Biting the Hand

I run a fansite for Jorja Fox, and I rather admire her advocacy in many things. In October, she spoke up about the movie Blackfish.

I grew up in San Diego County, from age 6 to 16 I lived there, which meant many, many times I went to SeaWorld. At least once a year, usually more, we all tromped down and checked out the shows. I pet a killer whale, I’ve fed dolphins, I’ve danced with a seal and sea lion. I remember when the shark ‘tunnel’ was a new thing, and scared the pants off us. And every single time I went down there, we were told how Sea World was doing this in the name of conservation. To show the bond humans have with animals, to make us aware of what the world was like.

And I remember in 2010 the death of Dawn Brancheau – a trainer who fell in the water and was killed. At the time I thought “Did I see her perform?” It was a chilling realization that the odds were that I had once seen this woman ‘on stage’ with an Orca. Not the animal that killed her, but one similar. And then when I read the eyewitness stories about how she did not slip, but the whale grabbed her, held her underwater, and shook her so hard her shoes flipped off, I felt a little sick. Even if she did slip, there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that the whale killed her.

Since Dawn’s tragic death, no performer has been in the water with an Orca again.

And then I saw Blackfish. This year I learned there was a much darker truth behind SeaWorld. I learned how they got their original animals. How they were initially treated. And while a large part of me wanted to believe SeaWorld when they said that yes, there had been mistakes before but they learned, I had the same questions as Gabriela Cowperthwaite:

I remember fragments of the story of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau’s killing in 2010 — something about a ponytail, something about her slipping and falling, something about how this almost never ever happens because in these parks, the animals are happy and the trainers are safe.

But something wasn’t right. I remember asking someone why an orca — a highly intelligent animal — would attack its trainer or essentially “bite the hand that feeds it.”

We sometimes hear of dogs mauling other people, but in these cases we don’t seem to hear about them attacking their masters. So why would America’s lovable Shamu turn against us? How could our entire collective childhood memories of this delightful water park be so morbidly wrong?

I came in with these questions. I set out to understand this incident, not as an animal activist — because I’m not one — but as a mother who had just taken her kids to SeaWorld, and of course as a documentary filmmaker who unfortunately can’t let sleeping dogs lie.

It just doesn’t make any sense to me either. And yes, I read SeaWorld’s response to Blackfish. But I wonder why, as a child, I never was told how the animals were originally captured? As a child, yes, it would have horrified me, but maybe showing a child how things changed, how they learned and became better, would not only show me humanity had a chance, but be a shining example that even if I screwed up, I could learn and be better.

Instead, when I remember what I was taught as a child, and what I read today from SeaWorld, I see people avoiding the questions. Or answering with remarks that imply that just because an animal does travel hundreds of miles, doesn’t mean that’s best for them. And that only makes me think about humans, and what sort of creatures we’ve become thanks to technology, and do we really wish this on other species?

It disturbs me. I don’t have the answers, but I can’t, in good conscious, visit SeaWorld anymore. I know that the people at SeaWorld do good, I know they rescue beached animals, rehabilitate them, and help them back into the oceans. I know they care greatly, and I know they have many staff who want nothing more than to make the animals of the water safer and healthier. But I also know they’re a business. The parks are to make money. And maybe they’re not doing it in the best way possible.

SeaWorld’s claim is that Blackfish did not show both sides, but I don’t feel like SeaWorld does that either. That’s why we need both parties, talking about what they’re doing and seeing, to make a change in the world.