Feb 9, 2014

Blackfish - It's actually not a hippie documentary

I know it's been quite awhile since my last post so I will update you on my life since September. I still work for a meat company, which was the job I acquired in my "I finally got a real job" post. Let me tell you, I hate it. I absolutely hate it. I have been there going on a year now. I never thought I would find myself doing the exact opposite of what I went to school for. I'll tell you why I did it. Money. You don't realize how unimportant money is until you are doing something you hate. I am currently going to school for an MBA hoping it will give me a way out of this industry. In the mean time I plan to write about what I actually love, animals.

I used to work at Shedd Aquarium so I am no stranger to people asking about keeping large mammals in captivity. The documentary that is all the rage on Netflix right now is about SeaWorld keeping orca or killer whales in captivity.

When I was younger my favorite movie was Free Willy. I loved that movie so much I asked my mom if I could go to Oregon to see Keiko when he was at the aquarium in Portland. I was in so much awe at just how large these animals are. I was so happy that he was being rehabilitated to be released into the wild even at that young of an age.

What I like about Blackfish is that I value the opinions of the people they interview. They have former SeaWorld trainers, people who witnessed the events of accidents, neuroscientists, biologists, and many other noteworthy scientists. I am usually very skeptical of documentaries because most of the time I don't value the opinion of people they choose to interview.

From SeaWorld's view, they are keeping the whales to promote business. They are very rare and valuable animals to have in captivity and are the star performers at SeaWorld. The main male in the film is named Tilikum and is the whale that killed the SeaWorld trainer a few years back in Florida. The documentary presents his violent history that was covered up from the trainers working with him as well as the public. They then went even further to use Tilikum for breeding and his genes are in a large population of captive orcas. The problem with this is that he has spread his aggressive tendencies to other whales in the population. What I found shocking was that they did not value the safety of their trainers. They unknowingly put themselves in more danger everyday because of the lack of information about Tilikum's temperament.

What I found most interesting was the discussion the neuroscientist has about whales and dolphins possessing a portion of the brain for processing emotions that was larger than humans. This is a great discovery to help prove the true intelligence marine mammals have. They go on to discuss the types of social groups the whales live in naturally and the stress captivity puts on them. Not only are they kept in small pools of warm water when they naturally spend most of their time in cool artic waters swimming hundreds of miles a day, they also have very advanced family groups. The whales in captivity are thrown together and do not always get along. This causes several problems that have even lead to whales killing other whales.

It leads to a very controversial question of keeping marine mammals in captivity, specifically large whales. I know when I was working at Shedd, they keep beluga whales. They had 7 whales and 8 or so dolphins that alternated between 5 connected pools. The belugas where never allowed to be in the same pools as the dolphins but they could interact between the gates. I liked to think these animals were healthy and well cared for in captivity. I did not see any wounds or bite marks on the animals or see any evidence of an animal chasing another. If this did happed the animals were immediately separated. The training also only used positive reinforcement. There was never any kind of punishment. That being said, do belugas in captivity have the same quality of life as wild belugas?
The line we were fed is that they receive food everyday and veterinary care that allows captive whales to live as long or longer than wild whales. After watching Blackfish, I don't know if I trust that information. Orcas were proven to live much longer in the wild than captivity. They are also much larger animals and were not kept in the correct temperature water. I can say the Belugas at Shedd are kept in cool water closer to their natural environment and are much smaller than an orca. Shedd is also a non-profit organization. Their main goal is education and conservation not to make money. They have to charge a high fee for admission because of the high operating costs associated with keeping a live collection.

I can at least say it has changed my view of SeaWorld. I do not like that they view the whales as property. They are there to make money. I used to love going to SeaWorld and I have been to Discovery Cove and I loved every second of it. Does that make it right? Whales and dolphins are not here for human entertainment. It is very hard to accept that I couldn't see the animals I love so much by just going to a zoo or aquarium if we did not allow them in captivity, but to know they had a better life in the wild would give me much more peace of mind. I would rather travel to the pacific coast and see them in the wild than at an amusement parks where they are not well cared for and present a danger to the people who care for them. Sometimes truly loving something is letting it go. Everyone loves seeing whales and dolphins in captivity especially when they exhibit all the wonderful behaviors they can do, but that doesn't make it right for humans to keep them in a cement pool. The only reason I could see it being a possibility is if that animal has no chance of survival in the wild. Shedd has done some wonderful conservation world with sea otters. They have rehabilitated some and released them back into the wild and also kept a few that were unable to be released. I think it is a wonderful relationship to have with nature. To be able to help animals in need and care for those who can't themselves. We still get to have cute playful animals to visit but are also helping natural populations. I would like to see more of this with larger marine mammals.

I also want to state I don't usually view myself as an environmentalist. I just want to see what is best for the well being, health, and survival of natural species. It is great to keep a small number of animals in captivity to study and learn from, but the majority should remain in the wild. They should also never be used for entertainment. There are still a lot of unanswered questions and huge helping of ethics with this one. I highly recommend watching Blackfish and forming your own opinions.

As for keeping any animals in captivity, it is a different topic for a different post. Clearly, I do not share the view of not having captive animals because I breed my own geckos and have several pets. I also realized those animals could have had a better life in the wild. The pet trade can have a detrimental effect on wild populations which is why you should always purchase pets from captive bred populations to minimize this effect.
Keiko at Oregon Aquarium.