Humankind’s relationship with the animal world has always been fraught with conflict—one needn’t look further than ancient Rome’s practice of damnatio ad bestias (“condemnation to beasts”) or, much more recently, David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest, to know homo sapiens may not be as “wise” as our Latin name suggestions.

Enter Blackfish: 2013’s breakout Sundance documentary that tells the story of the 2010 death of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was drowned by a show whale named Tilikum. In the film, director Gabriella Cowperthwaite collaborates with former Sea World employees to expose the park’s practice of forcefully separating highly intelligent and emotional killer whales from their young, keeping the animals in pens small enough to trigger homicidal psychosis, and neglecting to take proper measures to protect trainers from animals who hurt humans in the past. The film made less than $100,000 its first week in theaters but, after multiple airings on CNN, it exploded into the public consciousness.

Still, not all press was to Cowperthwaite’s benefit. Some former trainers lambasted Blackfish for its melodramatic music layered over stock footage. Sea World claims the filmmakers mislead viewers into believing the handful of unfortunate events related to Brancheaus’ death are typical of the park’s history. Prior to Blackfish’s release, the park contacted about 50 film critics, offering rebuttals to (some of) Cowperthwaite’s accusations, noting “SeaWorld does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals, including killer whales.”

Cowperthwaite responded to Sea World’s response with further allegations of her own, saying that the filmmakers were “surprised that SeaWorld has brought up calf rejection, an issue the film does not address and a phenomenon that is extremely rare in wild orcas…. ” Today, the debate rages on.

Blackfish and the ensuing controversy have opened up a necessary conversation about the ethics of using animals as entertainment. More than ever, consumers are paying attention to the question of animal welfare, with books and articles about factory farming and the ethics of meat-eating taking center stage in mainstream news outlets.

Here are some of the latest takes on what our relationship to the animal world means and why we should be paying attention:


Recently, a writer for the New York Times wrote about turkey leg snacks at Disney World, a small puff piece that likely would have flown without public comment in years past. The article, which attempted to take a light-hearted look at the popular theme park snack, drew outrage from readers who argued the writer failed to address the cruelty attached to the turkey legs’ production. The controversy indicates a changing awareness of popular conceptions of human consumption.


Writer Sasha Archibald posted a feminist take  on the issue at The New Inquiry, in which she explores the historical relationship between women and beasts. She writes:

Blackfish is about animal captivity and orca sentience, but the story of Dawn is also a tragic chapter in an ongoing history of wild animals and their female muses. Dawn’s fate is a variation on a well-established pattern: women—attractive, single, childless women—have long been coupled with exotic animals. Gentle women and wild animals are linked in myth and fable, fashion photography and pornography, pulp art and fine art. Crudely stated, men hunt wild animals, and women cuddle them.


Andrew O’Hehir of Salon also published a lucid essay about the politics of exploiting animals for scientific research and entertainment. In it, he argued that as popular awareness of animal consciousness and our own impact on the environment increases, we have no choice but to seriously examine our belief in our right to hold them in captivity:

One could argue that when Africans or Native Americans were kidnapped from their homelands and put on display in the great cities of Europe, it ultimately served to broaden human understanding. That doesn’t mean anyone would defend that practice today.


Over at Aeon Magazine, writer Brandon Keim offers a thorough analysis of current science surrounding animal awareness. Inspired by an inconspicuous little creature called the Semipalmated Sandpiper, Keim embarks on a sweeping investigation of the history of animal emotion.


Also in Aeon Magazine, neuroscientist Lori Marino examines the claim that dolphins work well as human healers. The mythical beliefs surrounding these animals, she argues, too often do more harm than good:

Dolphins are the Other we’ve always wanted to commune with. And their ‘smile’, which is not a smile at all, but an anatomical illusion arising from the physical configuration of their jaws, has led to the illusion that dolphins are always jovial and contented, compounding mythological beliefs that they hold the key to the secret of happiness.

More immediately relevant to Sea World may be the impact of Blackfish on the park’s bottom line. The company, which went public last year, saw a 25% drop in share price after the film’s release, though it denied the decline had anything to do with the film. As of last month, share prices are hovering just above their original offering price of $27.00. The park is also fighting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s ban on trainers’ direct interaction with whales, leveled after Brancheau’s death. Sea World has appealed OSHA’s regulation, with its attorney Eugene Scalia (son of U. S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia) arguing the agency cannot require a company to change its business model. But that may not be enough, according to the financial website Daily Finance:

…it’s not just retail investors that seem to be bailing on SeaWorld. Blackstone Group (BX)—the company that took SeaWorld public— revealed last week that it’s selling 18 million shares of the company. It was previously only looking to unload just 15 million shares.

In an interview in January 2013, Cowperthwaite said her end goal with the film was not to put an end to Sea World altogether. With its annual two billion dollars in revenue, the company holds the capacity to provide much needed rehabilitation services to whales in captivity. Cowperthwaite recommends utilizing something called a “sea pen,” by cordoning off part of the ocean “like a little cove made of a net.” Whales could be released there, being rehabilitated into ocean life.

Still, she goes on to say,

One of the most important lines in the film is that 50 years from now we’ll realize how barbaric a time this was. It takes 50 years — or maybe thirty. But right now, people who see this movie are still going to go to SeaWorld.


Further Reading/Viewing:

by Sarah LaBrie

Image credit: Jamie Lantzy via flickr

About The Author

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MFA, New York University

LaBrie is a recent graduate of New York University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, where she was a Writers in the Schools Fellow. Her fiction has appeared in Epoch, Encyclopedia Journal Vol. 1 (A-E) and the anthology the California Prose Directory, and is forthcoming in Encyclopedia Journal Vol. 3 (L-Z)and theNewerYork.