Nov 13, 2016

Blackfish: My One Regret

     I've done a lot of stupid things in my life. A lot. At such frequency, I of course had to start early and so it's no wonder that I remember drinking an entire cup of dirty water in which half my classmates were cleaning their watercolor brushes during arts and crafts in first grade just because one of my classmates said I couldn't — and of course it snowballed after that. But despite decades upon decades of more or less shameful moments, comprised of miscellaneous drunken escapades as well as sober antics, I see it all as learning experiences and thus surprisingly have but a few regrets. Well, actually, that's a lie. I don't have a few of them — I only have one, dating from July 2013.
     Back in July three years ago, I was in the States on a cross-country road trip with a dear friend of mine and of course SeaWorld was a must on our itinerary. Why a must? Because SeaWorld offers orca shows and like I already mentioned at some point, orcas are my favorite animals. They have been since forever, really. When I was little — and please keep in mind that I was very little — I entertained this crazy delusion that I could somehow convince my father to build me a swimming pool in our backyard so I could have a pet orca.
     "Don't you think an orca would feel little snug in a swimming pool?" asked my brother.
     "It would be a big pool," I replied.
     "Still. Orcas are huge, really huge, you know. And if you had just one — and you'd only have room for one — it would get lonely. You wouldn't want it to get lonely, would you?"
     "Well ... no."
     "You could, however, try to convince dad to let you have a couple of penguins." If you've ever wondered where my penchant for sarcasm comes from, now you have your culprit.
     But sarcasm or no sarcasm, orcas did turn out to be too big for our backyard and so my dream of coming close to a killer whale was put on hold — until July of 2013.
     After my friend and I landed in San Francisco that summer of 2013, we first hit LA and then "headed to San Diego to go see the orcas in the SeaWorld fun park. Seeing a live killer whale was my ultimate dream and when I first saw a glimpse of a black fin, I literally shrieked, clasped my hands and ran to the swimming pool. After the initial excitement wore off, I realized that my dream was to see an orca in its natural habitat, not in a tuna can of a swimming pool," I wrote back then. But that wasn't the entire story.
     After the first orca show (there are two, one during the day and one in the evening), we strolled around the park and went to see other shows, but later we returned to the orca show arena to see the night program. On our way, however, we passed one of the killer whale tanks and when that majestic creature swam past, something in me snapped. Even though I didn't grasp the full gravity of the situation back then, I knew, just knew that it was wrong, those animals being there, us being there, everything, wrong, wrong, wrong. And I felt like the biggest imbecile on the planet for not realizing it before. I think my friend felt it too — it truly was a bitter moment. My eyes welled up with tears and I felt sick to my stomach. Why the fuck did we even come here?? I don't think my friend realized, however, that I was about to disintegrate into a sobbing mess, all I know is that I was trying my damn hardest to keep it together and hold back the tears, but soon into the show I turned to her and said, "Can we go? We can go, if you want," and she turned to me and said, "Yes, please, let's." And that was it, we got up and left, but I've regretted visiting SeaWorld ever since — even more so recently than in all these past years. Why? Because just a few days ago, I saw Blackfish.
     As soon as I found out about the documentary and watched the trailer, I knew I had to see the entire thing. Since I was crying just after seeing those two minutes and twenty-three seconds of the trailer, I also knew it was going to be painful. And it was.
     The documentary tells the heartbreakingly tragic story of Tilikum, a male orca who was captured when he was just a two-year-old cub near Reykjav√≠k, Iceland in 1983, when he and his family were chased down by poachers. Using a net, they separated babies from adults, thinking that the adult whales would simply swim away which never happened: the entire time poachers were 'loading' the whale cubs and getting them ready for transport, the entire family stuck together, screaming and wailing — all in vain. "It's like kidnapping a little kid away from their mother with everybody watching. It's the worst thing I can think of, I can't think of anything worse than that," says one of the poachers in the documentary. Since then, Tilikum has spent over three decades in captivity subjected to the worst living conditions imaginable which lead to his psychosis and aggression — from 1991 to 2010 he killed three trainers.
     Unfortunately, his story isn't an isolated case: currently there are 61 orcas living in captivity, everywhere from parks in the United States, Canada and Argentina to France, Russia and Japan and their stories are just as devastating. Kshamenk, a male orca kept in an aquarium in Argentina, for example, was 'force stranded' on an Argentinian beach in 1992 which means that the poachers placed a large net between the whales and the shore and waited for the tide to go out so the whales were left stranded on the beach. One whale was released, one died on the way to the aquarium, one beat himself to death on the walls of his enclosure, and one, Kshamenk, survived — just to spend 24 years in a tuna can. Sickening.
     But various aquariums and fun parks aren't acquiring new orcas just by poaching, they breed them as well, mostly with the help of artificial insemination. Because captive animals don't live in suitable conditions (just for comparison, out in the open ocean, killer whales get to live up to 50 (males) or 80 (females) years of age, whereas in captivity they die when they reach about half that age), pregnant females often suffer miscarriages or the cubs are still-born, resulting in some 30 unnecessary deaths so far. Of course, those calves that do survive, aren't better off: baby orcas are frequently separated from their mothers and moved (sold) to other facilities all across the globe, the separation permanently traumatizing both mothers and babies. And for what? So they can jump and splash before audiences for dead, thawed fish for which I and many many more just like me paid to watch. Sickening.
     After Blackfish was released in 2013, a lot less people have paid, however, and SeaWorld's net income dropped to $5.8 million from $37.8 million in 2014. Because the numbers kept plummeting, SeaWorld's administration finally realized they had to make a change and in March 2016 announced that they'd immediately stop their breeding program, hinting that the era of captive display of orcas will one day come to an end — not because it's morally wrong, not because it's dangerous for their employees, but because it's bad business. Sickening.
     It's interesting, though, that watching and reading about and being a part of the machine which enslaves another species — our kin! — to exploit as modern day gladiators is making my stomach turn infinitely more than drinking that cup of diluted watercolors ever could. Man, oh, man, I wish I never went to SeaWorld.

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