Like most little kids in the ‘90s, I was fascinated with SeaWorld. I fed the dolphins; I sat in the “Splash Zone” and fell asleep on the ride home clutching my Shamu stuffed animal. “Blackfish,” drowned these warm and fuzzy memories.
The documentary follows the story of Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, and one who is linked to three human deaths. His story opens up a larger debate of SeaWorld’s practices and the morality of keeping orcas in captivity.
I finished the film at 1 a.m., and found myself tossing and turning for the next three hours. I was disturbed, obviously by the horrific deaths attributed to Tilikum, as well as the treatment of orcas in captivity versus their behavioral practices in the wild.
But something under the surface of these concerns troubled me even more. It haunted me, and still lingers, floating in the back of my mind: how?
How did the egregious violations of personnel and animal safety on the part of SeaWorld go undetected for so long? How does such a large corporation routinely endanger its staff and creatures, and keep it secret? How didn’t we see it? Most importantly, how determined are we to stop it?
When it first aired on Oct. 24 at 9 p.m. EST on CNN, “Blackfish” garnered over 1.4 million views, according to the New York Times. The success spanned demographics, and placed CNN right behind FOX News for the most viewership in the two-hour timespan.
Seeing these ratings the next morning in my sleep-deprived state, I was excited, and weirdly relieved. Over a million other people saw exactly what I did, and felt how I felt. With the viral nature of the Internet these days, I figured a mass protest and Facebook warfare couldn’t be too far in the distance.
As the days passed, however, I realized that the response to the film was much more in the news and film critic realm than in the social media, “let’s fix this” one.
Many of the sites I visited linked to the change.org petition entitled, “Ask SeaWorld to release their orcas and dolphins to ocean sanctuaries.”
The week after the documentary aired, only a meager and depressing 300 people had signed the petition.
As of the time I typed this sentence, the petition had 8,815 signatures, of which is mine. In the documentary, both trainers and scientists attest to the incredible intelligence and emotional complexity of the orca, and show that orcas have reactions to events very similar to our own. Their informational understanding of orcas completely altered my perceptions of their behavior and my experience in front of them. I felt angry, sad and strangely attached to these scary predators.
I’m not saying we need to go on a “peace, love, save the whales” rampage or that we need to sue the company that gave us some great childhood memories. But I am saying that it’s time to look back on these memories with a different lens, to prevent our children and our children’s children from being blind and naÃ¯ve to the same injustices to which we were blind and naÃ¯ve.
I do not want my kids growing up in a world where, in order to see orcas, they travel to an amusement park, where the relationships and behaviors of both the people and animals are as fabricated as the environment in which they’re exhibited.
I want to be part of the creation of a future without exploitation of man and animal, where our children and our children’s children can see parts of nature up close, without endangering the qualities that make these parts what they are.
The 1.4 million viewers of “Blackfish,” and the persisting negative media attention for SeaWorld may increase pressure to change the way orcas are kept, or whether they are kept at all in captivity. But this pressure can only reach a boiling point if these viewers move from passive viewership to active participation in the discussion. We must realize the interconnectedness, as both humans and animals are suffering.
I firmly believe in the overused Gandhi quote about being the change we wish to see in the world. So I encourage and implore you to see “Blackfish.” Bring some tissues with you, because this is no “Free Willy,” but see it.
And when you do, think about the ramifications of the film, and of the experiences seen in it. The lives risked, the animals abused, and the lies spun. As the SeaWorld-loving, 90s generation, we should take off our Shamu glasses and see these kinds of attractions for what they are.