This is the end of Shamu. Or more specifically, 2016 marks the end of the line for the family entertainment company SeaWorld; this was the last year in which the theme park would be hosting active shows involving orcas, or killer whales, including its ever popular Shamu show. Many factors have been involved in closing the shows for good, none more so effective than massive criticism of the park after the 2013 documentary Blackfish was released. Now nearly three years later, SeaWorld is facing more pressure than ever before to change their policy due to the actions shown in the documentary.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish follows the life and star career of killer whale Tilikum who was responsible for several deaths of SeaWorld performers and faculty members. Tilikum’s violent behavior even among other orca whales was the inspiration for the documentary’s development. Although the film focused its subject on Tilikum, its overall message became a commentary concerning orca captivity. According to Helen O’Hara’s 2015 article in The Telegraph, “the film made just over $2 million (dollars) at the US box office, but amid overwhelmingly positive reviews, it had a disproportionate effect. Music stars including The Beach Boys and Trisha Yearwood cancelled scheduled appearances at the Bands, Brews & BBQ event at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa, and a steady stream of celebrities followed suit and spoke out against the parks.” Even then, the popularity fallout was much more prominent among the general public and soon enough, SeaWorld’s attendance rates began to trickle into near non-existence.
Since the release of Blackfish, SeaWorld has tried many times to defend both its methods of practice as well as its reputation, but in 2015, SeaWorld officially announced they would be closing all shows involving orcas due to mass media outcry and dwindling sales. According to Jennifer Van Grove and Lori Weisberg’s 2015 article in The San Diego Union-Tribune, SeaWorld was to completely end all Shamu showings and, “replace it with one that is less about tricks and more about orcas’ natural behaviors in the wild.” The exact details around this change in performance are still unknown, although SeaWorld has confirmed that they will be shifting their focus starting 2017. Even so, it’s going to be a while before the public forgives and forgets SeaWorld’s treatment of both orcas and other species within their containment. The images and footage shown in Blackfish reveal the happenings of what goes on in SeaWorld’s facilities and will most likely remain with the public for some time to come. Despite the fact that Blackfish’s popularity was a major factor in exposing SeaWorld, evidence of their lack of proper treatment has been documented for some time.
According to Andrew Bender’s 2015 article in Forbes Magazine, “whales are basically driven mad by their confined circumstances. These intensely social animals are separated from their families, and held in enclosures not much more than two body-lengths long when they are used to travelling up to 2,000 kilometers. [In captivity], the whales are known to violently rake one another, and even assuming they escape aggression a majority of male orca suffer a drooping dorsal fin that is seen in only 1% of wild whales.” Examples of this violent behavior is further illustrated through footage of SeaWorld employees and their treatment of the whales in Blackfish. Although the debate of whale abuse in contained attractions has always been an issue, it wasn’t until Blackfish that the problem gained vast notice. Morality of animal treatment has never been discussed as greatly as it has been in these last few years, and Blackfish has acted as a stepping stone in bringing these controversies properly into public light and judgement.
However, some feel that SeaWorld needs to do more to make up for their treatment of the whales over the years. Because SeaWorld’s orcas will no longer be in active performances, the issue of where they should be placed is another factor to consider, especially when almost all of SeaWorld’s whales have been bred in contained environments for most, if not all, of their lives. According to Nathan Bomey’s 2016 article in USA Today, “PETA senior vice president Lisa Lange called for SeaWorld to send its orcas to “sea pens” located next to the ocean and even release some in the wild, a controversial proposal because captive animals often can’t adjust to the wild.” Likewise, there are also many others who are concerned for the lack of instinctual training these animals will never have the time to learn in their pursuit of life in the wild. It is not uncommon for animals who spend their lives in captivity to die in mere days when released. As SeaWorld pointed out in regards to this issue, keeping the orcas within these sea pens is a safety-insured method of raising these animals for the time being. Still, many are satisfied with these small steps regardless of the drawbacks or potential consequences in the makes. According to Michaela Ross’s 2016 article in the Bloomberg, “the Humane Society of the United States, which partnered with SeaWorld on the new policy, said it was happy the company was taking steps to end “the era of captive displays of orcas” and continue its work to rescue and rehabilitate marine mammals. The Animal Welfare Institute said it hopes to continue discussions with the company about improving conditions for all animals in its parks.” It’s evident then that, for the most part, SeaWorld’s treatment of this issue is being received positively well by media outlets and organizations everywhere. But what of the mass public in which these changes affect?
Considering it’s been three long years since the initial media outbreak of SeaWorld’s animal handling, it’s a miracle the company is being so cooperative in this endeavor. With their actions, other companies with similar backgrounds might soon follow, though hopefully it won’t take nearly as long for them to respond as SeaWorld has.