Besides Disney and Universal, SeaWorld was a place that excited the imagination of many kids. It was the first time for many of us to see penguins, feed a sea lion, or watch a dolphin performance. Shamu, the killer whale, is still an iconic image for the aquatic theme park. However, the recent publication of a documentary titled Blackfish has brought into question both the living conditions of SeaWorld’s orca, and the psychological detriment it causes these animals. With stock prices falling to nearly half their opening price in under two years, SeaWorld is now suffering financially due to the claims brought about by Blackfish.
When it comes inadequate living conditions, I personally witnessed the small, lackluster facilities used to house the manatees at an aquarium in Okinawa, Japan. The manatees live in a concrete pool, which didn’t appear much larger than the pool at my grandparents’ house. They didn’t move much, just floated in the same spot, most likely just waiting for their next meal. It got me thinking, why are we caging these animals? Is this to protect them and promote their preservation? What makes this okay?
To be self-aware is to have, “an awareness of one’s own personality or individuality” (Merriam-Webster). At a young age we become self-aware and go on to use our self-awareness to engage the world around us. It is understood that those around us are also self-aware and are capable of utilizing this skill. It is not so easy for us to discern whether other animals have this same ability. However, researchers have used mirrors to test the level of self-awareness within animals. Levels of awareness range from zero (confused) to five (self-consciousness). A description of each individual level can be found here. It is believed that several animals, including the great apes, elephants, and orcas, are all self-aware.
The part of the brain which correlates with emotion is known as the limbic system. According to Lori Marino, MRI scans of the orca brain reveal an additional region, called the paralimbic region, not found in the human brain. This brings to question the emotional capability of orcas and whether they have a wider or possibly more complex emotional system than humans. It is known that orcas form strong and distinct social groups, each with unique cultures and communication patterns, aka language. This is displayed in the way orcas hunt and how they respond to the death of a family member.
With such complex emotions and self-awareness, it makes one think twice about the morality of SeaWorld’s entertainment system. An animal that traveled hundreds of miles of ocean is reduced to a few square meters of pool. SeaWorld’s 2014 fourth quarter earnings speak to the concerns expressed by its would be customers. While I faintly remember the excitement of being a child at SeaWorld, today’s children may not get the same impression of the underwater adventure so many of us once had.
Blackfish is available on Netflix.
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