SeaWorld: Animal Prison or Nature Conservatory?

blackfishposterThere’s been a bit of hoopla lately about the amusement park SeaWorld, particularly since Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film, Blackfish, arrived on Netflix.  Blackfish is a documentary that assembles decades of captive killer whale attacks along with tearful testimonies from former trainers about the money and bureaucracy behind the park.

Without a doubt, SeaWorld pours millions of dollars into their state-of-the-art fish tanks, with skilled trainers who genuinely love the animals, and choreographed shows.   In various statements intended to defend its reputation, SeaWorld cites the positives of their aquatic endeavors – they claim that the existence of their park benefits the research and conservation of killer whales, and that they have rescued “ill, orphaned, and injured” animals in the wild.


This is probably all true.  And there are doubtless hundreds of trainers and employees of SeaWorld who earnestly love what they do, believing that they are increasing awareness of the animal kingdom and the need to protect species like killer whales.  Moreover, there are scores of people who visit the park, come away enchanted, warmed, perhaps even educated.

But this is not SeaWorld’s main objective.  This may be the objective of certain individuals who work within the company and subscribe to an ideology about man’s place to help the animals of the planet, to provide enlightening entertainment to the masses, and so on, but for the company itself, the goal is to make money.

SeaWorld is a business.  It is not a non-profit research foundation or grant-funded group of marine biologists.  SeaWorld is incorporated, has shareholders, and is required by law to make money for those shareholders.  Formerly Busch Entertainment, a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch (they make beer, among other things), SeaWorld Entertainment is now owned by the Blackstone Group, one of the world’s largest multinational, investment banking and private equity firms.  In December of 2012, SeaWorld filed for an initial public offering of stock, with a lion’s share of the proceeds going to the Blackstone, which retains a controlling interest.   (Trading on the New York Stock Exchange began in April, 2013.)


Still, spotlighting the corporate interest behind the scenes doesn’t hold much water as an indictment of  SeaWorld; there are surely people who will say that capitalism is how things work – without it there would be no incentive.

So, calling attention to the money aspect of the controversy may seem immaterial, but perhaps it raises some important questions:  If there was no money being made, would SeaWorld exist?  Are animals like the killer whales truly better off in captivity?  Do the purported benefits of research and conservation outweigh any negative impacts?  Or, is it sort of six of one, half a dozen of the other?

Blackfish provides some statistical information, including the drastically shortened life span of captive whales.  However, SeaWorld maintains that the whales live a lifespan comparable to that in the wild.  Blackfish demonstrates some deplorable living conditions for many of the whales, but SeaWorld asserts that the animals are treated like royalty.  Like the animals in the pool, the argument goes around and around.

Fortunately, I can answer for myself, without needing an abundance of trivial data:  My thought is that in no way, shape, or form are animals better off in captivity.  Period.  Even if the water in the tank is filled with Goldschlager and sprinkled with cocaine purer than the driven snow, even if getting masturbated by a trainer feels twice as good as natural in-the-sea hootenanny, even if a captured whale is sick, or injured, or orphaned, it is never the case that an animal is better off in captivity – it is never better for the ecosystem; that is, the animals, their natural habitat, their relationship to one another and to all the other species they interact with.   This is just my unprofessional, armchair-scientist’s opinion.


But let me better explain.  I may or may not be a “conservationist,” but I think the term that suits my thinking better might be “naturalist.”  Man has no dominion over the animals of the world.  I don’t feel it is our place to manage them or manipulate them for profit (animal husbandry) or for science (testing on animals for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, etc.) or for entertainment (zoos, amusement parks).  I’m even skeptical of efforts to re-stabilize populations thwarted by industry and man’s overpopulation; I feel like we need to retract our meddling, busy-body hands and stop molesting the animal kingdom all together.

Woah, right?

Look, many well-meaning people with big hearts seem to get caught up in this idea that we can “make a difference” by removing an animal out of the bliss of its natural environment and putting it in a tank with other animals in order to study it, or provide some sort of educational entertainment for the masses.

But the argument that animals in captivity benefit marine biology research is tenuous.  On a purely biological level, scientists can poke around in the guts of the fish and learn better what goes where and how it all fits together.  But examining captive animals provides zero insight into the ways they exist in the wild.

Still of killer whales from the documentary Blackfish

The most compelling aspect about the documentary Blackfish, for me, was not about the trainer attacks, but when a marine biologist spoke about the complex language of killer whales in the wild, and the developing neuroscience that killer whales have a highly developed region of the brain thought to administer emotion – deep, profound emotion, beyond even human capacity.

These animals live in families.  They are matriarchal, with the mothers and their children remaining together throughout the duration of the mother’s life – which may be as much as eighty or a hundred years.  Each family is thought to have its own specific language, like a tribe.  They move through the ocean like nomads, or hunter-gathers.  They are sacred.  Not just because they are big animals, or whether they are endangered or not, but because they are of a design and realm of being far beyond our ability to fully grasp.

Let’s say that killer whales in the wild remain in what David Abram’s called “The Spell of the Sensuous.”  This realm is a place of instinct, emotion, bountiful sensory input; an unconscious romp through a perpetual present, a life in balance with nature.  Our own spell of the sensuous is probably beyond our reach now, shrunken in the rear view mirror to a homo heidelbergenis waving in the distance.  Perhaps this is something the eager, earnest, whale-loving trainers, the droves of amusement park visitors, are trying to recover, whether they know it or not.  Perhaps SeaWorld is an attempt to once again be a part of something, to be close to something that we lost along the way.

We all recognize the way in which a child is compelled to touch something, and how that touch can inadvertently lead to breakage.  There is a tendency within us to destroy what we love.  We are hardly different from children when we allow our compulsions to override a conscientious understanding – that we change what we observe.

Surely, the way to communion with nature is not to put it behind bars, or in a tank, to ogle at it when it is stripped of its natural context and institutionalized by its surrounding.  Even if it is “healthy” and appears to be functioning normally under the conditions of captivity, to witness such creatures in this environment is to experience a mere fraction of their complexity and grandeur, because we are missing the bigger picture.


I may sound like a curmudgeon, telling my fellow humans to stop tapping on the glass like children.  I recognize and can understand the desire in other people to explore the world around them, to see something they would never get to see.  But there are less invasive ways to do this.  And, perhaps more importantly, there is a major missing component to the experience of animals when they are in captivity – or, if the component is there, it doesn’t mix well with the experience.  Empathy.

Empathy is not just a condition, or an emotion.  Empathy and compassion are tools with which we can explore the world around us.  Compassion, and perhaps a sense of romance, can extend us beyond our trappings to consider the depth of sensual experience in the wild life of a killer whale, and all other species.  We can observe, in a minimally invasive way, by bringing ourselves into the experience of animals.  Rather than shape the animals to our bidding, we can reach out, we can glimpse the glacial waters, we can hear the intricate language of a killer whale family, we can see them coursing through all of that darkness.

Recently I was invited to join “Boycott SeaWorld” on Facebook.  I didn’t join, because I don’t need to; I’ve never been to SeaWorld, and I never will.  And this is not because I have an agenda, as some detractors claim is behind the Blackfish film.  The reason I don’t go to SeaWorld because I feel I have no right to – I don’t feel the slightest bit entitled to watch an animal taken from the wild or born in captivity perform tricks for me.

I’d rather watch the movie Blackfish and then be an old stinkpot and write a blog like this.