SeaWorld’s Secret is OutPosted by Jenni James, ALDF Litigation Fellow on October 29, 2013
SeaWorld’s secret is out. On October 24th, 1.4 million people tuned in to CNN to watch Blackfish, the documentary that exposes the dark side of orca captivity. Blackfish (this generation’s “Free Willy”) tells the story of how Tilikum, a six-ton orca, came to kill his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. Blackfish leaves us asking whether orcas are ours to cage. The answer for me—and for many others—is a resounding no.
Thanks to ALDF, CNN, and two industrious SALDF chapters, I was able to see Blackfish earlier, at screenings at UCLA and NYU. After each screening, I was honored to share a panel with filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Together we answered questions posed by ALDF supporters and our panel moderators, UCLA SALDF’s Lina Cohen and NYU SALDF’s Charmayne Palomba.
We discussed ALDF’s work on behalf of Lolita, the only captive orca held in the U.S. outside of a SeaWorld park. Lolita, whose 1970 capture is featured in Blackfish, has been failed by agencies that should protect her. ALDF sued the USDA for refusing to enforce the Animal Welfare Act, leaving Lolita confined in a tiny tank, without shade or orca companionship. ALDF sued NMFS, who excluded Lolita from protection under the Endangered Species Act. We discussed how Lolita’s biggest problem is one shared by all nonhuman animals–she is property under the law, so she lacks fundamental legal rights and cannot sue to protect herself.
Gabriela said that she didn’t set out to make a film about animal rights. A mother and a SeaWorld patron herself, Gabriela simply wanted to know how an experienced trainer could be killed by a captive orca. When the story didn’t add up, Gabriela dug deeper. When she realized how horrible life in captivity was for orcas, she had to share. In particular, she was moved by the suffering of orca mothers, whose babies were torn from their sides at SeaWorld’s whim. Gabriela now advocates to end captive breeding and to transition orcas to sea pen sanctuaries.
I asked Gabriela whether she realized as she was making it that Blackfish would create such a buzz? Her answer was classic. “I make documentaries. I don’t expect anyone to see my films on purpose.”
The audience asked what they could do. The answer was simple. Don’t buy a ticket. Orcas are held captive because their display is profitable. SeaWorld sells an illusion. Blackfish pulls back the curtain. If you aren’t one of the 1.4 million who have already watched, look for a screening near you or arrange one of your own.
We freed Willy. Now it is time to free Tilly—and Lolita and the world’s 50 other captive orcas.