Keeping animals in captivity for our own entertainment must stop


Alecia Simmonds

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Trailer: Blackfish

The true story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity.

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If modern society was cast in a Greek tragedy then our character description would be this: exhibits hubris - grotesquely arrogant, casually cruel, doomed to be clubbed to death by a winged deity. And the only proof that the audience would need of our hubris would be a few examples of the way we treat animals, or more accurately, the way we share our planet with the other animals.

From the cashed-up, drunken swill at the Melbourne cup roaring and vomiting up betting tickets while a majestic race-horse buckles, collapses and is slaughtered in front of them, to the 17,000 greyhound dogs per year in Australia that are killed for not making the grade, to keeping chickens and pigs in factory farms, to testing cosmetics and pharmaceuticals on mice, there is no doubt that we are the unfeeling unthinking tyrants of our world. Humans, it seems, are profoundly inhumane.

Of this list of everyday sadisms, there is one particularly repugnant practice that should be banned:  keeping animals in captivity for our own entertainment. I am not talking about animals kept in captivity for conservation or rescue purposes. There are certain zoos that perform good work. But if we wince at the idea that only a few decades ago you could find lions in circuses, or if we read with horror of gladiatorial combat with bears in a blood-soaked Roman empire then surely supporting any modern industry that converts animal cruelty into human amusement, makes hypocrites of us all.

Blackfish, a 2013 documentary film directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.

Blackfish, a 2013 documentary film directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Photo: Supplied

The film Blackfish, a film about the treatment of killer-whales or orcas in Sea World in America and Southern Europe released in cinemas last week, is a powerful argument in favour of keeping wild animals in the wild.  It’s been screened twice on CNN in the United States resulting in a crash in the share price of Sea World stocks and the modern equivalent of clubbing to death by a winged deity: an incendiary tweet by Stephen Fry calling for their closure and Ewan McGregor telling parents not to take their children to Sea World.


Now if you, like me, have mixed recollections of childhood holidays spent at Sea World – fantasising about riding on the dorsal fins of dolphins, vomiting up your own body-weight on the roller-coaster, wishing that you were at Dream World instead – then this film will be pretty shocking.

It begins with the death of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 who was dragged by her ponytail into the water and then mauled to death in front of horrified crowds by a 5000kg Orca whale called Tilikum with whom she had been working for years. Tilikum is the hero of the film and we follow his journey until his tragic end, drifting listless and alone in an oversized swimming pool where he remains today.

A trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, performs with a killer whale during the first show after a whale killed trainer Dawn Brancheau. Click for more photos

Deadly killer whale attack

Dawn Brancheau a trainer at SeaWorld was killed by an orca that pulled her ponytail and dragged her into the water. Photo: AP

We see Tilikum captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983. We see boats commissioned by Sea World hunting the mothers and their children into a cove, flinging a net over them and then kidnapping the baby whales, one of whom is Tilikum. And then we hear cries – chilling high-pitched wails from the mothers as they try to communicate with their calves who are now bound in a tangle of nets.

MRI scans have revealed that Orca whales have a large component of their brain used for processing emotions. They have a language, they move in large interconnected families and, as one hunter said, ‘they know what is going on.’ The wails are nothing more than the sounds of excruciating grief.

Tilikum is then sent to a kind of Canadian Sea World called Sealand of the Pacific where he is kept in a 20 foot by 30 foot pool until he develops psychosis (as you would if you were kept in a bathtub for a few years) and attacks a trainer called Kelty Byrne. There is no inquest into the death. In need of a breeder, Sea World bought Tilikum from Sealand and he exchanged one bathtub for another.

There is an obvious issue of workers right here: Sea World staff were never informed of Tilikum’s prior attack. When he attacked Dawn Brancheau ten years later – after a series of narrow escapes and aggressive incidents with other trainers - no-one should have been surprised. Like Kelty Byrne who was blamed for slipping and falling, Sea World blamed the attack on the fact that Dawn had a ponytail rather than a bun in her hair.

But the issue of animal rights is the main point of the film. There have been no known incidents of Orca Whales attacking humans in the wild; it is simply a product of psychological distress. Kept in small dark containers, the whales come to attack each other. They exhibit physical signs of trauma – such as the fact that Tilikum’s dorsal fin had collapsed – and they die after 25-30 years. In the wild Orca whales are known to live for the same lifespan as humans, with females sometimes dying at around 100 years of age.

 Sea World argue that they help children to learn to love sea mammals.  But as some commentators have noted, kids also love dinosaurs without ever having seen them. And surely a child would learn more from seeing a whale in its natural environment than seeing one tortured in a concrete pool.

The Australian Sea World doesn’t have orca whales, but it does have dolphins and a baby polar bear – all of whom I reckon would rather not be kept in enclosures in Queensland. Rather than going to Sea World this holidays may I recommend you book a whale-watching cruise instead, or take the kids to Wet and Wild. Trust me. Sea World has nothing on the other theme parks anyway.



  • An interesting article that raises some very valid questions about how we share our planet with other species. I do query however the relevance of the comment that no Orica has attacked a human in the wild. Given the harshness and remoteness of their natural environment it would not be very common for a situation to arise where a human and Orca would interact in the wild. Making this tenuous link detracts rather than adds to the argument being made.

    Date and time
    November 27, 2013, 8:31AM
    • Weren't there Orca's off the coast of Queensland sometime this year though? I went on a whale watch tour at Hervey Bay this year and it was magnificent seeing whales up close and in the wild. I remember as a child going to Bullens Animal World and seeing a small monkey on display and living in nothing more than a tiny birdcage, I cans till picture that poor thing just sitting all alone in a cage with nothing else to do but sit, and stare into space.

      Cat Lady
      Date and time
      November 27, 2013, 3:45PM
  • I'm still so shocked that the USA keeps Orcas still - watching Free Willy through my childhood I simply assumed everyone realised what a horrific and cruel practice it is. How wrong I am about our sick societies.

    Date and time
    November 27, 2013, 9:01AM
    • Thank you so much for writing about Blackfish and Tilikum. Captive cetaceans everywhere should be freed, and never again to be captured for or born into captivity.
      Bravo to your article.

      Teresa Wagner
      Carmel, California
      Date and time
      November 27, 2013, 9:21AM
      • I visited the aquarium in Valencia in Spain in late 2010.
        I was saddened to see two beluga white whales in a state of apparent bored despair in, for whales, a tiny pool.

        One just followed the same exact underway path over and over and over again.

        The other stayed near the surface looking out through bars at, I believe, dolphins in an adjoining pool.

        In a pool nearby some walruses also followed repeated underwater pathways in apparent despair and boredom.

        The contrast with freedom in the open ocean is profound.

        It’s now three years on: how many loops in the pools would the beluga and the walruses travelled in that time.

        Shame on the operators of the aquarium.

        I emailed ACRES, but I'm not sure if that achieved anything.

        George Cresswell
        Date and time
        November 27, 2013, 9:37AM
        • If parents really do want to give their children an appreciation of the wonders of nature (and I certainly think they should), they should buy them a collection of David Attenborough DVDs. Confining magnificent, intelligent animals such as this for purely commercial purposes is obscene, made much worse by the fact that these animals are being actively hunted and captured rather than the products of beachings, etc. All those involved -- including the so-called trainers -- should hang their heads in shame.

          Lewis Winders
          Date and time
          November 27, 2013, 9:39AM
          • While I 100% agree with this article there are a few factual inaccuracies:
            - Whether or not Tilikum pulled Dawn in by her ponytail (as claimed by SeaWorld) is disputed by eyewitness reports that she was dragged in by her arm;
            - Keltie, not Kelty Byrne;
            - You may wish to note that the American SeaWorld (one word, owned by the Blackstone Group) and the Australian Sea World (two words, owned by Village Roadshow) are two entirely separate organisations;
            - Orcas or killer whales, not orca whales.

            Date and time
            November 27, 2013, 10:20AM
            • Thank you Alecia for writing about this. It's important for people to become informed about what they are financing when they attend live animal shows like those at SeaWorld. What is happening to these animals, dressed up as 'entertainment' for the purpose of making money is torture. Awareness is growing about this, but there is still a long way to go. The fact that this industry still exists in 2013 beggars belief.

              A celebrity campaign about a similar issue was launched a few years ago:

              Date and time
              November 27, 2013, 10:38AM
              • A brilliant article, from a great angle.
                I have watched Blackfish twice now & am horrified by the lies, cover-ups & cruelty shown to these highly intelligent creatures. There is one small thing I'd like to point out, when you say Dawn 'was dragged by her ponytail into the water' this is disputed in the film. That is what SeaWorld say happened & that being the case, places the blame on Dawn saying she should have had her hair up in a bun & that Tili was 'playing'. Other eyewitnesses say he grabbed her arm in an act of aggression. The injuries inflicted on her body were horrific.
                It was heartbreaking at the end of the film when you see Tilikum floating listlessly in his tank & then you see wild Orcas with huge straight dorsal fins swimming out at sea. Poor, poor Tilikum.

                It all comes down to money & when people visit SeaWorld. even our SeaWorld on the Gold Coast, by supporting marine mammal captivity anywhere in the world, you are saying that taking dolphins out of the wild to live in tanks is OK, (Orcas are actually the largest dolphin). It is not. It is cruel & thousands of dolphins are slaughtered annually in Japan, a by-product of captivity as shown in the Oscar award winning film, The Cove. Please don't visit marine parks with captive marine mammals, at the end of the day, you get to go home, the dolphins never do.

                Date and time
                November 27, 2013, 10:55AM
                • I've been following the Blackfish facebook page and website for about 6 months now and I'm suprised it has taken this long to come into headlines after the advertising and promotion it has recieved overseas particularly in the states. Tilikum is basically now kept for breeding pure and simple, if you google him he has fathered I think around 20 orca's and is basically only kept for this reason. The condition he is left in is animal cruelty and Sea World need to be heavily fined. Yes he can't be released back into the wild after all this time but there must be some way they can confiscate their animals to be put in a secured environment where they can have some sense of freedom until they pass away (which for Tilikum unfortunately may not be that far away if you believe the age for captive animals) . They need to stop breeding process', stop the shows and use something else as their main source of income. Really can't wait for this to come to australia and hope it gets the recognition it deserves - obviously Seaworld at the gold coast will deny they do these practices as well but like stated they have dolphins, they have polar bears, they have seals, penguins and god knows what else and as much as they help out otherwise with turtle, dolphin and whale rescue it can't take away from what they where set up to do which is profit from animal amusement

                  Date and time
                  November 27, 2013, 11:01AM

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