POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 20 March 2014, Thursday
One fish, two fish, Blackfish, no fish
The documentary “Blackfish” (2013), released locally this month by Magnavision, will make us rethink our attitudes toward animals parks, zoos, and other forms of entertainment where animals are held in captivity.
The film looks into trainer deaths and accidents at the famed SeaWorld and other sea parks. The narrative revolves around the killing of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 by SeaWorld’s prize orca Tillikum, a 12,500 pound, 22-foot behemoth who had already slain two other trainers.
Blackfish took director Gabriela Cowperthwaite two years to make. Her investigation uncovered shocking facts about the lucrative seapark business. “I knew that in telling the story I was telling the truth,” she said. “And in telling the truth, I had to show this billion dollar industry for what it was.”
SeaWorld is not the only park where such incidents have occurred. In Loro Parque in Tenerife, Keto, an orca loaned to them by Seaworld, mauled and killed trainer Alexis Martinez just two months before Brancheau’s death.
Such aggressive behavior is said to be the result of the stress and frustration experienced by orcas from their unnatural confinement. During the 1970s, young orcas were kidnapped from their family pods for the seaparks. In later years, breeding provided the population. Tillikum, though dangerous, was kept because he proved to be a potent sire – 54 percent of the orcas in SeaWorld carry his genes.
There are shows that place the animals not in tanks but in the open sea, with the audience seated close to water’s edge, and nets placed some distance away as barriers to prevent the animals from escaping. While that set-up might seem less cruel, the space is still less than what cetaceans need to thrive. For instance, for an orca to duplicate in captivity what he’d usually swim in the wild, he would need to circle the Seaworld tank 1,900 times.
Other hazards of captivity? The chlorine used in tanks, which, according to a Mar. 15 article by Tim Zimmerman, has been linked to mucus streaming from orcas’ eyes (apparently a protective mechanism not observed in orcas in the wild), and chemical burns on the skin on their heads and backs. A trainer at Marineland in Antibes nearly went blind after he suffered eye burns, an type of injury that has affected many other trainers.
Sea lions and walruses also suffer premature cataracts, corneal disease, and lens problems caused by chlorine and water treatment chemicals, as well as too much sunlight from their artificial environments.
Blackfish seems to have made an impact on audience attendance at SeaWorld. A Mar. 14 article by Melissa Cronin says that SeaWorld Entertainment reported lower income in the fourth quarter of 2013, with revenue of $272 million compared to the $538.40 million earned in the third quarter. Park attendance in 2013 was at 23.4 million guests, a decline of 4.1 percent from the 2012 figure of 24.4 million guests.
Analysts are calling this the “Blackfish effect,” something discounted by SeaWorld itself. Its CEO Jim Atchison said, “As much as we’re asked that we can see no noticeable impact on our business. The movie in some ways has actually made perhaps more interest in marine mammal parks…” He also said that total earnings had increased compared to the previous year.
SeaWorld stock, however, fell 7 percent in the first week of this month. According to Cronin’s article, this was “after a bill was proposed that would outlaw orca shows in California. SeaWorld San Diego is the only park that keeps captive orcas in the state.”
The bill, AB 2140 or the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, was introduced by California legislator Richard Bloom on Mar. 6. It will require “that all captive orcas being used for entertainment purposes in California be either released to the wild or held in open sea pens, and forbid their transfer to other states for entertainment purposes.”
Documentaries such as Blackfish provide valuable and useful information. As people become more aware of social issues and how behavior on an individual level can bring about change, they may make more ethical choices. In the case of sea parks, people can vote on them with their wallets.
By not visiting sea parks, they can make a choice that will consider the safety of animals, the preservation of the environment, and impel the shift to a cultural mindset that seeks to honor nature rather than dominate it.