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Feminspire | April 20, 2014

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Could New Documentary “Blackfish” End Zoo Animal Captivity?

Could New Documentary “Blackfish” End Zoo Animal Captivity?

| On 30, Jun 2013

I admittedly haven’t visited a zoo in several years. Yet when my sister recently took her son a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but remember something she said. “It wasn’t as amazing as I remember it,” she admitted, harking back to our childhood when the Chaffee Zoo was a world of wonder and entertainment.

The cages at our local zoo are small and confined.The newly-created sea lion exhibit added in 2012 cannot make up for the fact that the bears are perched on a small plot of land they will never leave, or that the elephants are confined  to a few hundred square feet of packed earth and tire swings.

With the knowledge that comes with maturity, I know now that zoos are far from amazing- – they are cruel, unethical prisons founded upon outdated beliefs.

Blackfish, a documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and distributed by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Film, has acquired its fair share of attention at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival for its tackling of the ethics of sea parks and the tragic consequences that have come from them. The story of Tilikum, a 12,000 pound orca that killed SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 is juxtaposed with a critique of the marine park industry, something far too similar to the zoo industry (albeit with much more water).

The controversy explored in Blackfish is far from new. Captive animals have been on display since the standing of ancient Rome, when exotic animals were accessible through advancing maritime passage. In America alone, animal ‘menageries’ have fascinated viewers since the 19th century and remain popular with parks such as the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, or Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando.

Blackfish, which will show in select theatres in the United States beginning July 19 and July 26 for the United Kingdom, became an attention-worthy film at Sundance for good reason.

Tilikum is a large breeding bull who has killed before — a woman in Vancouver at the now defunct Sealand, and one man in Orlando at SeaWorld. His name means “friend” in Chinook, yet he is thought to be psychotic from years spent in captivity.

SeaWorld Death

Dawn Brancheau was a 40 year-old senior trainer who loved animals and her job. Of course, her relationship with Tilikum makes for an eye-catching story. But would Cowperthwaite’s documentary — and the issue of animal captivity — remain as notable if such a tragic, unusual death had not occurred?

Oddly enough, Cowperthwaite did not create “Blackfish” out of deeply personal beliefs or a dedication to animal rights — at least not at first. Her documentary came into existence after learning of Brancheau’s tragic death on television in 2010, just like everybody else.

“I learned about the event in the news … It shocked me. I started making the film because I was trying to answer a question: Why was a senior trainer killed by such a highly intelligent animal, an animal with whom she presumably had a relationship?” Cowperthwaite told David Kirby (the author of Death at SeaWorld), a writer for the TakePart online news website.

Cowperthwaite was further intrigued by an article written by Tim Zimmermann titled “The Killer in the Pool” for Outside Magazine. She later asked Zimmermann if he would like to join her documentary team as executive producer, to which he agreed.

Blackfish is a necessary story to tell in this disturbingly voyeuristic age, with our consumption of everything from celebrities to television shows, and even killer whales. It tells the tale of the dark side of captivity, something that does not stop at orcas, unfortunately.

The idea of zoos and marine parks as centers of conservation is controversial and debated.

One reason is the inevitable struggle between science and money. If zoos and marine parks decide to dedicate themselves to scientific goals of species conservation, for example, will they continue to bring in vast amounts of money and millions of tourists? Probably not.

SeaWorld alone is a $2.5 billion business, according to CNNMoney, and its park attendance rates are booming. Such powerful businesses will have to find a way to survive in a world where the animal rights movement is gaining traction and mainstream understanding.

One would think that the ethical argument against captivity would be obvious, and yet, to many tourists, it is not nearly that crystal clear. The mesmerizing appeal of a giant world of faux glaciers, millions of gallons of icy blue saltwater, and out-of-place animals is powerful for children and adults alike. Most of us will never be afforded the opportunity to watch orcas, walruses, or even dolphins in their natural habitat, so marine parks and zoos seem to be an understandable alternative.


A basic appreciation for ethics will tell you quite the contrary: that imprisoning any living, sentient creature for your own means is wrong. Are we that arrogant as a species to think we hold dominion over all other beings?

Consequently, it seems fast food companies and marketing teams are not the only ones to catch on to gradual changes in public opinion. The San Diego Zoo, known for its sprawling park and animal exhibits, has now become San Diego Zoo Global -- a reference to its joint businesses, the Safari Park, and the Institute for Conservation Research, that create one large conservation-focused organization.

San Diego Zoo Global intends to fuse family fun with education and endangered animal conservation. Their seed bank program hopes to reclaim the plant diversity of San Diego County’s yesteryear, and their “Frozen Zoo” of cell cultures of 9,000 species of birds, insects, mammals and more provides a genetic library for the future of conservation and restoration. But with partnerships with Coca-Cola, Dreyer’s Ice Cream, and many gimmicky ticket options and packages, San Diego Zoo is still very much business-minded.

SeaWorld Orlando — the site where Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau — on the other hand, cannot quite boast of conservation projects and international partnerships much like San Diego can. Links to its gift shop and hotel package deals are front and center on their brightly-colored website.


Rollercoasters such as Shamu Express® and a marine-themed arcade also provide Six Flags-style entertainment.

SeaWorld Orlando is a bona fide theme park, no doubt about it. Their animal rescue actions and groundbreaking work in captive orca breeding (in contrast to the brutal open-ocean captures that catalyzed the marine park industry decades ago) do not entirely discredit their ability to help conserve animal species. But the question again surfaces: Does the benefit of keeping wild animals captive truly outweigh the costs, both real and ethical?

I believe films such as Blackfish bring us one step closer to a more compassionate, educated, and pro-animal rights society. The animalrights movement is sometimes seen as a ruthless fringe group of radical individuals out-of-sync with reality, putting animals before people, and taking extreme actions to prove their point. Contrary to this rather shallow image, however, is the inalienable fact that animal-related issues affect us all.

Even when you may think your actions are harmless, the capitalism our society is founded on will prove you wrong, as the “vote with your dollars” ideology implies. Your financial support of businesses (and their practices) is a far stronger statement then expounding your personal beliefs in mere words, unfortunately. Privately opposing animal cruelty in its many forms but endorsing businesses in the public negates any personal sentiment you may have.

I will not give my money to zoos or marine parks regardless of their potential for conservation. Until such places do away with cheap thrills and exploitation at the sake of innocent animals, I will not support them.

So what decision will you come to about captivity? I’ve already made mine.

Written by Kevynn Gomez

  • Emily726

    This article is very irresponsible and radically inaccurate. As a wildlife veterinary student, I, too, have mixed feelings on zoos and feel that they have much to improve on. However, to discredit their ever-progressing efforts to better the lives of animals and provide much-needed conservation education to multiple generations is irresponsible.

    You write that these animals are taken from their families and plucked out of the wild. This is, by and large, untrue. Today, the vast majority of zoo animals are acquired by captive breeding programs. These breeding programs also work to restore threatened species that would likely have gone extinct or critically endangered in the wild due to poaching. Furthermore, some zoos, such as the Baltimore Zoo, occasionally take animals that would die in the wild or in their past conditions, such as orphans or circus animals.

    Additionally, zoos contribue to the care of their animals’ wild counterparts. The Toledo Zoo in Ohio is restoring butterfly habitats in Ohio and the Bronx Zoo has funneled more than $3 million towards conservation projects in Africa. Further, zoos aid scientists and conservationists in conducting important research and conservation projects. These projects helps to develop new medicines and techniques to improve animal health. Zoos also aim to education people of all ages about the importance and need for animals and animal conservation.

    Zoos do need to improve on their animal habitats and expand to make larger exhibits for the animals and are not without fault, but to simply advocate for their closure is incredibly uninformed and unreasonable.

    • Corey Lee Wrenn

      Zoos intentionally breed animals (the cute or awe-inspiring ones) so that they will have a constant supply of babies to draw in revenue. Animals that are old or overcrowded are then sent to slaughter or to canned hunts. Many animals are also transported from zoo to zoo like sideshows. Lots of organizations help conservation efforts for ALL animals (not just the popular ones) without making individuals who represent them suffer in enclosures their entire lives.

      What exactly are we learning from zoos Emily? Research shows that the main thing we learn from caging animals and observing them in our enclosures is that humans are superior. What an awful lesson. If zoos existed primarily as sanctuaries, as you suggest, that would be a different matter altogether. But zoos are for-profit organizations. Cute animals, visiting animals, and “conservation” programs are simply PR tools to keep you coming back.

      Many people are not aware that many “primitive” humans were placed on display for privileged “superior” white people to come and gawk at…as recently as 100 years ago at the World Fair. It was thought to be educational. Of course we now see it as degrading and oppressive.

      • Emily726

        Please include sources before posting. You are doing animals no favors by promoting false information.

        Yes, zoos have much to improve on. But to simply scream that zoos are inhumane and should be shuttered is ignorant.

        • Corey Lee Wrenn

          Emily, this is a Disqus section of a blog…I don’t post references to everything I comment on. I am an animal rights theorist who teaches this at the university level…you can trust the information I presented is true. There are plenty of books on the topic, check out your local library. Here’s a more accessible magazine piece from some researchers on the topic where they discuss their work and that of others:

          • EmilyMerlino

            And I am a DMV student. You can trust that the information I present is also true. As a DMV, I like to think that I am an animal rights activist. It is simply irresponsible to toss out grandiose ideas that would end up doing much more harm than good. I also teach conservation information classes at my local zoo, and I can assure you that people learn a lot and are really inspired by these classes.

            Like I said, I DO think that zoos have much to improve on. I love animals and think that zoos need better and more spacious habitats and animal care. However, I do NOT think it is responsible, knowing what we do about how zoos aid with conservation, education, and research that benefit wildlife and even restore endangered species, to simply advocate shuttering them. That’s all.

    • Kevynn Gomez

      You have a right to your opinion Emily. But where in this article did I state that animals are “taken from their families and plucked out of the wild”?

      Aside from my comment in parentheses on the original open ocean capture of orcas in the wild (which has since stopped), I did not state or imply this. I am aware of captive breeding and the strides SeaWorld has made in this field.

      Really curious as to how you have come to find this in my writing, as it is not even a topic I touched on. Perhaps you are confusing my article with other anti-captivity arguments.


  • Corey Lee Wrenn

    Brilliant…zoos must go…as should all forms of animal exploitation. You’re right, these are businesses who profit off the suffering of commodified animals. Research has shown that kids don’t learn anything from these zoos…except one thing: Humans are superior. What a nasty lesson.

  • Rsey104

    Excellent article.

    If anyone feels strongly about the rescue/aid work that SeaWorld does they might like to give a donation directly to The SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund—bypassing the amusement park/circus aspect of the business altogether.

    Put your money where it can do the most good—and the least harm.

    The world’s largest captive orca, Tilikum, literally lives backstage at an entertainment venue. Permanently. Night and day. For life.

    For 30 years, everything that was ever important to Tilikum has been taken from him. His freedom has been taken. His family and his home have been taken. His health and vitality have been taken.

    Even the ocean has been taken from Tilikum.

    In the process, three young adults—Keltie, Daniel, and Dawn—had everything taken from them, too.

    And for what?

    Every time Tilikum circles the pool splashing water on people he makes a rich corporation a few dollars richer.

    Orcas don’t thrive in captivity. They don’t belong in captivity.

    It’s not the 1970’s anymore.

    It’s time for change.

  • zoya

    Well written, i generally love animals and also love to know about there habitat. This is really creating awareness about the matters on going regarding the animals life.

    Veterinary Services

  • Spam

    Actually, yes, we are precisely that arrogant.

    And I’m not 100% sure there’s a logical argument against that arrogance that doesn’t have an illogical or counterproductive ramification.

    We might be “better” than that, but it’s probably only because we have luxury.

  • Spam

    Yes, we are precisely that “arrogant”.

    To many people animals are part of “the environment” and we as human beings have a right to tailor and use that environment however we wish. We are intellectually and, according to many, spiritually superior.

    It’s odd how inconsistently human superiority translates into the responsibility to be kind. Although I’m not sure I’ve come across an argument that logically showed why it wasn’t okay have zoos, but was okay to eat plants that didn’t have some illogical or counterproductive result.

    We may someday be “better” than animal captivity currently paints us, but it’s likely to be because we have the luxury to be, not because of anything inherent in our species or any ethical consideration.

    Now, personally, I really don’t think we need zoos. I’ve never cared for them one way or the other, even as a kid. And while I did find the Busch Gardens conservatory interesting as an adult, my life wouldn’t be negatively impacted if zoos didn’t exist.

  • Sir Ken Zarson

    Answer to the tile: I really hope so! And I hope this happens very soon!!