By now, many Americans have heard of a documentary called Blackfish, which creates an emotionally harrowing tale of human overreach, greed and the potential risks of holding animals in captivity. The film specifically targets SeaWorld and their killer whale program, as it tells the story of SeaWorld Florida orca Tillikum:
“a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite complies shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity…and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry” – Blackfishmovie.com
It certainly sounds captivating. Seeing that CNN actually gave the movie primetime airtime, and having brushed by it every day for the last few months on Netflix, I thought this might be a good film to watch with my 12-year-old son whom I’ve been homeschooling this year. Our most recent science unit has had us concentrating on the seas and ocean life, so it seemed appropriate.
As it turns out, Blackfish is an engaging story but one told through second and third-hand eyes. A closer look at the cast members reveals that some of them had never had any interaction whatsoever with Tillikum and none of them were working for SeaWorld at the time of film’s focal point – the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. Furthermore, there were no statements from or interviews with any of the trainers and employees involved in any of the incidences. No official statement from SeaWorld was included in the film.
I won’t waste time refuting all of the poorly presented evidence in this movie, except to mention one important fact I think people aren’t aware of. SeaWorld has not cultivated orcas from the wild in well over thirty years, something the film leads the audience to believe still happens. SeaWorld has set up its own rebuttal page for those who are curious enough to hear their side of the story (in the interest of intellectual curiosity I highly recommend at least a skim).
I was more than a little curious and, living only an hour from SeaWorld San Diego, I was able to set up a visit to the park with my children, where we not only enjoyed the typical activities but also received a guided tour behind the scenes. We spoke to multiple park employees, toured the marine-life rescue center and interacted with some of the animals awaiting treatment or recovering from illness before they are released back into the wild.
I admonished my son to keep an open mind and reserve judgment. However, like the movie had an emotional impact so did watching firsthand how SeaWorld employees interact with the animals and educate the public. The passion and love the SeaWorld staff expressed for their animals and their jobs was palpable. Some even joked they take better care of their animals than they did their children. SeaWorld San Diego is even working on a massive expansion to their pools, which will double the orca habitat to 10 million gallons of water and increase the surface space to over 1.5 acres. It’s not the ocean, but it’s hardly the miserably cramped quarters outlined in Blackfish.
It vexes me that a “news” outlet like CNN would give ‘Blackfish’ such prime airtime. So many Americans turn to CNN as a source of news, and watching the film on their channel only reinforces the notion that this must be factual and unbiased. The reality is that Blackfish does not qualify as a documentary. Indeed, even on their own website the makers are careful not to refer to it as a “documentary,” instead referring to it as a “story” or “tale”, its stated goal being to end all killer whale captivity.
As a homeschooler I’m not just disturbed by the agenda-driven emotional manipulation of Blackfish. I’m angered that their goals (however noble) are so shortsighted that they don’t recognize the value of sea parks in sustaining these amazing creatures in the wild. The messages throughout the park are frequent and consistent – protect the environment; conserve and recycle; the way you live has an impact on all creatures in the wild. Sounds like exactly the type of message the animal rights crowd would approve of.
Aside from the hundreds of millions of people who have been able to see orcas up close through the SeaWorld parks, an estimated 9 million children have participated in education programs at the parks, designed to give them a greater stake in caring for the environment that supports these majestic creatures. Reading a book or watching a film about animals is helpful, but there is no replacement for the impact of an up-close and personal experience. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I decided to homeschool – personal experiences.
The wealth of information we gained from our one day at SeaWorld was immeasurable. My own son, after watching the killer whale show and interacting with dolphins and sea lions in the rescue center told me, “I think I want to work with animals when I grow up. I want to protect them and help people understand more about them.” That’s the value of a SeaWorld, or other parks and zoos. They don’t just serve as an invaluable source for researchers and scientists. They also spark imagination and wonder. They encourage our children to be good stewards and caretakers of their environments.
Blackfish plays on emotion. The producers have skillfully used the natural inclination of celebrities to eschew factual information in favor of emotional argument, to create an online buzz that has worked to propel the film into the public eye without much resistance from alternate sources.
It is not just dishonest, it is damaging to the very cause the makers claim to support. Blackfish is a drama, but it is no educational tool, so don’t believe the hype. Do your research and make your own judgments.