SeaWorld is a public company that is facing a significant ethical issue right now, mostly in part to the release of the documentary Blackfish. This documentary takes viewers inside the capture, training and marketing of these Killer Whales for the sole profit of the company. It also highlights the breeding, training and housing of these magnificent mammals. It brings many ethical issues to the table. 1) Should any wild animal be taken from its natural home and forced to live in captivity? 2) Should these animals then be forced to “perform” for our entertainment purposed? And finally 3) Should these animals be treated as objects and put thru artificial insemination, separated from family members and subject to inbreeding all while SeaWorld knows that this is making the whales lives beyond inadequate and causing not only death to the animal but to numerous trainers involved as well.
Blackfish is a documentary made in 2013 by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. It focuses on Tilikum (Tili), an orca forced by SeaWorld to live in captivity. It highlights the health issues, the whale-on-whale and whale-on-trainer aggression as well as the compromised lives and social experiences of SeaWorld’s killer whales. Tili is involved in deaths of 3 individuals and is a direct result of keeping killer whales in captivity. The film covers the captivity of Tili in 1983 off the coast of Iceland where he was torn away from his family. It then goes on to show the lack of social interaction these whales receive in captivity; causing grief, stress and anxiety all while being forced to perform. It makes an effort to show that although SeaWorld tried to promote their whales “wonderfully social and fulfilling” lives it is fact doing just the opposite. Not only that, but only .06% of all revenues SeaWorld actually puts towards conservation.
Should wild animals be held in captivity at all? “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 fact sheet. “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.” True, not all animals in captivity have been ripped from their natural habitat and placed into a cage to be used as a spectacle for human entertainment, but when there is not environmental reason or risk to the animal, why do we do so?
Whales are by no means lacking in ocean to swim in. Why, just because we think they look “cool” should they be subjected to living as we say they should? Former SeaWorld senior trainer John Hasgrove, who appeared in Blackfish, asked: “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? SeaWorld has since said it has spent $70 million into upgrading those killer whale habitats in recent years.
Should these animals be forced to perform solely for our entertainment purposes? Humans are generally fonder of critters that seem to have more dynamic personalities and pronounced social attachments. Killer whales are just that. In the wild the stay with their families for generations and have their own communication sounds of clicks and whistles individualized to their pod. SeaWorld has long benefited from promoting this idea. Its killer whale shows, marketing and displays have made the company money for years. For a time, the park even ran a Shamu Twitter account.
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. Almost a decade ago, Nova Scotia based biologist Hal Whitehead claimed orcas the second more “cultural” species. “They have their way of doing things, which they’ve learned from their mother and their other relatives,” Whitehead told the newspaper. The documentary states that the orcas suffer from broken teeth because they rub and ram equipment in their tanks and that they sometimes regurgitate their food all out of boredom. It also points out that captivity leads to violence and shortened live spans.
Finally, are these animals’ just objects and are we under obligation not to encourage and support this abuse? Is keeping these whales in captivity overshadowing any good that SeaWorld is doing? Is there a moral obligation that we have to protect these creatures from artificial insemination that is often the result of inbreeding? Do we have a right to separate the calves from their mothers just to allow another park, sometimes half way across the globe, a chance to showcase a killer whale? Should be “training” these whales to do human decided tricks for profit? Where does money no matter hold importance to the damage that we are doing to our environment ethically? How can one say that we have a right to remove an animal from its family and its lifestyle and then tell our children not bring a wild rabbit into the house? These animals, once raised in captivity cannot be returned to the wild, but how can we justify continuing to force breeding and incest? What does it stay about our intelligence and our ethical moral if we do not put an end to this mistreatment of such creatures?