When I was younger, I used to visit my aunt in Napa and she’d take me to Vallejo, where we would go to Marine World Africa USA to spend the day. I’m sure we only did this once or twice, but I have strong memories of it — I remember seeing the animals. I remember going to see the whale show. I remember riding an elephant. I remember the time we ran into someone on staff moving a tiger from one place to another, when I got to pet a real live tiger who wasn’t behind bars — somehow, the fact that the big cat was on a choke chain and a leash, with dulled, sad eyes escaped me.
As a child, I was too besotted by the animals. I loved animals. I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up, I loved my birds and cats at home, I enjoyed every opportunity I got to see and look at animals. As I evolved into adulthood, though, my relationship with animals shifted. I began to see things like the zoo, like Marine World, as something much more sinister, because I finally understood there that the animals there weren’t happy.
That tiger wasn’t like Mr. Bell, who liked curling up on the rug by the fire, who slept with me every night, who enjoyed being fed treats. That tiger wanted to go back to the wild, ached for space to live and breathe and roam. Or maybe he’d been bred in captivity, in which case he spent his entire miserable (and shortened) life knowing there was something more, something greater, something better out there. That whale I used to gaze at in awe didn’t have a special relationship with his trainer — the trainer used harsh, cruel tools to make the whale perform for me, and the whale was forced to provide sperm for captive breeding programmes.
SeaWorld has come in for particular criticism and attention this year thanks to Blackfish, a film exposing abuses at the park and taking a hard look at the killer whale programme. But killer whales aren’t the only marine mammals abused for entertainment, as we know. Dolphins, too, are kept in captivity, used as gawking objects for the human public, trained to perform in humiliating and dangerous shows. Tours sometimes offer opportunities to ‘swim with dolphins’ in wild natural spaces, even though this is harmful and stressful for dolphins. Meanwhile, whale watching off the shores of places like Hawaii and Northern California damages whale populations.
Marine mammals are so amazing in so many ways. They’re huge. They’re graceful. They have this incredible evolutionary history, they’re beautiful, they’re compelling. There’s a reason I gasped in awe at that whale show when I was a little kid, because it was amazing to watch such an immense, proud, beautiful animal launch up out of the water. I didn’t see the darkness behind it, I didn’t see the scars, or the abuse, or the tiny enclosures. All I saw was what I was supposed to see, the sheer, unadulterated beauty and majesty of something that was almost too big to comprehend.
These majestic creatures are incredibly sensitive and smart. They live in collectives. They mourn their dead. They have complex relationships with each other. They communicate through achingly beautiful and creepy and wondrous songs. In some cases, free marine mammals have even developed friendly relationships with humans, including bonds with humans that transcend the species barrier and illustrate that marine mammals are far from lifeless hunks of flesh that only gain meaning when we can use them.
Keeping them in captivity and abusing them to create shows for entertainment is a travesty, and it’s infuriating. I have hopes that Blackfish will change the way people view marine mammal shows, dolphin swims, whale watching trips, and the lot, because the film has the potential to radically shift social attitudes about holding marine mammals in captivity. This is not about the need to ‘humanise’ marine mammals or make ridiculous PETA-like statements about ‘slavery’ and other gross comparisons. It’s about the simple need to respect all life, to acknowledge that abusing animals is wrong because they are living, and they feel pain, and they have emotions, and the same whale who is so eager to please because she knows abuse and is well aware of what will happen if she doesn’t jump is also her own being, with her own thoughts and feelings and complexities.
We tolerate the abuse of marine mammals for entertainment because it’s a huge industry. And because, of course, many audiences don’t realise the cost of what they’re seeing. Many companies specifically aim their animal entertainment at children, knowing that many children are just like I was: wide-eyed, innocent, not understanding what lay beneath what they are seeing. It is by selling entertainment to children that companies aim to keep it alive, as even if parents are uncomfortable, they may well be persuaded by pleading children who just want to see the whale show, who just want to swim with dolphins (grossly, ‘dolphin-assisted therapy’ is yet another of the unscientific autism treatments I was mentioning the other day), who just want to see a little more of this big and amazing world of ours.
Do we tell our children that the tiger in the zoo isn’t happy and the monkey house is cruel? Do we explain why we don’t want to take them to SeaWorld, or Marine World, or any number of other parks that use animals as entertainment? Do we burst that bubble?