Sunday, November 3, 2013

Rethinking Social Norms: Blackfish

When I was young, my family’s trip to Disney World was one of my favorite family vacations.  On that trip, we went Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios and on the last day, we went to Sea World. I love animals so for me watching (and being splashed by) the orcas and dolphins was magical. I remember being particularly obsessed with Shamu and wished I was the kid they pulled from the audience to have a try at petting her. Alas, I wasn’t so I settled on a prized stuffed version of her for my toy collection. Shiny, happy memories.

At least that is how I looked back at that time until this yesterday. First, it turns out Shamu died in 1971 at Sea World’s San Diego Sea location—long before I was even born. The name just stuck and spread to the different parks. But that’s the smallest, most insignificant part of the lie I now feel like I was sold as a child. Why the change of heart? I saw Blackfish this weekend.  In short, I was horrified. HOR.RI.FIED.  
The documentary itself focuses on the death of Dawn Brancheau--a highly experienced senior trainer at Sea World--after an orca attack in 2010. I remember the news story at the time and the emphasis on it being her error that led to her death. There was no mention of the orca who killed her (Tilicum) killing before. There was no mention of the many other incidents leading to trainer injury that have happened at Sea World and similar parks over the last 39 years. There was certainly no mention of the cramped (relative to the size of these giant animals) living facilities, frustrated orca fights and separation of mother orcas from their calves.

Keeping the animals in captivity is bad enough but the danger they pose to the staff that work there is even worse. I don’t care what people say about spin or propaganda, one thing is absolutely clear: these animals should not be placed in captivity for the sake of a show…especially when their lives and the lives of their trainers are at stake. The danger seems to be clear for everyone but Sea World who maintains this is a safe setup. In fact, they are appealing a court decision requiring trainers to give commands from behind a partition rather than from the tank slide-ins or from the tank itself. I hate to judge but it seems like money has been awarded a more important seat at the table than human or animal life. 

I was truly emotional over this documentary (as if you can't tell). First, a part of my childhood died. It’s like I saw tiny man behind the curtain posing as the Wizard of Oz. Then, I was sad. Finally, I was incensed. I will never take my children to Sea World and honestly, I’m reconsidering zoos and circuses. Sure, it’s entertaining (except to children like my nephew who hasn’t been to the circus since he was 5 and saw the trainers hitting the horses with whips as a call to do tricks) but is it morally right? I’d never allow my dog or cat to be locked up all day until I needed them to come out to perform a couple of tricks. How can I support that kind of life for any animal?


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