I took the opportunity to watch the movie Blackfish right before it aired on CNN. I had been meaning to see it ever since it premiered at Sundance, since I happen to be an odd combination of a movie enthusiast, theme park geek, and corporate activist. The movie piqued my interest because A) It’s a documentary, B) about a safety incident C) at a theme park C) run by a corporation. I was expecting an animal activist propaganda piece about how whales (and dolphins as well) are incredibly intelligent creatures, and therefore shouldn’t keep them in captivity and set them free & let their fins flow in the water as they swim through the glen. I got what I expected sure, but in a very tactful & deft way – the filmmaker managed to find multiple former SeaWorld trainers to criticize their former company (of course the expectation of getting current SeaWorld employees to blow the whistle on their employer is absurd). I was naturally immediately skeptical about the level of interaction these interviewed trainers had with Tilikum, slash editing techniques used in the film, but thought no further on it afterwards. Overall I found the activism aspect of the film neither eye-opening nor interesting.
But there was more to the film than the activism, and that’s what interested me. The movie delves into the history of 20th century whaling, as well as the investigation into the incident with video of witnesses on the stand. I wasn’t aware of SeaWorld’s role in capturing whales in Penn Cove, Puget Sound, and Budd Inlet, nor that they actually had a government permit to do so. Like many major corporations in the 60’s & 70’s, the ends always justified the means, and the ends were always Profit. It was before Earth Day was globally recognized, before “Nader’s Raiders” & “Unsafe at Any Speed” became popular, before PETA even existed to shift the Overton window on animal cruelty. It was also before SeaWorld was sold to three successive companies, from Books to Beer to Banksters.
Even regarding the OSHA ruling, A.K.A. the government saying that they did something illegal enough to get fined, SeaWorld’s Banksters are unrepentant, appealing the fine for killing an employee from a supposedly budget-breaking $75,000 to $12,000, and still appealing that pittance. This should be outrageous to everyone, as should the way SeaWorld tried covering up throwing the trainers under the bus, first with the “slip & fall” defense, then the “ponytail theory.” They still insist to new team members at training that the trainer made a mistake, and the whale got confused.
The comment that the “ends do not justify the means” projected at the filmmaker for their shadow games can easily be turned back towards SeaWorld, who has failed its trainers in keeping a safe workplace. Just because Seaworld does good work saving & caring for aquatic creatures around the US NOW does not justify the way they acted 40 years ago, nor how they treat their human employees today. Disney just spent the past year adding safety railing on its major attractions less than six months after their incident (and immediately after the citation), yet SeaWorld has yet to add new safety mechanisms to its whale tank, more than 3 years later. Disney’s Monorail procedures have changed more than 20 times since the 2009 death, yet SeaWorld complains that their trainers still can’t get in the water with the whales. Sure, NOW they’re talking about Killer Whale Treadmills and emergency lift floors, but even during its current 3 month refurbishment no safety changes are expected.
On the other side, the criticism of SeaWorld portrayed in the film that the company is emotionally manipulative by portraying whales as a “cuddly toy” can likewise be turned around on the film itself, emotionally manipulating the audience through anthromorphizing & victimizing (however accurately) the whales. There is also some minor hypocrisy in activists choice to target Seaworld when on a good day they don’t do nearly the business that Disney’s Animal Kingdom does on a bad day, and Barnum & Bailey’s circus, though a moving target, has a far worse animal record.
I once read an Ursula Le Guin short story called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” about a Utopian society whose only cost for their happiness is that one little boy has to be locked up in a basement, abused and in misery. Blackfish reminds me of this story – For all the good that Seaworld does, rescuing & caring for sea creatures everywhere, the cost is that a small number of whales & dolphins must be kept in captivity. And most of those, realize, are not fit to be released – they’re institutionalized or not well enough to survive on their own. Is the good that SeaWorld does worth any price? Or where is the line drawn where the bad things they do outweigh the good that they do?
I don’t know the answer to this question, but I would like to mediate a “cease fire” on the vitriol and the rhetoric on both sides of the debate. These are my terms:
THEME PARK BLOGGERS SHOULD REALIZE: The time to “Believe” is gone. Maybe the days of trainers swimming around with sea mammals, though exciting & inspiring at the time, are behind us, and there are newer & better ways of inspiring the next generation of Oceaneers. Like the rusty ol’ Skyway & paper fastpasses, the times they are a changin’ and we should move on. One Ocean isn’t necessarily inferior to Believe or the other Shamu shows, so maybe “close contact” isn’t as essential as you or SeaWorld argue it is. Even the Blackfish detractors can agree that the entertainment acts that they put the whales through aren’t helping. Bridgette notes if she were in charge, “I would end animals for entertainment purposes, and stop the breeding program.” Will Tilikum (or another whale) attack again? Who can tell, but the trainers definitely deserve a safer environment to work in, just in case.