mission of SeaWorld may have broader aspects (get people interested in marine biology, does research, etc.), but at the end of the day I think the bad far outweighs the good. I think saying SeaWorld has a PR beetle ahead is an understatement.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:07 PM on July 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

SeaWorld has a PR beetle ahead

posted by GoingToShopping at 6:49 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

A friend of mine reviewed Blackfish for my site. He got to see it early on the festival circuit, and really dug the film.

The Dissolve (the site where the AV Club writers who left defected to) did a pretty good review of it too.
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 7:26 PM on July 19, 2013

SeaWorld executives say that without access to the whales — which are now bred at the parks, rather than captured wild — humans would be denied a connection to large, intelligent animals with which many feel a bond.

Yes, of course. Being able to torture whales by keeping them confined alone in tiny tanks until they go mad with loneliness, become so unwell that they end up living a third of their ordinary lifespan, and then forcing them to do tricks for gawking tourists is totally essential for human wellbeing.

Fuck these people.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:34 PM on July 19, 2013 [26 favorites]

I sort of feel like whales are sentient beings.

I could be totally wrong on this, but. (Anthropomophization, yadda yadda.) Do we have the right? And if they are, is a human life worth a whale's life? I really don't know. But what I do know is that this-- all of this-- is fucked up and bullshit.
posted by dogheart at 7:44 PM on July 19, 2013

I am not surprised they are aggressive; they make their living by convincing kids that they should insist their parents take them, because they love animals. The kids may not be so eager when they realize that the foundation of that is capturing and torturing to insanity some very intelligent, social creatures.
posted by tavella at 7:57 PM on July 19, 2013

Well, dolphins are people too, or something like that.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:18 PM on July 19, 2013

I freely admit that I know next to nothing about this topic, but, nevertheless, I can't help myself from judging the shape of the dorsal fins of these orcas as indicators of their overall health and well being.

I've never seen footage of an orca in the wild that had a droopy dorsal fin. Yet, it seems to me that practically every captive orca has the trademark droopy dorsal fin.

I've no idea if that holds true in every case, but it sure seems like it to me.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 9:51 PM on July 19, 2013

I freely admit that I know next to nothing about this topic, but, nevertheless, I can't help myself from judging the shape of the dorsal fins of these orcas as indicators of their overall health and well being.

I've always thought this/been told this as well. First time I've thought about it that I've looked anything up though, someone's done an MS thesis on it, which I found out about here. Seems like a variety of factors contribute, but the thesis suggests it's mostly caused by fitness and feeding habits. Other places have talked about how it's an atrophy of the fin's cartilage due to swimming in small tanks, often near the surface.

I don't think there's any real consensus (but I freely admit I don't know anything beyond what I've read/posted about here). Regardless, it depresses the hell out of me.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 10:26 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not thrilled the idea of keeping any dolphins in captivity, especially just for show. But I am kind of okay with smaller dolphins. It's not great, and their capture is horrific. But I can believe the might live an adequate life in captivity. Not a great life, but in the right circumstances and the right facilities, is probably not much different than keeping apes or parrots in captivity.

Not orcas. Every story about orcas in captivity is a tragedy. From too small a space, to the unnecessary deaths that captive life causes. Seaworld claims they're born in captivity, but they don't explain the number of deaths of babies and mothers that occur. They should absolutely be banned.

The thing I worry about is what to do with the ones currently in captivity. Do we just release them? What about the ones born that were born in captivity and survived? Or ones that have been in captivity a decade or two. And is releasing a killer killer whale the best idea?
posted by [insert clever name here] at 10:36 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

The sense that I get from just the first page of the Outside article, The Killer in the Pool, is eerily familiar.

"Every safety protocol that we have failed," SeaWorld director of animal training Kelly Flaherty Clark told me a month after the incident, her voice still tight with emotion.

I have to combine this with the recent big-cat keeper deaths -- Sarah McClay in the UK, Dianna Hanson in the US, a female zookeeper in Germany, a man in Italy, and even an elephant trainer in New Zealand -- and I somehow get the sense that worker safety around wild animals is somehow not being taken seriously, even by those familiar with them.

(Even echoed, half a century ago, in this Madison incident where a child got near the safety fence and was grabbed by an elephant's trunk. The very same elephant, retired to a sanctuary years later, would kill a handler in 2006.)

It's all a bit like the NASA culture that is said to have allowed both Challenger and Columbia to have fatal accidents -- a sense that "we've been fine so far". Even in the face of evidence -- O-ring damage and tile damage -- that should have alerted engineers to the risk they were facing each time one launched. Experts looking at this in hindsight have been alarmed, noting that NASA was choosing to predict future results based not on the damage that they saw, but the lack of catastrophic results thus far (I'm sure someone else could phrase this more felicitously, but it's been a long time since I've looked at the literature).

I guess another analogy could be individual drunk drivers, who can all be said to be "safe" before the first time they have a serious accident, except that they were all drunk and it was only a matter of time.
posted by dhartung at 12:23 AM on July 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Bill Maher made some good points on this tonight...essentially that they owe us nothing, nobody promised us a relationship with these animals, and keeping them in captivity because otherwise we wouldn't get to know them better is an unjust reason to imprison another species simply because we feel "denied," especially since they are intelligent, and many would say or suspect sentient, beings and we cannot seem to give them a humane and healthy living arrangement in captivity.

He also made a Gitmo analogy in that these whales have been so broken by their captivity that nobody in control would consider letting them go; he didn't say "they'd kill us all because we make them crazy" but suggested that they'd be helpless. I have no idea what would happen beyond them possibly ambling around depressed and getting killed by other animals (possibly their own species), or going apeshit happy and forming a rag-tag pod of buddies who strike it out together against all odds (in the unlikely possibility that enough whales to form a pod were released at once and got along). I'd say it'd be worth trying if there isn't convincing enough evidence not to even attempt it, and "we have the technology" (from my basement office chair anyway it seems like it) to track them and act accordingly if efforts fail.
posted by lordaych at 12:40 AM on July 20, 2013

The little I know about dolphins and whales (and it isn't much) if they released them where they were captured, chances are they'd rejoin their old pod, assuming it wasn't exterminated when the whales were captured. I seem to recall reading this and that the pod members have to go through reinitiation rights, often trailing along the pods outer edges. But even though I'm fuzzy on the details, I think there is strong evidence they have the memory and bond for this type of thing. (making ripping them from their families that much worse.)

I probably won't watch blackfish for the same reason I didn't watch the Cove. I was pretty sure I couldn't handle it.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 1:14 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Having seen whales in their natural habitat, I can't possibly imagine why somebody would go to a place like Sea World. To be on the open sea with these enormous, majestic creatures just swimming all around you. Watching humpbacks breach right before your eyes; grey whales doing fluke dives; the back of a blue whale, and how it just keeps on going, because it's just that big. Even though I have no idea what they're truly feeling, they just seem so damn happy.

Sure, you could go to Kauai in February and see humpbacks by the score, but you could also go to lots of other less-exotic locales -- like SF or Boston -- and go out whale watching for a couple hundred dollars.

If you truly care about whales, you owe it to yourself -- and the whales -- to spend the money and see them where they belong. The experience is breathtaking.
posted by evil otto at 2:19 AM on July 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'm kind of horrified at the use of artificial insemination - imagine being penned like that, then forcibly impregnanted a decade or two before you would ever carry a child if you were free, only to have it die or removed from you after birth. Like something out of a horror movie.
posted by Jilder at 2:48 AM on July 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

"SlaveWorld executives say that without access to the slaves — which are now bred at the plantations, rather than captured wild — humans would be denied a connection to large, intelligent animals with which many feel a bond."
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:30 AM on July 20, 2013

I just discovered that I made an error in the post. I claim that the Frontline documentary is from January. While it was posted to YouTube in January, it wasn't posted by Frontline, and instead was posted by 4theOrcas in January, with the permission of Frontline. The documentary is from 1997.

I also think it's necessary to note that these animals have made great sacrifices, but if there were never any sea parks, would the public have the same sentiment about cetaceans that they currently do? Could wildlife documentaries and eco tourism alone have changed human attitudes about the necessity to protect cetaceans, including in the wild? The human/cetacean relationship became what it is today because of the education and research done by the very same parks we are now enlightened enough to be repelled by, but an argument could be made that it never would have happened without the advent of the parks.

It is clear what should be done now, but we may not have known to protect them in the wild if it wasn't for the parks, at least, it may not have been a part of our collective moral concern.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:51 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

People like these would probably disagree.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:01 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Two things:

Seaworld is a for-profit institution. They don't exist primarily for the good of the animals, or for public education.

Beyond that, I feel that how we treat intelligent sea mammals is emblematic of how we treat the natural world in general: those things are there to serve our ends, and if they die or are mistreated or extirpated in the process, well that's just too bad. Our interests always take precedence, and politically there's no downside to ignoring their interests.
posted by sneebler at 8:37 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

what's the difference between keeping pets and this place having pets in its giant aquarium tank?
posted by Ironmouth at 9:54 AM on July 20, 2013

Having seen Seaworld and wild whales breaching outside of Boston, I'm with evil otto. I get seasick quite easily, wee boats scare me, I don't like to be cold, and I don't drink regular Coke (because seasick) which was all they had on the boat. That trip had me slightly queasy and slighly green.... but as soon a whale breached right next to us I felt like a million bucks. Worth. It. So worth it.
posted by dabitch at 10:18 AM on July 20, 2013

I went to Seaworld in the mid 70's. As a fanatic lover of the ocean and all it's inhabitants This was to be the highlight of my young life. I was a charter member of the Cousteau Society as a birthday present from my parents, and I watched nature documentaries every chance I had. A connection to large, intelligent animals and to feel a bond was exactly what I was hoping for. The whale and dolphin show was one of the first things we went to, and I convinced my parents to let me stay there in my seat for the next one rather than see the rest of the park, which was much less spectacular than I'm sure it must be now. I sat there for three performances and the downtime in between. That they made the animals play tricks annoyed me a bit. I would have been just as happy to press my nose up to the glass and watch them swim for an hour, but sitting there watching them swimming listlessly in their holding tanks waiting to be let into the performing tank filled me with a sympathetic dread for what their life must be like that never left me and when we went home after that, rather than any bond with a large intelligent animal, all I ended up with was a huge hatred and contempt for my own kind. Zoos might be considered slightly different, if it's critters that by their nature don't require massive territories, or, like elephants and tigers, may soon no longer exist in the natural world, but cetaceans need an OCEAN, sometimes two! Fish in an aquarium? One thing. Whales jumping through hoops in a pool to "form a bond"? Unforgivable corporate rationalization
posted by Redhush at 10:54 AM on July 20, 2013 [9 favorites]

I am all for wild animals acting like wild animals in these circumstances. The handlers got what they deserved and whatever spectators have been injured by these magnificent beasts have also got what they have deserved for being complicit and contributing to this spectacle of bondage. Certainly a tragedy when an innocent child is mauled, but I know I will never take my kids to *any* zoo-type place (unless it's a bug exhibit) due my unwillingness to perpetuate this type of behavior; so I can only give my absolute minimum of sympathy in those situations. Fuck zoos and fuck SeaWorld.
posted by NoRelation at 11:17 AM on July 20, 2013

Furthermore, if you want to see wild creatures, go to nature, not prison.
posted by NoRelation at 11:19 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

going apeshit happy and forming a rag-tag pod of buddies who strike it out together against all odds

I would definitely watching an animated version of this.
posted by dogwalker at 11:32 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I saw the trailer for this film last night, and I almost started crying just from that.

I think that whales and dolphins (and maybe many other animals, I don't know) are sentient beings. I don't think it is anthropomorphizing to say so. In fact, I think it is just the opposite: these beings possess a type of "personhood" that is analogous in its complexity and intelligence to what humans are capable of, even if it is radically different in its experience. We need to understand that one need not be human in order to be a thinking being, even if the nature of that thought is very different from our own. I was struck in particular by one of the comments in the trailer by a former whale capturer, that the trauma of capture creates a psychosis in them. This makes perfect sense to me: you kidnap a child from its family, keep it penned up for years, train it to do tricks, and then you're surprised when one day it goes crazy and turns violent? What the fuck do you expect to happen? This is why I think the slavery analogy is totally apt. There's very little difference to me, morally and ethically speaking, between capturing and training a whale and capturing and training someone of a different race; really, the only significant difference is that the latter can communicate directly with you in the same language.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:55 PM on July 20, 2013

NoRelation: I've long felt the same way as you do about zoos. I hate seeing wild animals in captivity.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:55 PM on July 20, 2013

Color me horrified to learn that Tilikum is still being used in SeaWorld performances, and that the event at the center of this documentary was apparently the THIRD human death that he was involved in. Fucking scumbags, SeaWorld be.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:05 PM on July 20, 2013

This past spring, I went whale watching off Cape Cod. Flipping awesome. Never knew about bubble nets. Added bonus, my son enjoyed getting sprayed by 'whale snot' when one plumed right next to the boat.

Also, it's no surprise that this happens at Sea World. Seems to be oddly parallel to Native Tongue by Carl Hiaasen.
posted by plinth at 5:43 PM on July 20, 2013

I was struck in particular by one of the comments in the trailer by a former whale capturer, that the trauma of capture creates a psychosis in them. This makes perfect sense to me: you kidnap a child from its family, keep it penned up for years, train it to do tricks, and then you're surprised when one day it goes crazy and turns violent?

I kind of wonder about that. Orcas are truly natural born killers, and while they don't normally bother people, they *do* play with their food like cats, tossing seals, dolphins etc into the air. It's pretty gruesome. While people complain about the training, it's a good way to keep an intelligent mind active. But, I doubt it can take the place of what the do best, which is hunting and killing.

Which is probably why trainers have been killed. A common meme is that "Killer whales are assholes" and that's because of their brutal hunting methods and the unpleasantness where they seem to toy with their prey. It's probably as much fun as it is instinctual. I'm doubtful the three deaths were due to a psychosis, if anything, that is surprisingly few considering what they're capable of. And they're not exactly peaceful and friendly to each other, many bearing scars of "teeth raking", thought to be a dominance display (one female died in captivity when she attempted to rake another female, and was swimming with such force that she hit the wall behind said female and bled to death from the impact).

But if you look into captive killer whales hunting birds, you'll see they have a history of going after prey they normally wouldn't. Probably for the same reason: they have an instinctual need to hunt.

I have no doubt that they could suffer psychosis from their capture and captive conditions. But killing isn't evidence of that. For killer whales, it's the most natural behavior of their captive existence.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 12:00 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure people are being cynical enough. Without these animals being in captivity, there likely wouldn't be any public support for protecting these animals in the wild. Save the Whales would not have happened, and the creatures would probably already be extinct.
posted by effugas at 12:10 AM on July 21, 2013

Effugas, I'm not so sure. At least, specifically orcas, which also happen to be particularly ill suited to captivity. But other whale species, such as your baleen whales, have quite a bit of public support. But even with that public support, it's easy to argue we still aren't doing enough to protect any whales or dolphins.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 3:21 AM on July 21, 2013

what's the difference between keeping pets and this place having pets in its giant aquarium tank?
Most (obviously not all) pets that people keep are domesticated. Killer whales are patently not.
posted by deadbilly at 11:21 AM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I thought this was going to be about Brynden Tully
posted by maus at 11:35 AM on July 21, 2013

Sorry clever name, but I don't buy your argument. Orca are hunters, yes. But they don't go after birds or humans or other things that are not their normal prey except when they are in captivity, which pretty much proves the point that being in captivity fucks with their thought processes. And as for them being "assholes," well... humans hunt for sport, toy with their prey, capture other species for their own amusement, and slaughter each other by the millions. Seems to me a lot worse than the behavior of so-called "killer" whales.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:16 AM on July 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The New York Times Science section looking at the controversy.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:38 PM on July 29, 2013

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