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Falling Out of Love with Sea World
By Christine Stoddard
Randolph: You must have something special, that's why Willy didn't eat you up. Maybe high blood, medicine roots.
Jesse: No way.
Randolph: Then you're just one lucky little white boy, you like the sound of that better?
-Free Willy (1993)
Shamu was a personal childhood favorite, not the least because of the smiling whale dolls popular in the '90s and the re-runs of Free Willy on television. Killer whales are also beautiful, expressive animals whose language begs to be translated. During documentaries on National Geographic and Animal Planet, Wee Christine enjoyed imagining what the whales were saying. I still do. While my interest in orcas never waned, my appreciation for marine mammal parks and aquariums did. For a brief time, I liked to pretend that my Barbie doll was a dolphin trainer, but, at some point, I made her a mermaid instead. Humans hurt dolphins; mermaids did not. (Plus, mermaids speak Whale.)
My infatuation with circuses, roadside zoos and safari parks also faded. It seemed strange to me, even as a little girl, that a creature native to Africa should be wallowing in a muddy waterhole in Orlando as families roared past him in Jeeps with their disposable cameras in tow. I hated the taste of Circus Peanuts and liked them even less when mean kids threw them at the animals on display. Barring special circumstances, wild animals should roam free.
The chance to get splashed by a killer whale therefore caused me increasing anxiety, rather than excitement, as I approached the end of elementary school. I wanted the whale to swim in the ocean instead. Then he could be in his natural environment surrounded by family. He'd be even cuter, too, because he wouldn't suffer from dorsal fin collapse. If the whale had to be contained at all, it should be for the sake of science, not my entertainment. I had books, toys and TV for that.
With those sensibilities in mind, it should come as no surprise that Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish recently made for the perfect Friday night feature while hanging out at my friend's house—a self-described “mesmerizing psychological thriller with a killer whale at its centre, Blackfish is the first film since Grizzly Man to show how nature can get revenge on man when pushed to its limits.” The movie confirmed my childhood suspicions that the big wigs at Sea World make animals miserable. It was like the case of Sarah Baartman, one of the African women paraded around as a freak show attraction in 19th-century Europe: Can you really be happy if your whole purpose in life is to be made a spectacle?
Oppressors decide how they want to view someone and then perpetuate myths to encourage others to share the same perspective. As Blackfish points out, Sea World routinely lies about killer whales' habits in the wild to convince park-goers that their whales are content in captivity. Likewise, Scottish doctor Alexander Dunlap and showman Hendrik Cesars removed Sarah Baartman from her native South Africa to use her as a specimen in their racist shows. They wanted Europeans to believe certain atrocious things about Africans, so they found a person they thought could help them prove their points. In other words, these men lied to gullible medical professionals to oppress Baartman and Africans everywhere. Baartman was turned into a spectacle, living her last years in poverty before dying and having her brain and skeleton put on display in the Museum of Man in Paris.
Sea World is not a scientific institution any more than the Baartman shows were anthropologically accurate or humane. It is a glorified prison that sells adorable plushies and tacky T-shirts. Now we look upon the Baartman story in horror; perhaps in years to come, our society will be ashamed of how we treated Shamu and Tilikum, too.
#Blackfish #Shamu #SeaWorld #AnimalRights #HumanRights #SarahBaartman #Racism #Oppression #Injustice #Mean