SeaWorld Entertainment issued a statement on March 17th that their killer whales currently in captivity at their facilities will be the last.
The company has vowed to stop breeding them immediately and to phase out theatrical orca shows. This is welcome news for animal activists who are against keeping animals in captivity.
This announcement comes three years after SeaWorld came under heavy pressure for its treatment of killer whales and their trainers in a documentary titled Blackfish. The documentary portrays their star orca, Tilikum, who killed two of his trainers and one person who snuck in the park after hours. This underscores two key problems within the sea-park industry: keeping wild animals in captivity is unjust, and these wild animals are ultimately unpredictable and uncontrollable, making them unsafe as theatrical attractions. Rachel Martin, the director of Blackfish, mentioned in an NPR interview that SeaWorld’s move is “a defining moment.”
To people like Rachel Martin and myself, whales in captivity is reminiscent of slavery. This brings to mind an incident comedian Katt Williams once made mention of during one of his sets. A caged tiger killed a zoo patron who had illegally climbed into the tiger exhibit. Zookeepers wanted to kill the tiger! Williams stated, “If you don’t know what it’s like to be a tiger in a zoo, you’ll never understand what it’s like to be black in America.” This is the truth disguised as comedy to help people get past their reluctance to speak on difficult subjects.
Although it was told in the context of comedy, slavery and captivity are no laughing matters. We often forget that we humans are mammals too, just like the orcas at SeaWorld. Most of us would be terribly sad if we had to spend our lives living in what is essentially a giant bathtub. I can imagine that the orcas at SeaWorld are just as miserable living in captivity. They spend their lives trapped in tiny tanks, where they go mad from confinement and boredom. No wonder they kill.
I think that SeaWorld’s announcement reveals truths on multiple levels; captivity and slavery are terrible institutions that should be done away with, and caged animals kill when they can’t direct their aggression against the source of their oppression.
SeaWorld’s move reflects a change in the core values of the company. SeaWorld, as a company, has always prided itself on its humane treatment of animals and protecting some from extinction. But the breeding program represented a loophole in those values, whereby SeaWorld created the need for care by breeding whales and then turned around and made a profit from fulfilling that very need.
Perhaps this marks a shift in what American society considers entertainment. Yes, about 20 million people last year were willing to pay their hard-earned money to see whales, which were bred in captivity, jump through hoops and do flips, but maybe that time has passed. It is possible that we no longer consider that which is harmful to other beings “entertaining,” which is why we have professional wrestling instead of gladiator deathmatches.
In March 2015, the Ringling Brothers gave up their act with traveling elephants. In the film industry, more and more movies are using computer-generated images (CGI) to portray animals instead of live subjects. Society has shunned the fast-food industry and the meat packing industry, opting for more local and organic options. SeaWorld is another manifestation of that shift in society, and I am happy about the trend in general.