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SeaWorld and the Blackfish Documentary Essay


SeaWorld and the Blackfish Documentary A1

11 January 2014 A2


Introduction A3

            Among the things people often do with their families and friends include visiting amusement parks like SeaWorld. These can be great places for entertainment, and fun for people of all ages. There are rides to enjoy at some of these parks, and many of them have all kinds of shows where it is possible to see animals doing tricks and performing amazing skills. The animals seem to be happy and so do the trainers. It can remind a person of the beauty of nature and how much the world has to offer, as well as just help them have a lot of fun for that particular day. The cost to get into these parks continues to go up, but that does not seem to stop anyone from visiting. Over time, it becomes more expensive to pay the trainers and take care of the animals, so it makes sense that the prices are rising. Most people are not upset by that, because they want to go and have fun.

However, most people do not take the time to think about the issues that may surround these types of entertainment. How the animals are treated and whether animals should even be kept in captivity at all are some of the biggest discussion points when it comes to amusement parks, circuses, and other establishments that house and train animals for fun and/or profit. Most people who visit places like SeaWorld every year are not there to check on the treatment of the animals. They are there to see the animals do tricks, which it appears the animals enjoy performing. A4 The recent documentary Blackfish, however, has brought to light some disturbing concerns about SeaWorld and the way its animals are treated, and it has also raised questions about wild animals in general and whether there is a serious danger (to people and the animals) when it comes to keeping these wild creatures in captivity – especially over a long period of time.

The Focus of the Film

            Blackfish was created by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and premiered in January of 2013 at the Sundance Film Festival (Kohn) A5 . Since that time it has been picked up for a wider release by organizations such as CNN Films and Magnolia Pictures (Kohn). Its main focus is on the SeaWorld orca (A6 killer whale) Tilikum and how being in captivity affects wild animals. Since his capture in 1983, Tilikum has been involved in three deaths (Kohn). The most recent of those was the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. (Kohn) SeaWorld's official stance on the death was that the trainer was targeted by the orca because her hair was in a ponytail (Kohn). That gave Tilikum something to grab hold of, and he ended up holding her under the water until she drown. The documentary does not focus solely on that issue however. Instead, it considers all of Tilikum's captivity. He was captured off the coast of Iceland, and there had been much alleged harassment by other whales when Tilikum was at Sealand of the Pacific, before being moved to SeaWorld (A7 Kohn, 2013).

          During that time, it was believed that the harassment had made Tilikum much more aggressive than he would have otherwise been if he had remained in the wild (Kohn). These statements are supported by information from Lori Marino of the Nonhuman Rights Project (Kohn). Of course, there is more to the dispute than just Tilikum's aggression and what may have caused it. Another issue is the length of time orcas typically live in captivity versus the length of time they generally live in the wild. SeaWorld has stated that captive orcas can live 50 years if they are female and 30 years if they are male, which are both very comparable to orcas in the wild (Kohn). The Blackfish documentary disputes this claim, however, with the belief that captive orcas do not survive as long as their counterparts who are allowed to remain in the wild (Kohn).

A8 SeaWorld Rebuttal

SeaWorld would not take part in the documentary, so determining what information was accurate and what was not based on actual facts and data proved difficult – and still does. Since the company refused to be a part of the documentary, it was not unexpected that the film would not be showcasing SeaWorld in its best light (Saperstein). In other words, SeaWorld had nothing to do with the film so it did not have the opportunity to ask for changes or prove any inaccuracies. That was the company's choice, though, and does not lead to any fault by the filmmaker. However, SeaWorld did make a statement to CNN about the Blackfish documentary. This statement said, in part:

A9 " inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy.... [T]he film paints a distorted picture that withholds...key facts about SeaWorld – among them...that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research" (SeaWorld).


            An open letter rebutting many of the claims that Cowperthwaite made in her documentary was also a part of the response from SeaWorld (SeaWorld). However, the damage was already done. Many animal rights activists called for a boycott, and several high-profile singers and bands have pulled out of a show that was planned at SeaWorld in light of the issues the documentary raised (Saperstein; Kaufman). This does not necessarily mean these people side with the filmmaker, however. It can also mean they are trying to avoid problems with their fan based that could arise from playing a show at SeaWorld with all of the controversy currently surrounding it. No matter what the decision of these individuals, though, it remains clear that SeaWorld has been hurt by the claims that have been made, and that may affect them for the future, as well (Storyville). 

B1 Keeping Wild Animals in Captivity

            There is much that can be said about keeping wild animals in captivity, and there are significant arguments on both sides of the issue (Kaufman; Saperstein). For those who think it is acceptable to capture animals in the wild and keep them in captivity, there are several points generally cited. These include:

  • B2 Protection from other animals (Saperstein). By stating that the animals in captivity are protected from predators they would have in the wild, those who argue for the capturing and keeping of wild animals treat the issue as though they are doing the animals a big favor by keeping them safe. They do not take into consideration with this argument, however, whether the animals are happy or whether they would be best left to their nature world, even though that would expose them to predators.
  • Care for sickness or injury (Saperstein). Another point made by those who advocate keeping wild animals is that animals that are in captivity can be treated by veterinarians when they become sick or injured. This could save them from death, and they would not have this opportunity in the wild. While this is, technically, true, there has been no discussion of how these animals came to be sick or injured, and how many of those problems may have been caused by the captivity itself.
  • Joy for humans and the animals (Kohn). Many people like to see wild animals up close, and enjoy the tricks they perform. That cannot be disputed. If it were not the case, places like SeaWorld would not exist, because there would be no market for it. It is easy to see that people get joy from this, but much harder to prove that the animals are also joyful in what they are required to do. This determination can be stated, but cannot really be made in any factual capacity.

On the other side of the argument are those who do not believe it is right to capture animals and hold them captive. These include animal rights activists, but one does not have to be an activist in order to feel that capturing wild animals and teaching them to do tricks for food and other rewards is inappropriate. These people argue against the idea that it is actually better for the animal, and make points such as:

  • Animals are meant to be wild, and are not happy in captivity (Kohn; Kaufman). There have been documented animal deaths at many of the theme parks around the country and the world that cannot easily be explained. Activists often feel that these animals are just so depressed by being held captive that they die. This cannot be easily proven, but also cannot be easily disproven.
  • Captive animals can feel trapped and become aggressive (Kohn). This was believed to be the case with Tilikum. His captivity resulted in close proximity with other whales, and he was often harassed by them. After a long time dealing with this, Tilikum developed aggressive tendencies which may have contributed to the three trainer deaths in which he has been involved during his time in captivity. While it is hard to prove that Tilikum became aggressive due to captivity, the pattern to indicate this does seem to be found in the whale's actions and reactions to various stimuli.
  • These animals actually will not live as long as their wild counterparts (Kohn). While SeaWorld argues that captive whales live just as long as those in the wild, they did not produce data to prove this statement. More research would need to be done in order to determine if this claim is accurate. The Blackfish documentary strongly disputes the idea that captive whales will survive as long as those in the wild, and advocates for leaving wild animals in the wild where they belong.

B3 Conclusion

            It is relatively easy to see that the issues raised in Blackfish are very controversial in nature. There are two sides to every story, of course, and the truth is often a mixture of those sides, falling somewhere in the middle. That is important to consider, because documentaries can be very persuasive. This persuasion does not mean they are necessarily accurate, though, and care must be taken to find the real truth about an issue instead of making assumptions. That is the only true way to clearly understand something, and to know for certain that a particular issue has been truly addressed and resolved. There will be people who will avoid SeaWorld because of the documentary, those who will seek out more information, and those who simply will not care one way or the other. As long as they are being entertained, they will not spend time thinking about whether the animals are happy, or they will agree with SeaWorld's stance on the issue and believe the animals are happy and content being captive instead of swimming around free in the wild.

            Realistically, each person has to make his or her choice regarding the issue and what he or she chooses to believe about the animals. Those who are very focused on any possible mistreatment of animals will be more likely to take to heart what is addressed in Blackfish, while those who do not lean as much toward activism may not see the documentary the same way. Regardless, it is clear that the documentary has stirred the emotions of many people, as evidenced by the number of performers who have pulled out of doing SeaWorld shows in the midst of the backlash the film has caused. Over time, however, the issues surrounding Blackfish will probably die down, and fewer people will be affected by it and the light in which it paints SeaWorld and other organizations that keep wild animals captive. This is often the case with documentaries and other films.

Works Cited

Kaufman, Amy (2013). "'Blackfish' has SeaWorld in hot water." Jacksonville Daily News. Web

Kohn, Eric (2013). "Sundance Interview: 'Blackfish' Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite Discusses Suffering Orcas, Trainer Death, and Why SeaWorld Hasn't Seen the Movie." IndieWire. Web.

Saperstein, Pat (2013). "SeaWorld: Killer Whale Doc 'Blackfish' Is 'Inaccurate.'" Variety. Web.

"SeaWorld responds to questions about captive orcas, 'Blackfish' film." (2013). CNN. Web.

"Storyville: Blackfish - The Whale That Killed." (2013). BBC Four. BBC.

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