Animal Captivity and the Impact of the "Blackfish" Documentary on SeaWorld

July 19, 2023
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Animal domestication commenced in ancient times. Human beings are known to have tamed creatures such as cats for companionship in ancient Egypt and livestock for agricultural purposes. This marked the earliest form of animal captivity. Through the years, animal captivity has evolved significantly. Presently, the predominant form of animal captivity revolves around entertainment. People visit zoos to witness endangered animal species, attend SeaWorld to witness captivating circus-style performances featuring orca whales like Shamu, and swimming with dolphins ranks high on many individuals' to-do lists. All these activities share a common factor: keeping wild animals in captivity.

"Blackfish" Documentary: the Issue of Animal Captivity

Numerous individuals believe that animals lack fully developed brains, rendering them mindless creatures merely existing for human benefit, be it for food or various services. However, others vehemently disagree with this notion, asserting that animals possess emotions and experience both pain and pleasure just like humans. These advocates for animal rights advocate for animals to live freely within their natural habitats, free from human interference. Any form of human intervention with wild animals, unless in self-defense or for survival, is deemed as animal cruelty.

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Since the capture of Tilikum in 1983, as portrayed in the documentary "Blackfish," he has been involved in three fatal incidents. Being confined in captivity for an extended period led Tilikum to develop aggressive behavior beyond what he might have displayed in the wild. Wild animals are meant to roam freely, and thus, they can never truly be content in captivity (Cao et al., 2016). Tilikum's situation was exacerbated by the close proximity to other whales, leading to constant harassment and fostering his aggressive tendencies, which ultimately led to the tragic deaths of three trainers. While the documentary does not explicitly blame this confinement for the whale's aggressive behavior, it is noted that wild orcas have never killed humans in their natural habitat. SeaWorld counters these claims by asserting that orcas in captivity have longer lifespans compared to their wild counterparts, attributing it to better medical care and protection from predators. However, the documentary challenges this perspective, suggesting that wild orcas have inherently longer lifespans.

SeaWorld chose not to participate in the "Blackfish" documentary, perhaps to avoid potential negative portrayals. Consequently, the authenticity of the documentary's information remains somewhat uncertain. According to SeaWorld's statement to CNN, the film was deemed misleading, inaccurate, and exploitative, manipulating public sentiment concerning the tragedy. The company defends its actions by emphasizing their role in rehabilitating and conserving wild animals. They argue that providing care for sick or injured animals increases their chances of survival, benefiting from the expertise of top veterinarians, an opportunity unavailable in the wild. While this argument holds some validity, it does not address the underlying question of how these animals became sick and how captivity might contribute to their health issues.

Following the film's release, it sparked a range of opinions, but the overall impact was more negative than positive. Animal rights activists rallied behind the "Blackfish" film, urging people to boycott all SeaWorld projects. Numerous celebrity singers and band members scheduled to perform at SeaWorld events canceled their shows in light of the documentary. This reaction may not necessarily imply total agreement with the film's claims, but rather a reluctance to associate with a controversial event sponsored by SeaWorld, fearing damage to their fan base. Regardless of people's individual decisions, the film sparked deep conversations about amusement park entertainment, and SeaWorld found itself at the center of intense scrutiny and criticism, affecting both its present and future.

Former SeaWorld employee John Hargrove, a professional orca trainer, shared her experience in a book titled "Beneath the Surface." Hargrove describes Tilikum's attack on her trainer in graphic detail, a claim denied by SeaWorld. In the book, Hargrove strongly criticizes SeaWorld, accusing them of lacking compassion for orcas and engaging in cruel practices like inbreeding. This results in producing whales that significantly differ from their wild counterparts, making reintroduction into the wild nearly impossible. At present, John is an advocate against SeaWorld, resolute in his mission despite the company's resistance.


In every narrative, there exist two sides, and the truth often lies somewhere in between. "Blackfish" raises contentious issues in the documentary, and while documentaries tend to be persuasive, their information may still hold accuracy. Caution is advised, and individuals should continue investigating rather than making assumptions, as it is the only way to truly understand the matter, uncover the truth, and arrive at resolutions. Some individuals may now avoid SeaWorld due to the documentary's influence, while others may seek more information before forming their opinions. Still, others may remain indifferent to the well-being of orcas as long as they receive the entertainment they pay for.

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