HARDBARNED! The Blog

Killer Whales? Only in Captivity.

At 74 years of age, Rick O'Barry, who in the 1960s helped capture and train several wild dolphins (five of whom portrayed Flipper in the popular TV show starring the friendly dolphin) remains a highly motivated activist. After several years of working with captive dolphins, he experienced a change of heart and has been on a mission to protect them from humans ever since.

Kathy, a favorite dolphin of O'Barry's who had most often "acted" as Flipper, failed to surface for air one day and died in his arms. Convinced that the intelligent, compassionate creature he had grown to love and respect had intentionally killed herself, O'Barry redirected his life toward helping dolphins and ending their wild capture, containment and exploitation. In 1970, he started the Dolphin Project, an effort to educate the public about captive marine mammals and their collective plight. I only wish I had learned about it sooner.

I saw the Oscar-winning film The Cove (2009), a documentary about the routine capture and slaughter of wild dolphins in Taiji, Japan, as soon as it was available. It hardly seems like four years ago because the images are impossible to shake.

Already a leading dolphin advocate after decades championing the cause, O'Barry was featured in the film, which set the eyes of the world on the horrifying practice of forcibly corralling wild dolphins into a cove where they are separated from their families (or pods) and stabbed and bludgeoned to death--their toxic, mercury-laden flesh sold in markets and to school systems--survivors sold into slavery to live out their lives in captivity doing clown tricks for tourists around the globe in places like SeaWorld.

Over the last few years, I read several of Tim Zimmerman's fascinating investigative articles for Outside magazine on captive orcas and the related deaths of several trainers and I, like many others, was angry. Of course it is a horrible tragedy when a trainer or anyone else is killed by an animal, but more of this is sure to come. It seems only logical to assume that an intelligent, sociable, wild animal, kidnapped from his close-knit family in the open sea and forced daily to perform for handouts in a tiny pool would at some point show signs of psychosis and begin to lash out at his captors.

I shared Zimmerman's articles with friends and family and donated to O'Barry's Save Japan Dolphins, but my armchair activism stopped there. Gabriela Cowperthwaite read Zimmerman's articles and had a similar reaction, but she decided to stand up and actually do something about it. She made a film. I watched it last night.

Blackfish centers on the plight of one orca known as Tilikum, from his capture in the wild, his training at SeaWorld, his involvement in the deaths of several people, to his continuing use as a stud to father many generations of orcas. As a former SeaWorld trainer points out in the film, the first rule of animal breeding is not to breed animals deemed dangerous to humans, as their aggressive behaviors could be expected to transfer to younger generations. This doesn't seem to bother SeaWorld.

Remarkably, as both O'Barry and an orca researcher in Blackfish point out, not once--not ever--has an orca been documented as having attacked a human being in the wild. Only in theme parks has an orca ever truly earned its other name--Killer Whale. 

Though Cowperthwaite made many attempts to convince SeaWorld to participate in her film and offer their side of the story, they declined and then condemned the film publicly, sending a detailed takedown to 50 film critics on the eve of its release. Cowperthwaite and her producers responded in a point-by-point rebuttal viewable at Indiewire here.

A petition was headed for the White House, urging the president to outlaw the capture of wild orcas in American waters, which, according to O'Barry's Earth Island Institute, has not occurred in U.S. waters for 20 years, but it did not garner enough signatures.

Wild capture should never be allowed to happen again, but a petition is only a start. Whaling continues in some otherwise advanced cultures, despite international agreements. Surely, as one former trainer points out in Blackfish, in 50 years we will look back on these interactions with intelligent marine mammals as both barbaric and stupid. We'll learn and teach about these magnificent creatures without enslaving and exploiting them. 

I went to SeaWorld once with my Dad. I was a kid. I didn't fully realize the implications then, but I remember feeling sorry for the huge whales stuck in the small pools. Even so, it seemed pretty cool at the time; I was swept into the excitement and the drama of the choreographed show. Maybe I didn't know any better. Maybe I should have studied harder before listening to the story I was sold at SeaWorld: that orcas and dolphins lived longer, happier lives in captivity doing tricks for handouts, separated from their families and forced into a life of servitude with animals who were strangers to them. Bullshit.

In wild pods, near companions with whom they share close relationships, sophisticated communication and nuanced emotional expressiveness, orcas live vastly different lives from those trapped in pools for show. Of course orcas have no natural predators in the wild and live more than twice, even three times as long as they do in captivity, traveling great distances in social, multi-generational family groups, singing complex songs as they travel far and wide together.

SeaWorld was once a highlight of my youthful travels, but I won't be back. I remain fascinated by everything and anything that lives in the sea, particularly sharks and large marine mammals like whales and dolphins, but I will not support SeaWorld or any other "park" that contains highly sociable, intelligent, far-roaming wild animals in comparatively tiny pools, forcing them to do tricks to entertain ticket-buyers and would-be purchasers of T-shirts and stuffed animals. I suppose we'll continue this exploitation until people stop buying tickets and conclude that marine mammals deserve not just our applause but also our respect.