Last Updated 04 Jan 2023

A Vivid Example of Animal Rights in the Movie Blackfish

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Blackfish is a 2013 documentary that explores the controversial subject of killer whales in captivity. It is the story of a famous killer whale named Tilikum that killed three people, including an expert whale trainer, while in captivity at Sea World. The filmmaker, Gabriella Cowperthwaite, attempted to explore the misconceptions and harmful living conditions that may be the root cause of why these animal violently attack their trainers as well as trying to bring awareness to the public and create a shift in attitude toward the question of whether these highly intelligent animals should be held in captivity for our entertainment.

In spite of low box office revenue, the film generated a larger audience online and through streaming services that resulted in popularity among animal rights activists. In contrast, large numbers of Sea World supporters have fought back by dispelling the film as simply propaganda driven by “animal rights activists posing as scientists”. Initially Sea World did not respond to the film.

They refused to do interviews to answer any claims of the film or to defend their practices. When they finally broke their silence, they launched a public relations campaign that centered around websites, videos and advertisements centered around attacking the credibility of those involved with the film rather that disputing the facts raised by the film. Both points of view have played out across the internet through blogs and social media sights such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The result is a mainstream and social media phenomena that has come to be known as the Blackfish Effect. In March of 2017, Sea World announced they would no longer continue breeding programs and would also end all orca shows at their 11 theme parks. After three years of pressure resulting from the film Blackfish, Sea World stock prices were down and California had proposed legislation to ban all orca performances in water parks.

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While the filmmaker’s primary goal was to create public awareness of the issue, the Blackfish Effect had successfully brought about change through the strategies of grassroots activism and organizing, high profile media coverage, use of social media as a call to action and tapping into the emotions of the audience. Grassroots organizing is defined as a collective action from the local level to effect change at a national or international level which is typically more natural or spontaneous in nature. In the case of the film Blackfish, the filmmakers were hoping to create a shift in awareness beyond the scope of animal advocacy groups and whale conservation groups.

The result was an active mobilization of people who would boycott, donate and volunteer. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) had an ongoing campaign against the captivity of orcas and filed a lawsuit against Sea World arguing the whales deserved protection under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution which prohibits slavery. Even though the suit was lost, the media coverage went a long way towards increasing awareness. Celebrities played a role in this by attracting attention through their twitter accounts. PETA also called for a boycott of Macy’s after it was announced Sea World would have a float in the Thanksgiving Parade.

All of these efforts helped to keep Sea World and Blackfish in the news. Media coverage is exactly what kept the Blackfish Effect going full steam ahead. Initially Sea World refused to comment on the picture. A few days prior to the film’s release in 2013, Sea World finally released a statement refuting the claims made by Cowperthwaite. This seemed to only increase the attention and coverage as well as raise public awareness. Sea World then launched a PR smear campaign of websites, videos and advertisements which attacked the people involved with making the film as “activists disguised as scientists.”

In response to schools cancelling overnight field trips at the parks, Sea World took out full page ads in eight newspapers refuting the allegations of mistreating animals and stated that park guests “see this story as an activist agenda.” Other animal advocacy groups such as the Humane Society, and Born Free Foundation used this media coverage to promote their own campaigns. Opinions and ideas rapidly reach millions through social media at a rapid speed through shares, retweets, likes, comments, and tags. Blackfish and Sea World made use of Facebook, Twitter and Youtube in very different ways. Some could argue that Blackfish had more of an open forum by allowing anyone to post or make comments on their Facebook page. This type of transparency does lend itself to false information and negative comments. Sea World however, created a Youtube channel but did not allow comments to be posted out of fear of criticism.

The main points of their campaign did not refute claims of the film, but rather attack those that made the film. The end result is Sea World losing in the court of public opinion as evidenced by the loss in stock value and lower attendance in the parks. The film Blackfish did an excellent job of tapping into the emotions of viewers which undoubtedly has led to the demise of Sea World. The film portrays the horrors that occur after being captured from the wild and essentially enslaved in theme parks for the public’s entertainment. Blackfish details how these social animals live in claustrophobic tanks in solitary confinement with insufficient room to swim.

The viewer is left with the impression that Orca’s are essentially kidnapped from their ocean environment. Perhaps the most heart wrenching aspect of the film is how the babies born in captivity are with their mothers for the first few years but when it reaches a certain age it is sold. The mother whale is distraught and cries out frantically trying to communicate with her baby. The viewer cannot help but have empathy for the suffering of these peaceful and intelligent animals. A current comparison of this separation could be the plight of immigrant families being separated as they illegally cross the border in to the United States. The public at large struggles with the idea of children being removed from their parents and respond emotionally. Ultimately the government was forced to change the policy on separation as it was a hot button issue.

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