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that comes with maturity, I know now that zoos are far from amazing- – they are cruel, unethical prisons founded upon outdated beliefs.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