At 9pm E.T. on October 24th, “Blackfish” premiered nationwide on CNN and 1.36 million households tuned in to watch. Audiences were prepped for the premiere as CNN dedicated an entire week to the topic of killer whale captivity. The network featured a lengthy investigation of the issue by Jane Velez-Mitchell, interviews with “Blackfish” director Gabriella Cowperthwaite, and lively discussions on the topic between animal advocates and SeaWorld defenders.
After the premiere, audiences were asked whether they would take their kids to SeaWorld. 86% of respondents said no. Anderson Cooper followed the film with a special report focusing on killer whale captivity and questioning industry representatives like Jungle Jack Hanna. Twitter was dominated by #BlackfishOnCNN and SeaWorld Facebook pages lit up with comments from angry fans cancelling season passes and demanding answers from their favorite marine park.
SeaWorld has issued a couple responses toward the film since its theatrical release, but the answers they are giving the public in these responses are less than satisfying. One of the main arguments brought against “Blackfish” by SeaWorld and fans is that it does not mention the company’s work with conservation and rescue. This is an obvious attempt to change the subject. The ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity is totally irrelevant to conservation and rescue programs. Using these programs to justify killer whale captivity is a bit like defending an abusive person because they volunteer at a soup kitchen. The two are not related. Just because someone does something “good” does not mean that they are excused to do something evil.
In fact, the “good” of SeaWorld’s rescue and rehabilitation efforts have been called into question. The park mostly rehabilitates and releases manatees, sea birds and sea turtles which are not entertainment animals. It has been said that staff will train rescued entertainment animals like dolphins, whales and sea lions to see how well they take to doing tricks. Those that prove to be submissive performers remain in captivity, those that do not submit are eventually released. SeaWorld has also been criticized for their failure to follow up on releases to see if the animals they save actually survive.
Not only is the nature of SeaWorld’s rescue program under question, but it should be noted that these efforts to save wild animals are NOT funded by SeaWorld! The program is operated by a non-profit organisation, the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, who funds these efforts with government grants. SeaWorld’s conservation fund is also largely supported by grants and public donations.
Since these efforts do not rely on money from animal shows, SeaWorld could easily stop keeping animals for entertainment purposes, and simply continue their conservation and rescue programs. In the meantime, we should continue to pressure SeaWorld and fans to provide answers to the topic at hand: the ethics of killer whale captivity, rather than allowing them to divert attention to an unrelated topic.