I watched Blackfish this evening.
I really hope that this post somehow finds its way to Gabriela Cowperthwaite because I have never felt the way I feel right now.
Gabriela, if you are reading, here is my letter to you.
When I first saw that it was on Netflix Canada my heart skipped a beat. I’d heard about it, but not with any great amount of detail. When I saw it listed there, I paused because I knew I had no choice but to watch it. I was so afraid of what I would see. I can’t stand documentaries that aim for the extreme shock factor – purposefully picking out the most emotionally charged testimonials and goriest footage. Would I be faced with yet another film of individuals, shouting at the camera, seemingly so righteous compared to the rest of us fools? Then there was the part of me that was so afraid of what I would feel. Sometimes it’s very easy to remove yourself, to convince yourself that the issues you see on the screen cannot touch you.
This was different.
In the summer of 2013 I visited SeaWorld San Diego. It was a magical trip for me. It wasn’t even supposed to include SeaWorld, that was actually a bonus. I visited the San Diego zoo on a previous day and actually ended up trembling and crying at the gate. It was my dream come true. I had always loved animals and they always seemed to find me. I grew up believing that I should be a veterinarian but thought that I wouldn’t be able to deal with euthanasia, especially in situations where it was due to human error or excess. I decided instead to be a zoologist, and I was accepted into a program at one of the top animal science universities in the country. I didn’t go, I wound up becoming a geographer instead. My second dream was to learn as much about the world as possible, so I guess I’ve at least realized that.
My point to telling you about all of this is that I want you to know how deeply I care about animals and how supportive I am for programs and institutions that are dedicated to their research and preservation. I never knew what I was contributing to. I feel so stupid, so completely ignorant. I visited SeaWorld and I went behind the scenes. I fed a blind walrus, watched a polar bear sleeping inside a private enclosure, and I met Rosie.
Rosie is a female beluga. The story that I was told by the trainer was that she was a retired US Navy animal. She had been trained to assist divers by holding spotlights for them and bringing tools back and forth from the surface. I thought it was so nice that she was retired and placed in a secure home rather than be destroyed or worked well into her senior years.
I now find myself wondering about her life before the Navy. Was she taken from cold arctic waters as a calf and forced to live along the California coast as a piece of military equipment? Has she suffered a traumatic past like so many other captive animals? She was the sweetest and most gentle creature I have ever had the privilege to meet. She paid me the most attention, seemed so at ease with me even though we had only just met. The trainer seemed to recognize this and allowed me some extra time with her while he moved the other participants back and taught them more about belugas. I’ll never forget how she closed her eyes and allowed herself to drift right up to me.
It was a magical moment for me, and I can truly relate to how SeaWorld trainers feel. You develop a bond with creature and it’s so easy to tell yourself that by providing them with a safe enclosure and using them to entertain or educate people that you are making their lives better and doing your part to save the planet. And it’s true that you are. People are far more willing to dedicate their money and efforts to something they’ve witnessed for themselves or something which has brought them happiness. But little do they realize that by doing this they are also perpetuating a vicious cycle whereby people profit and animals suffer.
So many moments brought tears to my eyes. When the trainers described the process of separating a calf from its mother, when the diver described the process of capturing a wild orca, and of course seeing the regret and passion in the eyes of the former trainers. I finished watching the movie more than an hour ago and I am still crying, and I probably will for a while yet.
What I’ll do now, I’m not sure. I do know that my eyes have been opened and for that I thank you. I encourage everybody to watch this movie, whether or not they are an animal or documentary person.