Thursday, October 9, 2014

Blackfish - A Hunting Biologist's View On Captive Whales

I eat meat.  I participate in activities, for work (biological sampling) and fun (hunting and fishing) in which animals inevitably die. Well, sometimes.  I don't like suffering, and I don't enjoy the fact that animals die.  But that moral weight is overcome by the value I personally feel as a result of those activities.   As a wildlife biologist, I understand that the way humans have inhabited the world means a heirarchy of things and of organisms that is not natural, or at least not natural in the way that things were natural when Homo sapiens appeared 130,000 years ago.   Much of what we've destroyed or changed can't be put back exactly the way it was - at any scale.

That being said, the opportunity exists for right and wrong.  I finally watched the shockumentary "Blackfish," knowing full well what the filmmakers intended - to shock audiences into awareness of the strangeness and perhaps immorality of keeping marine mammals, namely whales, in captivity for entertainment (research is a secondary goal).   Keep in mind that I detest the animal rights crowd, and I'm not ashamed to shoot a duck in the face, or a deer right in the heart.

The crux of the plot is that the industry, notably SeaWorld, has engaged in an awful industry of catching wild whales, and then simultaneously willfully ignores the mental and physical health of the whales while placing human employees in undue danger of being mauled or killed, all in the name of entertainment.  I'm not saying that any of that is fact or isn't, but the aim of Blackfish is to demonstrate to the viewers that it's certainly the case.  To be fair, SeaWorld has released a response to Blackfish, and it can be viewed here.

So, let's look at what's real in the film, from a biologist's and hunter's point of view.

1.  Killer whale enclosures appear to be shamefully small and biologically insufficient.  Overcrowding in this scale of captivity seems to lead to what anyone with a biology background would expect - stress, injury, and aggression.  Knowing what I know about habitat needs, I doubt that any entertainment complex could realistically build a habitat "big enough" to healthily and ethically house multiple killer whales...it would be dozens or hundreds of acres in size.

2.  Killer whales die younger in captivity.   Allegedly, 70% of captive whales die before age 10.  Since killer whales are k-selected animals, it is unusual to have a high mortality rate early in the projected life span.   I can't speculate why this is so.

3.  Catching killer whales in the wild, for entertainment, is a really dumb idea.  Killer whales are apex predators.  They are long lived, with family bonds and long periods of parental attachment.   I completely understand that domestic reproduction isn't ample to supply the industry with whales.  I just don't care.  Stop catching the stupid whales.  Seriously. But the wild catch continues.  

4.  "Awareness Creates Activism" is a Failed Model for Engagement, and a Poor Excuse for Keeping Whales Captive.   Okay.  When it comes to conservation, awareness is far better than ignorance.  That being said,  awareness has a very insignificant relationship to activism, or what social scientists call "behavior change."   That relationship, small as it is, is described as the first stepping stone.  Crucial, but just a step.
The marine entertainment industry preaches, as they have since I was a boy, that they catch and keep whales to help create "ocean stewards" or some such silliness, out of the public.  Essentially, the model is that you pay $300 to take your family to the ocean theme park. You see the whales do some tricks, and that magically transforms you into a family of people who write their congressmen about whale conservation.  Of course, scientists know different.  Here's a few quick studies, one, two, three.   Creating an engaged steward of anything requires multiple steps or "touches," because people are rarely overwhelmed with passion for a topic in a way that is 1) sustainable and 2) creates long term action by the person.

Overview
The film Blackfish only interviews a half dozen people, all but one of whom seem highly opposed to keeping captive orcas.  It's not meant to be a balanced film for documentary purposes, I don't believe.  And there are likely mistakes and inaccuracies throughout the film that only industry insiders would know.  As a hunter and a biologist, I wasn't shocked and upset by the footage of injured whales (and trainers), but I was definitely disturbed by the quotes provided, however out of context, by marine entertainment industry spokespeople, absolutely lying (to cameras and/or microphones) about various issues related to orca captivity and trainer safety.   If there's no controversy - if captive whales are such a simple, good idea, why lie about it?   Coordinating lying efforts (see: NFL) mean only one thing:  someone is afraid of the impact that the truth might have.

I grew up swimming with dolphins, and while the childlike entertainment of a dolphin show is somewhat amusing, I've never felt like dolphin shows were a great use of those animals and their lives. I have pictures of the first one I attended, at the Baltimore Aquarium in 1988.  It basically seemed like the same dolphin show they put on when I took my son to that aquarium (and dolphin show) in 2010.   When we returned to the Aquarium in 2012, we didn't pay for the dolphin show, and we won't pay for it in the future.  Regardless of how many dolphin shows I've seen, and regardless of the fact that I work as a wildlife habitat ecologist for a living, I've never called or written an elected official about dolphin and whale issues.   I didn't publicly protest dolphin-killing tuna fishing when that was an issue in the 1990s.  None of that entertainment, despite my scientific training and conservation ethic, made me do anything about whale and dolphin welfare.   What about people without scientific welfare and a conservation ethic - are they truly better off for seeing a whale show?  Are they now "aware?"  Will they change their conservation/environmental behaviors?  Color me unconvinced.

I haven't taken my son to the circus, because I think how the circus treats animals would reflect (to my son) what I think the acceptable treatment of animals is.   I had been leaning toward, and now feel solid about, keeping that pattern up for future marine mammal shows.  If Hank wants to see whales, I'll save that $300 and use it on a whale watching tour.  I encourage readers to watch Blackfish for what it is - a slanted but heavily fact-based account of things that are being done wrong in our relationship with the earth's remaining killer whales.