Some nebulous time when I was in grade school, my family went for a roadtrip vacation in South Dakota. We did that sort of thing, just driving to the other nearby square or nearly square states, because we most definitely did not have the money to fly anywhere, let alone places that involved Disneyland and Sea World.
On this vacation to South Dakota, I remember going to see a dolphin show. Yes, in South Dakota. I think it was at the Marine Life Center in Rapid City, which no longer exists–but don’t quote me. Like a lot of little girls my age, to go with my strange horse obsession (I grew up in the suburbs, for goodness sake) I had a dolphin and whale obsession. Big, cool mammal obsession, I guess. But the idea of getting to see real live dolphins was compelling. I’d been reading about them in various middle-grade books (like this one) where you came out feeling like dolphins were similar to dogs in how much they just love humans to bits.
The dolphins in South Dakota jumped and dove in the pool like you’d expect, but in my memory it was all very… gray. I remember the facility better than I remember the actual dolphins now. The pool was concrete, surrounded by metal bleachers, and I can only recall it being my family there and a group of Mennonites watching the show. (I remember them because all the women were bonnets and long, very old fashioned dresses.) Everything felt very strange, dingy and run-down. It wasn’t like the advertisements for Sea World, where everything is clean and technicolor. It felt like an old high school gymnasium, complete with funky smell.
I don’t think I can honestly tell you what my reactions were, that day. Looking back on the memories now, it all makes me intensely uncomfortable. But I don’t know if assigning that kind of discomfort to my grade-school self would be rewriting history and giving me an awareness I didn’t have at the time. Maybe I was just excited about seeing Real Live Dolphins(TM) and let that kind of overtake the creepy gas station bathroom feeling that I get from these memories now.
But I can tell you, from more than twenty years in the future, I know there was something deeply wrong about it.
Blackfish made me think about that that trip to South Dakota. I put off watching this documentary for a long time, to be honest, because I knew it would wreck me, and it did. It’s something everyone should watch, and then think, really think about the ethics of using wild animals for our own entertainment–let alone wild animals who are so plainly intelligent.
The framework of Blackfish is an incident in which Tilikum (the largest killer whale in captivity) deliberately killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. The documentary builds a compelling case that neither Dawn nor Tilikum (who had probably already killed two other humans before her) was to blame, but rather the conditions in which the killer whales were kept.
The documentary tries to take care to not anthropomorphize the animals. But it’s not a stretch to understand that in general, captivity in a small space with absolutely no entertainment isn’t healthy for any living thing. It’s not a stretch to realize that any living thing that has family groups will have problems when those family groups are artificially disrupted. There are parts in the documentary that are existentially horrifying, and other parts that are simply heartbreaking, such as when a female orca has her calf taken away and keeps trying to locate her.
And for what purpose? Entertainment. Money.
This is the sort of documentary that makes you feel horrible for being a human being. And it’s well-earned, in this case.
I’ve never been to Sea World. It’s safe to say that I never will go to Sea World. I’ve also never been to any circus that uses animals, and that won’t ever change either. I still think of watching the dolphins in South Dakota, and I’d like to believe that even then I knew there was something fundamentally wrong with marine mammals surrounded by land, jumping through hoops for our supposed entertainment.
It’s a shameful memory, and I never want to forget it.
I haven’t been to a zoo or aquarium for many, many years – and for exactly the reasons you articulate. They offend my sensibilities. They’re often a moral failure.
While I’ve come to understand that facilities like the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park and the Cincinnati Zoo are necessary evils that serve the larger goal of conservation and wildlife management, I still can’t go there, because even a simple visit will wreck me. I won’t watch Blackfish, I don’t need to. But I’m glad it’s there for those who don’t know, and need to know about these shameful practices.