If you’ve ever seen the movie Blackfish or listened to animal rights activists, you might have been convinced that captivity is wrong, or bad for marine mammals. Blackfish, released in 2013 was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. It centers around an orca named Tilikum, but there is so much more to the issue than what the movie depicts. You may wonder if marine mammals are suited for life in human care. Going against the opinion of animal rights activists, the answer is yes – some are. According to this article by The Dolphin Project, species like the Dall’s porpoise, and the narwhal do not adapt to life in human care (Article on Narwhals); cetaceans like orcas and most dolphin species adapt well. But when possible, having marine mammals in aquariums provides countless opportunities for research, education, and conservation, and the misinformation propagated by documentaries such as Blackfish, as well as animal rights activists silence real zoological experts.
Let’s talk about Blackfish. This documentary is the main cause of uproar against marine captivity by the general public; the film almost (financially) destroyed parks like Seaworld. Blackfish is falsely edited to make one of the orcas named Tilikum look like an unhinged psychopath. Ken Balcomb, who studies wild populations of whales claimed in the Blackfish trailer that Tilikum’s behavior is a display of psychosis. Making such a bold claim about an animal you’ve never worked with or interacted with shows blatant disregard from the animal rights activist emotional agenda. While it’s true Tilikum specifically was involved in the deaths of three people, one animals’ behavior cannot be the ‘poster child’ for all animals. When you’re working with an animal every day for a decade, you’re going to experience aggression; it’s a fact. When animals like dogs or horses attack people, we don’t claim they are displaying psychosis. Other people in the film like former trainer Jeffery Ventre made false claims, such that in he was forced to destroy a tape he took of a trainer/orca presentation in which a Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed. He was never told to destroy anything according to Mark Simmons, a former Seaworld trainer who regretted his involvement with Blackfish after his position was distorted greatly in the film.
Another hot button issue in the debate about animal captivity is tank size. It’s most often referenced by animal rights activists. ‘’They swim one hundred miles a day!’’ Or, ‘’They swim in tiny chlorinated tanks!’’ This is false. Killer whales do not swim one hundred miles in a single day as an average number, they only do this as means for foraging for food, and even then, they do not meet this number in one day. Different eco-types travel more than others; for example, The Northern Resident population on average spend four – eight percent of their time traveling because their food source is more abundant. This is according to The National Marine Fisheries Service (See page 21 in the document).While it’s true tanks for cetaceans were inadequate and often much too small during the 1960’s and 70’s (Hugo at Miami Seaquarium), current enclosures like Seaworld San Diego’s Shamu stadium reaches four million gallons of water. If killer whales needed to be able to swim for one hundred miles, we would observe completely different behavior of captive animals. What is actually observed are animals that are enthusiastic and engaged during presentations; they also choose (are not forced) to participate in presentations and interact with trainers and guests. Some populations of wild horses, for example, can travel up to twenty – thirty miles in a day. But they don’t need to in order to remain healthy. If it were the case, we would observe totally different behavior in captive horses. As for chlorine, while its true chlorine is used as a means of keeping the whale habitats clean, the amount used is far less than what the anti-captivity side claims; Seaworld addressed this by demonstrating the water quality of their Orca pools. (Video by Seaworld)
Speaking of recycled mantras, let’s not forget dorsal fin collapse. The claim often made is that dorsal fin collapse is due to depression, and that it only happens in 1% of wild whales. This is false; there is not a shred of evidence to prove that dorsal collapse is due to an emotional state. There have been male killer whales in human care that had dorsal fins which remained straight up into their early 20’s. 50-year-old Corky, for example, has a perfectly straight (tall) dorsal fin, while 48-year-old Icelandic whale Katina’s bends far over to the left – these are both female killer whales. Dorsal fin collapse is mainly genetic, and due to gravity, though sometimes it can be due to injury. Different ecotypes have different rates of dorsal collapse, for example the New Zealand population of orcas has a dorsal collapse/abnormality rate of 23%, as observed by Ingrid Visser, a New Zealand orca scientist. (See page 80) Whales in Canada have a dorsal collapse/abnormality percentage of about 4%. If we observe two female killer whales who live in human care currently, we can notice that all Katina’s calves have bent dorsal fins, while all Takara’s calves have straight dorsal fins. Genetics play an important part in determining the appearance of a whale’s dorsal fin.
Our love and understanding of these animals were started by exhibiting them to the public. Historical whales like Namu, the first Killer whale to successfully be shown to the public and preform, and the original Shamu – Seaworld’s first Killer whale revolutionized the public’s view of Killer Whales. Prior to the 60’s, whales were viewed as vermin and shot at, harpooned, and slaughtered because they were perceived as competition to fishermen. Not only that, but indigenous stories and legends also depicted them as savage beasts. Haida Gwaii communities off the coast of British Columbia called the Orca ‘Skana’ which means ‘Killing demon’ according to oocities.org. The name ‘Orcinus’ (which is the scientific name Orcinus Orca) means ‘From hell’ or the ‘underworld’ according to Cooperhewitt.org Roman literature. Since animals started to be caught in the mid 60’s and made available to the public, we’ve learned that they’re not savage killers, or demons for that matter. We have been able to study their social structure, calf development, and so much more.
Of course facilities like Seaworld made mistakes in the past with the care of their animals when we knew so little about them. Zoos in the 1900’s were pitiful, but aquariums and zoos have evolved and changed. The trainers that work with marine mammals – like orcas, are dedicated to their well-being, and certainly wouldn’t be working there if they thought the animals were being harmed. Instead of relying on a Netflix documentary, or activists who have never worked with or even know the names of the animals they’re fighting for, try listening to real zoological experts and the dedicated animal lovers that work with these animals’ day in and day out. Choose science, not feelings.