Blackfish Documentary Reflection

There have been a lot of tears and hollering over the documentary, Blackfish. People argue about it at school, on Facebook and who knows where else I have heard about it. As elusive as mainstream anything can be to me, I thought I should invest in learning about this new uproar.

Turns out, some arguments are reasonably within my area of knowledge. Although I am sure the main purpose of the producers was to challenge the public’s blind faith in Sea World, I mostly had flashbacks of life with livestock and reading Temple Grandin’s “Animals in Translation”. Why? I do not see Sea World as a blame for various orcas attacking trainers and each other. I see a chain of command that knows too little about the animals they provide for.

Blackfish focuses mostly on Tilikum, probably the most infamous of the Shamu. Tilikum’s pod was cornered in an inlet when nets were dropped and the young separated from the mothers. Tilikum was two years old. From there he lived in a miniature Sea World-like facility in Victoria, British Columbia, with two older females.

NOAA image of wild orcas  surfacing in their resident waters.

NOAA image of wild orcas surfacing in their resident waters.

Orcas are like the elephants of the ocean–they have the social dynamics, lifespans and a mental development analogous to humans. They have strong family groups, live close to 80 years (in wild, closer to 30 in captivity) and have very developed brain regions associated with emotions and social communication. Depending on the scientist you talk to or the publication you read, both animals can be known to have distinct cultures and dialects in different regions and lineages.

A previous post mentioned how elephant matriarchs avoid traipsing across roads in areas where poachers are common. Young may even starve themselves after losing their families. Orcas in Patagonia will purposefully beach themselves to snag sea lions and belly-walk back into the water. A pod near Australia was observed double-teaming giant stingrays with one whale disturbing the ocean floor until the ray swims out from hiding, opening itself to another whale on standby.

I do not have to compare orcas to elephants to share insight on how stressful separating and reintegrating different orcas could be. You have the same issues with horses. Horses and their walnut-sized brains. Whenever a new horse is introduced to a herd, the animals must rework their social dynamics. Sometimes they are gentle about it, sometimes blood is involved. Particularly if a horse has been isolated much of its life, it will not know how to behave. This happens too often with stallions. Stallions that have little socialization, and especially those who live strictly in stalls, often become aggressive to other horses and people.

This young colt did not like his first time with a halter and lead rope. To train a horse to do something they are not naturally inclined to tolerate (who wants someone yanking on their head?) the handler must be patient and create positive experiences while the horse has the equipment on.

This young colt did not like his first time with a halter and lead rope. To train a horse to do something they are not naturally inclined to tolerate (who wants someone yanking on their head?) the handler must be patient and create positive experiences while the horse has the equipment on.

This analogy works for high-energy working dogs such as border collies, and for parrots. Essentially if an animal has a brain developed for lots of work or socializing, the brain needs to be used or the animal will become destructive. Parrots yank their feathers out and border collies, well, they just go knuts–tear apart furniture, run in circles so fast they hit their heads on obstacles near their circles, etc.

Back to Tilikum. Tilikum spent his nights in British Columbia in a 20 by 30 foot (film did not mention how deep) enclosure with the two females. First off, I would not even put three horses together in such an enclosure. It is too close of an area for animals to figure out their differences, let alone not get frustrated. Orcas are matriarchal as well, so Tilikum, being the smaller, newer, and male of the bunch, would have had a rough time to say the least. I do not need a film to tell me that.

Then the handlers would not feed him unless he was in the enclosure, because otherwise he would not go back. Ever tried to load a horse into a trailer when it does not want to? Either the problem escalates, or the handler must resolve the reason why the animal will not oblige. It is a very frustrating situation unless you are the “big person” and choose to the resolve the issue. If you are frustrated, the animal is likely just as, or more frustrated.

At this point there is little to say about Sea World. They mix orcas from different families and put them in concrete tubs which walls look the same from every angle. Tilikum eventually spent most of his time in an isolated pool. The “trainers” are just people told what to do. They know nothing about the animal’s natural history nor personal history.

First time interactions set the mood, regardless of species. Hoofed animals like to charge, rise on their hind legs, bite and kick. Often owners gradually introduce animals, such as separate enclosures, so that they can acknowledge one another but not feel like their turf has been invaded.

First time interactions set the mood, regardless of species. Hoofed animals like to charge, rise on their hind legs, bite and kick. Often owners gradually introduce animals, such as separate enclosures, so that they can acknowledge one another but not feel like their turf has been invaded.

Blackfish left a very important bit of information unsaid. Who TRAINS the orcas? “Trainers” just learn the routine that the whale already knows. Without legitimate trainer, who is to know how to work out kinks? Who will be able to see the frustration and find a way to lessen it? Now I am just thinking about that Animal Planet show, “It’s Me or the Dog” where the dog trainer spends her time training the owners, not so much the pets.

Ultimately, orcas do not have stacks of generations that have been domesticated, and humans are not larger than their natural prey. Like that high schooler years ago who took a graduation photo with a lion cub, startled, startled the cub, panicked, and the cub attacked her–orcas are WILD and CARNIVORES.

I am not saying Sea World should quit the show business, but they and similar institutions have a long way to go before they have a safe work environment, because they had a troubling situation long before the media fixated on them.

Just some common sense and a doze of basic animal behavior knowledge.

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