It’s not too hard to understand why people love going to killer whale shows. Killer whales are gorgeous animals, prettier than some super models, they’re bigger than Andre the Giant, and you can train them to do all sorts of jumps and flips, like Jackie Chan. They’re basically the coolest animals ever. And it isn’t hard to understand why parents like to take their kids to SeaWorld either. Have you ever seen a kid at SeaWorld? They get absolutely geeked to the gills at that place, to the point where you start to think smoke might come out of their ears. “Look! Over there! A dolphin! A penguin! Ice cream! Oh my god, a shark! A roller coaster! What’s that strange man doing behind that garbage can?”
The place is so much fun for kids that family vacations to SeaWorld have become an established bit of Americana. Load the family up in the car, laugh as Shamu sprays everyone with disgusting whale tank water, buy everyone SeaWorld sun visors, and call it a day. It’s like letting a pie cool on a windowsill or getting a sunburn at a baseball game—but it’s a tradition that might become a thing of the past thanks to that anti-SeaWorld documentary you’ve been hearing so much about.
Said documentary is called Blackfish, and it attacks SeaWorld for its practice of keeping killer whales in captivity. While questions about the morality of keeping animals locked up so the public can gawk at them have been around since the invention of zoos, the recent focus on SeaWorld and their killer whales started after a trainer named Dawn Brancheau was killed by a SeaWorld whale named Tillikum in 2010.
The notion director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary serves up is that killer whales are particularly unsuited to be kept in captivity, it’s no surprise that a trainer was killed by one of these frustrated animals, there have been a whole host of past attacks that SeaWorld has done their best to cover up, it’s only a matter of time before another killer whale attacks another human again, and in general it’s just a total dick move to keep these majestic creatures in giant swimming pools and make them do tricks for fish.
Blackfish makes its point by showing grizzly footage of the tactics SeaWorld used to pull whales out of captivity back when they were first getting their stockpile of animals together, it produces evidence that—seeing as they are particularly social animals—separating killer whales from the pods they grow up in is way more traumatic for them than it is for other animals, and it presents all sorts of facts and figures about the hundreds of miles that whales swim every day and how keeping them in whale tanks is basically forcing them to stop doing everything nature designed them to do. While most documentaries come and go with only generating maybe a moment of cultural discussion, Blackfish has seemed to have made its case pretty effectively, because not only are people who watch it not forgetting about what they saw, they’re starting to make a stink that looks like trouble for the people who run SeaWorld.
The hype behind Blackfish has gotten so big that the film was eventually even aired on CNN, and since that broadcast a whole host of musical acts have pulled out of performing shows at SeaWorld, including big, influential names like Martina McBride, REO Speedwagon, Trisha Yearwood, Willie Nelson, Heart, and Barenaked Ladies. Pool all of those artists’ fans together and that’s a whole lot of people who have now heard that SeaWorld are animal-abusing jerks, even if they haven’t seen the documentary that started all the outrage. Things have gotten so bad for SeaWorld that at least one school has already cancelled a long-standing field trip to the park because of student protests. Can you fathom that? Kids protested against taking a field trip. That’s incredible.
Of course, given all of the attacks on their business, SeaWorld has been forced to mount a defensive. The first step toward rehabbing their tarnished name was releasing a statement to the press that refuted a bunch of the claims that Blackfish makes about the way they treat their animals and the notion that killer whales kept in captivity at SeaWorld aren’t healthy, happy giants. Indiewire put together a great post that not only lists all of the park’s refutations of Blackfish’s claims, but also includes refutations of the refutations from the people behind the film.
The second wave of SeaWorld’s defense came today, when it took out a full-page ad in a whole host of national newspapers in order to issue an open letter to the public about the way they take care of their whales. The general gist seems to be that they don’t pull whales out of the wild anymore, the tanks they keep the whales in are big and awesome, and all of the research their teams of scientists do thanks to their captive whales actually benefits the species as a whole a great deal. If you want to read the whole thing, it’s posted on SeaWorld’s website.
Despite the arguing back and forth and the vague questions regarding what captivity really does to whales’ lifespans and whether or not it really does make them unhappy, ticking time bombs who are always trying to think of ways to attack their trainers, one has to wonder if SeaWorld’s efforts to defend themselves actually have a chance of succeeding. Even if they are correct about the fact that whales live longer under their care, and even if they are telling the truth when they claim that they don’t separate whale babies from their whale mommies, I can’t think of a single person I know who saw Blackfish that’s ever going to go to one of their parks again.
That’s because, if Blackfish did anything well, it made people feel an emotional connection to the notion that killer whales need to have tons of room to roam and they need to be in large pods of other whales who they are closely bonded to. All of the facts and figures that are being squabbled over by SeaWorld and the people behind the documentary are largely irrelevant, because of the simple fact that people no longer just think that it’s wrong to keep killer whales in captivity, they now feel it in their bones that it’s wrong, and that takes all of the fun out of seeing a whale show. We can know intellectually that whales live longer at SeaWorld than they do in captivity (if that’s actually the case), we can know that SeaWorld does a lot of great stuff for animals thanks to their research and rescue efforts, but now we feel that killer whales should be free to swim to their hearts’ content and to throw constant whale parties with their whale families, and that makes us sad. And, unfortunately for SeaWorld, you can’t have a successful show full of flashing lights and scripted puns when your audience is sad or absent. It just won’t work.
Of course, more people have not seen Blackfish than seen it, so there’s a question of how long it’s going to take for the anti-captivity movement to flourish enough to hurt SeaWorld’s bottom line. But there’s no question that the belief that keeping whales captive and forcing them to perform in shows is bad is spreading like wildfire, and eventually we’re going to live in a world where it just doesn’t happen. Does that mean the end of SeaWorld? Probably not. There’s always going to be a group of people who are against animal captivity across the board, but they haven’t been able to convince people to stop going to zoos for basically the entirety of modern human history. People are still going to want to see the sharks, they’re still going to want to see the penguins, and they’re still going to want to eat ice cream and ride the roller coasters. They just aren’t going to want to see the whale show anymore, and that’s a pretty dang powerful effect for a documentary to have had.
Or, you know, maybe this whole thing will blow over in a couple of months and fat Americans will still be filing into Shamu Stadium in their hover chairs 100 years from now. I guess it all just depends on how effectively we’re able to spread our anger.