Friday, September 13, 2013

Even Children Instinctively Know Orca Captivity is Wrong

Even children instinctively understand that there is something profoundly wrong with keeping orcas in captivity. That's why, when they speak out, it carries real weight. We can argue until we are blue in the face about it, but at the end of the day, we all know that their simple insight is right. 

Case in point:

Teachers must have their work cut out for them in today’s world, where because of media access children are bombarded with information and are witness to events from which they once were sheltered. How to help and empower them so that they can grow up to be contributing adults who work to solve problems may not be every teacher’s task, but it certainly is every teacher’s mission.
One such person is Mr. Parkinson, a computer specialist at a school in Manchester, England, who is focusing on teaching kids how to use ipads as a tool and who found the documentary film “Blackfish” touching and powerful. Because he felt that some of the content would be disturbing, he only has the children watch the trailer (below). The film is not scheduled to be released in Europe so there is no question that the kids would be exposed to the really disturbing events. Mr. Parkinson writes:
In my quest to find a topic that I want to ignite the children’s passion to write and share work through the school blog, I watched a very moving and interesting film over the summer called Blackfish. The documentary exposes the dreadful life of Killer Whales in captivity. Although I don’t feel the film is appropriate for children to watch and have emphasised this point with them (some scenes of the whales attacking trainers etc.) The message that it portrays, however, is one I wanted to share with the class. I wanted to use a real life issue to inspire writing and this is one that the film has really brought into the public eye.
From the children in Mr. Parkinson’s class:
Mr Parkinson told us about a film he watched over the summer called, Blackfish. This documentary explored the effects captivity have on killer whales. After Mr Parkinson told us a little about the film, we wanted to research some of the effects ourselves and were astonished to see how unfair and unnatural it is to keep these very intelligent animals in captivity. Mr Parkinson made it clear that the film wasn’t appropriate to watch however did show us a suitable clip that demonstrated some of the effects captivity has on Orca.
We wanted to start this topic with a bang and raise as much awareness as possible so we decided to make a class advert for this issue. We discussed features we could include to make our advert as effective and really grab people’s attention. We used camera effects and emotive music to set the mood. We used rhetorical questions to make the viewer think and persuade them to agree with our viewpoint.

If you agree with the message in our video, please help us raise awareness by sharing our video with as many people as possible. This will hopefully provide our blog with an audience to showcase the writing we will be producing over the next few weeks. We would also love it if you can comment on our video to let us know what you think. Some of the children have already been writing about this issue and you can read them here.

I can attest to some personal experience in this regard. Below is a brief excerpt from my forthcoming book, Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us, following the story of the captures from Northwest waters of the killer whales -- named Namu and Shamu -- who provided the foundations of the captive-orca entertainment industry:

Shamu made Sea World a multi-billion-dollar business. Thanks to the presence of their performing killer whales, the onetime backwater business of marine parks has blossomed into a big-money corporate undertaking, entertainment venues that families plan their whole vacations around seeing.

I know this from personal experience. We took Fiona to Sea World in San Diego a couple of times when she was little – ages one and two, respectively. It was actually a lot of fun.

And you have to give credit where it is due: My little girl was flabbergasted and smitten by the sight of the great orcas, especially when they glided past the glass enclosure where she spent the better part of an hour oohing and ahhing over them. These parks deserve great credit in providing people the opportunity to actually see, in the flesh, one of these great creatures. Whether what they’re being shown is orcas as they really are is another question. 

At those parks, they tell a different story about killer whales. They portray them as docile and friendly, like super-smart performing dogs. Though imposing and intimidating, they are clearly dominated by their human trainers. The parks claim to give their attendees an “education” and “conservation message” through their shows, though what information they give is often muddled and sometimes downright false. There is a lot of prattle about how much the whales eat and what it’s like to train them, but almost nothing about their social lives, their backgrounds, or their population type.

But most of all, you will never, ever hear about the endangered population of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, and most certainly not the outsize role played by the captive-orca industry, during its founding years, in driving those populations to the brink. Yes, you might be told that whales face all kinds of survival challenges in the wild, and often do not survive them – mostly as a means of rationalizing the continued captivity of killer whales by theme parks. You will be told the oceans are a scary place (as proven by the difficulties whales face in Puget Sound) and that the parks can provide the whales better food and care than they can get in the wild. You will probably also be told that their orcas live longer in captivity than do whales in the wild.

These are at best gross distortions of reality. And the last is simply a lie: Captivity has been a catastrophe for most killer whales taken from the wild. Study after study has demonstrated that whales in captivity are more than two and a half times more likely to die than whales in the wild. All the care in the world cannot compensate for the stress brought on by placing a large, highly mobile, highly intelligent, and highly social animal with a complex life into a small concrete tank.

Of the 136 orcas taken in captivity over the years, only 37 still survive. The average lifespan of all these orcas in captivity so far is about eight and a half years. In the wild, the average rises to thirty-one years for males and forty-six for females.

Then there is the upper end of the spectrum. In the wild, males will live up to sixty years, and in the Puget Sound, there is a matriarchal female named Granny who is believed to be a hundred years old. Having met Granny up close in my kayak, I can attest that she remains spry and playful. There are several other elderly females in the southern resident population.

But we don’t know how long orcas will live in captivity yet. We’re still finding that out.

Perhaps the most telling number is that, of those fifty-five orcas taken from the Pacific Northwest, only two remain alive today: Corky II, the matriarch of the Sea World orcas in San Diego, taken from Pender Harbor in 1969; and Lolita, also known as Tokitae, the only surviving orca from the horrific Penn Cove captures of 1970, who is alone in a small tank at Miami Seaquarium. Both are estimated to have been born in 1966, making them roughly co-equals as the oldest whales in captivity, though there are some estimates that indicate Lolita is older. Regardless, Corky has been captive longer than any living whale. Their stories are amazing and, in the end, inspiring – except that the ending so far is that they remain in captivity, their owners intent on keeping them.

On our second visit to Sea World, we bought tickets for Fiona and her mom to go to the exclusive “Dine With Shamu” luncheon, where trainers bring whales up close to the tables where you’re gnoshing and give you a good look. The whale Fiona got to see up close was none other than Corky.

I asked her afterward if she was excited to meet Corky up that close. She seemed noncommittal. Her mom told me that she seemed more taken aback than anything. “There was something disturbing about it,” she said.

That had been in February, and later that summer, in August, we had our close encounter with orcas in the wild. That evening in camp, I asked her if she had thought about those orcas at Sea World after seeing these in the wild. She said she had. I asked what her thoughts were. She paused for only a moment.

“They should let them go,” she said. Even a three-year-old could see it.
Here's that's trailer for Blackfish that inspired the children in England.

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