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My film Blackfish plunged Seaworld into
crisis – but it’s not only killer whales we must
protect Gabriela Cowperthwaite
As our attitudes to animal welfare change, today’s kids are becoming the ‘I can’t believe we used
to do that’ generation
Thursday 20 August 2015 04.25 EDT Last modified on Friday 6 November 2015 16.04 EST
When I started work on Blackfish, I could not possibly have imagined the effect it would have on
SeaWorld. Let’s be honest. Not a lot of people see documentaries. And not a lot of people want
to see a movie that sucker punches a beloved cultural icon. But it seems as though the movie has
indeed changed how many view the park.
Over the past couple of years, SeaWorld’s visitor numbers have fallen, its stock has plummeted,
lawsuits have confronted their business practices, legislation has challenged what goes on at
Shamu Stadium, and reported profits were down 84% on the previous year.
People ask me whether this is a win. I can only say that it was inevitable, and that I hope it’s only
the beginning. Today’s kids are increasingly becoming part of the “I can’t believe we used to do
that” generation. They now that killer whales are not suitable for captivity.
Instead of acknowledging this, SeaWorld has decided to spend its way out of the crisis. With its
glossy, protracted PR fight, it continues to claim it is battling an image problem. Yet I see no
meaningful change. I guess this is what happens when a corporation operates essentially
ungoverned for 45 years. But I know many of us still hold out hope that SeaWorld, in one final
Hail Mary pass, will do something drastically progressive – like stopping their breeding
programme. This would mean no more baby Shamus for SeaWorld. It would mean that the
whales currently at SeaWorld would be the last it will ever have in captivity.
After this, SeaWorld could almost singlehandedly pioneer a sea sanctuary where it could retire
the remaining whales. Seaworld’s whales are unlikely to know how to hunt for their own food.
They’re given antibiotics and might die if they’re not in human care. They can’t simply be tossed
back into the ocean. But a killer whale sanctuary would provide these animals with a massive,
cordoned off, ocean cove where they could live out their lives in a healthier and more dignified
In a sea sanctuary they could echolocate on new and novel objects every day. They could
experience the natural rhythms of the ocean. They would have more control over their lives and
their choices. And this could be a profit-making endeavour for SeaWorld, with admission fees, a
visitor centre, an underwater viewing area, etc. It’s hard to imagine people not showing up in
droves to see these magnificent animals actually doing what they were meant to do. It’s infinitely
more satisfying than seeing ailing, grieving, surface-resting animals performing tricks at a park.
Today’s kids are increasingly becoming part of the ‘I can’t believe we used to do that’ generation
There are sanctuaries for many animals, such as chimpanzees, elephants and tigers. Placing them
in a setting that approximates to their natural habitat as closely as possible is, in some ways, the
best we humans can offer animals that can’t be returned to the wild. But so far, there is no killer
whale sanctuary. Such a move by SeaWorld would not only be seminal, it would be culture-
Without evolving alongside public opinion though, without showing a desire to shake up its
antiquated business model, I can’t imagine SeaWorld bouncing back. It now risks becoming an
artefact; an embarrassing relic from a less informed time.
People have stopped going to SeaWorld not simply because of a movie but because, it seems,
we’re recalibrating how we feel ethically about animal welfare. Faced with uncomfortable truths
about animal welfare, we’re clarifying what it means to be humane. We see it in discussions
about factory farming and dolphin hunts. We see it reflected in the outcry about the last white
rhino and Cecil the lion. We feel a collective empathy, and I think we’re at our best and our most
principled when we’re exercising that empathy.
I hope this movement grows beyond the SeaWorld discussion. Maybe if we continue to consider
how someone else is experiencing our footprint, we’ll walk more softly in general. And that’d be
a win for the planet.