If you have read my first blog, you are aware of the inspiration, and reason for my passion for animals. Let’s go into more detail about this stepping stone into my life with animals.
I can still remember the first time I saw “Free Willy.” I was six years old, and just starting elementary school. I was at my grandmother’s house with my mom, brother, and one of my cousins. I was immediately into the movie, as it starts with a music video for “Will You Be There,” by Michael Jackson, my favorite artist at the time. The actual film starts in an even more exciting way, especially for a child...
The opening scene is footage or wild orcas, taking breathes, breaching, and swimming in a family pod. Drama starts soon after, as fishermen are shown capturing one of the whales. My compassion for orcas was immediate, and I can still hear my cousin saying, “They’re gonna kill him,” and me scream, “No they aren’t! Stop it!”
“Free Willy” is an emotional movie to say the least. A troubled orca’s life of being misunderstood is paralleled by the life of a foster child, who winds up forming an unbreakable bond with Willy. The boy learns to accept and love the family he has been adopted by, and Willy is set free to be with his family as well. While this story is moving, it’s the whale I was interested in. I was in love. I wanted to watch it again as soon as it was over. Then the obsession began.
I started finding any and all information I could about orcas. I had toys, stuffed animals, books, and of course, a “Free Willy” poster. I was even a member of the Free Willy Adoption Fund, which eventually helped to free the real Willy, an orca named Keiko. I also started watching television shows about other whales, which lead to posters, toys, and books on every species of cetacean (the scientific term for whales, dolphins, and porpoises). I knew at this very young age that I wanted whales to be a part of my life forever, but I didn’t know how.
A few years later, my parents took us on a trip to Orlando. Disney was, of course, part of the trip as it was the last time we went. But there was a new destination this time: SeaWorld. I can’t even begin to describe the amount of joy I felt. This of the most excited child you’ve ever seen, and multiply it by ten. This was my obsession, or my spirit animal, as my younger brother would later call it, and I was going to see them up close. SeaWorld was everything a kid could want in a park and more. Animals were everywhere, and some could even be touched. I think that was the happiest my parents had ever seen me. When it came time for the Shamu show, I could barely contain myself. As soon as the orcas left the holding pen, I got chills. I have visited SeaWorld a couple more times since this day, and I still get chills. I knew then what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a whale trainer. I could be with orcas every day, and swim with them, hug them, and care for them. It looked like the greatest job in the world. Hands down, that was my favorite part of that trip to Orlando.
As the years went by I started becoming interested in all animals, and also realized that I was not cut out to be a whale trainer. While I still wanted to work with the whales, I knew I wasn’t a strong swimmer, and I also knew I couldn’t live in the heat and humidity of Florida (the other two parks are warm too, plus I wouldn’t have my family down there). There are several other animals now that interest me, but orcas will always have a special place in my heart, as they are the ones that really set off my passion for animals.
My recent animal activism brought forth issues that I never knew existed. The harsh conditions for meat animals and hens and cows, the horrors of animal testing, the unimaginable cruelty of the fur industry. But at least SeaWorld, I thought, takes care of their animals. When I saw the poster for “Blackfish,” I thought at first that it was a documentary about orcas like the ones I had already seen. When I saw the trailer, I was overcome with fear. When Dawn Brancheau’s name was mentioned along with SeaWorld, there was a question raised: Was her death SeaWorld’s fault? At first, I didn’t want to watch it. I have told many people to watch the documentaries I have watched, and they say 'no'. They would rather remain ignorant, because ignorance is bliss. Then I thought to myself, “No, I have to watch it.”
I was truly horrified by “Blackfish.” I’m not going to go into too much detail, because everyone needs to watch the entire film (it’s on Netflix and DVD), but I will say this: to see my spirit animal, treated this way, by an organization that I thought I could trust, was heartbreaking. I cried. I cried for myself, for believing the lies I was told: "They only live to be 25", "they’re happy here", "they’re with their families", "dorsal fin collapse is normal". All lies. Lies to support what they are doing. And perhaps the most striking of all, is the pen size. I’d been so caught up in the emotions of seeing my inspiration, I never stopped to think, “Hey, those pens are really small.” For an animal that swims so many miles a day to be trapped in a pool is just wrong. There’s no other way to say it, it’s just wrong. I feel as if we are betraying these animals. It’s just unfair.
I’m still a member of SeaWorld’s Email list, and I was able to see the effects “Blackfish” had on the company. Defensive Emails were sent, with lists of things wrong about the film, claiming misinformation, and also listing all the good that the park does. While it is true that SeaWorld rescues many animals each year, it does not excuse them from what is happening to the Orcas. Clearly, SeaWorld knows this. One of the Emails I received was an announcement for plans to build an enormous new orca habitat. The concept drawings are impressive, but for me, it isn’t good enough. Something as large as a whale should never be kept in captivity. There is just no way to simulate what they experience in the wild. After seeing “Blackfish” I vowed never to return to SeaWorld unless the orcas are removed. Clearly others agree with me, as the company has seen a drop in profits since the film’s release.
This is just one example of how the truth can completely change people’s views of something. For me, this film struck a personal cord. But it’s clear by the film’s popularity, and SeaWorld’s profits, that many others feel the same way I do. There are a few spots in the world right now which have succeeded or are trying to ban captive cetaceans. I feel like there is a movement starting, and it is up to SeaWorld to decide if they want to be on the right side of history. I hope, for the sake of my spirit animal, they do.
Nicole is currently employed at a university, caring for lab animals. She has always been an animal lover, and more recently an animal activist.