Blackfish vs. Sea World: A Critical Look at an Emotional Issue


Sometimes I have to really think long and hard about an issue to blog about. Other times an issue hits me over the head as if from out of the deep blue sea.

I just watched the popular documentary BLACKFISH about Orca whales and Sea World.  This powerful documentary leaves me no choice but to opine; it is extremely powerful, emotional and rife with issues to critically analyze once you can separate yourself from its intense emotional tone.  I am as stricken with sadness while watching a wounded and isolated whale as anyone.


The subject matter concerns a scathing look at Sea World and its apparent unethical and inhumane treatment of Orca “killer” whales. (Interestingly, there is not a known incident of these mammals ever killing a human in the wild, thus the name “killer” is rather misplaced, unless you count marine life.) The primary protagonist in this story is the whale “Tilikum” who has played a role in the deaths of 3 people over the course of 20 years.  As I will critically speak to the fairness and validity of the documentary itself in a moment, I must first say that whether you come out of this film loving or—though far more likely—hating Sea World, you will certainly gain a good amount of education about these amazing and highly evolved whales—an education I thoroughly appreciated and found very enlightening. Frankly, I will never look at any human-animal relationship the same.

Essentially, the primary source of information for BLACKFISH is interviews with former whale hunters and Sea World employees, primarily trainers. The documentary plays out like a traditional confessional for the long string of penitents who tearfully confess to being a part of a system that mistreated (albeit in ignorance) animals; their penance is 3 “Our Fathers” and an appearance in an anti-Sea World documentary in the church of BLACKFISH.  These interviews became the primary source of my cognitive tension.

All of these former trainers claim they worked at Sea World for one reason: The love of the whales. So, the former Sea World trainers, now reformed and repentant animal rights activists, have a bit of a quandary. They worked at Sea World because they loved Orcas and now they do not work at Sea World because they love Orcas. And the reason they fell in love with Orcas was due to their exposure at Sea World.

I get it…they evolved and now see the light.

The reason I have now learned and gained a thorough appreciation for these mammals is because a place like Sea World exists, bringing public awareness and education. Ultimately, and hopefully, this public awareness results in positive consequences for these animals, namely the global outlawing of their hunting and killing.

BLACKFISH, like most documentaries, takes an angle and must make the narrative fit its objective -complete with protagonist vs. antagonist, good vs. evil- if only the real world were that simple. For example, the New York Times reports that Kelly Flaherty Clark, who works as a curator of trainers for Tilikum, was represented in the documentary as a rather cold and cunning Sea World “suit” and was stunned by the portrayal of her testimony at an OSHA hearing -claiming the documentary was selective in a way that did not accurately represent her views.

“We sleep and breathe care of animals,” said Ms. Clark.

I believe her. It seems all those who invest themselves in these whales’ lives do so out of love and concern. There has got to be an easier way to make a buck than to tote tons of whales around.

Sea World has long left the business of capturing whales from the wild, as they now breed their own whales. (Although I could have gone my entire life without seeing a killer whale get jerked off, thank you very much…close your eyes on that one kiddos.)

Sea World has challenged the documentary with 8 assertions of misrepresentation. If you would like to read an excellent and critical dialogue concerning Sea World vs. BLACKFISH, this is a must read. For example, Sea World argues against “the accusation that (they) callously break up killer whale families.” According to this article, “Sea World does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals, including killer whales.  It moves killer whales only when doing so is in the interest of their long-term health and welfare.  And despite the misleading footage in the film, the only time it separates unweaned killer whale calves from their mothers is when the mothers have rejected them.”

Don’t you hate that ‘two-sides-to-every-story’ thing? Again, I absolutely believe Sea World is in it for the money, yet I also believe they do care deeply about these animals. The former trainers actually convinced me of that.

“That is all fine,” one might contend, “then why did Sea World consistently reject requests to be interviewed for the documentary?”

I have always told my critical thinking classes that if anyone ever wants to interview you for a documentary the answer should always be no—as the success of the documentary is found in the editing bay. It is simply not a fair fight. A documentary can make anyone look as good/bad, dumb/smart, right/wrong as they want to. If I were Sea World I would have most definitely rejected the same requests. Contemporary documentaries are not about seeking truth; they are about creating compelling narratives— as a result, accuracy be damned if it ruins a good beginning, middle and end.

Our understanding of Orcas and marine life in general essentially only spans the past 30-40 years. As an example of our growing understanding, there is still a lot of debate about their life span due to the fact that our research is a relatively recent undertaking. In the 1960’s, when these now sorrowful whale hunters sought out these creatures for their marine zoos, we knew essentially nothing about them. Since this time, we have learned much about them…to the point we have studied their brains and found them to have a highly evolved communication and emotional system; perhaps even more evolved than our own.

The basic moral quandary is this: Does essentially “enslaving” (dare I say “domesticating”) a few highly intelligent animals for the purpose of raising public awareness in hopes of bringing more safety and advantage to the many, while turning a profit in the process, justify itself? Whales are not the only animals we enslave/domesticate; we enslave our dogs, cats, birds, etc. for no other reason than to bring us companionship, pleasure, and, in some cases to work for us (think seeing eye dogs). Is this morally justified? Is it animal slavery as PETA contends when they tried to sue Sea World for violating the Orcas constitutional rights? What is the difference between domesticating a highly intelligent German Shepherd for our pleasure or an Orca, other than one is much bigger? At least through domesticating the Orca it may ultimately save thousands of wild whales.

As with the solutions to most problems, there has got to be some middle ground. Why is it we need a hero and a villain? Black or white? Perhaps the villain is a bit hero and the hero a bit villain; after all, such moral ambiguity far more closely resembles real life.  The question is not whether there should be a marine zoo or not, rather, how can we change the nature of these facilities to best accommodate what we now know about these magnificent creatures?

I must confess to feeling a bit strange as a little child going to the zoo and observing animals locked up behind a cage. I would think they are either the luckiest and most fortunate animals on the planet without having to worry about their next meal or worse being another animal’s next meal; or the most miserable, enslaved and imprisoned creatures on the planet for essentially no good reason.

Apparently, I am not alone in this feeling because many zoos are transforming into mock natural habitats and rescues, moving away from the traditional zoo paradigm. Perhaps Sea World needs to follow suit.

BLACKFISH ends with several of the former trainers taking a boat out to the bay and watching Orcas swim in the wild, complete with their erect dorsal fins. It is a touching scene to be sure, yet I cannot help but drown in the thought that this tender yet powerful moment was made possible, for all parties, by Sea World.



Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest: Rethinking our Prison System

Bad things can happen to good people. Yet, more often than not, bad things happen to dumb people. As a society we all eventually pay the price for stupidity.

A former football player I used to coach would be classified as dumb. Dumb Dumb Dumb.

Shortly after his 18th birthday he was driving home from a party with a well over the legal limit blood alcohol content (which is actually .00 for anyone under 21). He had a couple of passengers in his car when he got into an accident, no one was seriously hurt in his vehicle—unfortunately the vehicle he hit injured two young ladies who suffered some moderate trauma.

Rather than staying and owning up to his horrific mistake, he got back in his car and drove around the corner about a block away and sat there, still and terrified, shaking and mortified, frozen with fear.  Eventually the police found him and promptly arrested him, not for just drunk driving but also for fleeing the scene of an accident.

Dumb. Dumb Dumb Dumb.

I knew “Dumb” fairly well as I was his high school football coach for a season. He had been over to our house a few times as he was also an acquaintance of sorts with my youngest son.  He was a very good kid. Always respectful, very funny and we had to work very hard to bring out any aggression in him on the football field. “Dumb” was a very passive, friendly, funny, and compassionate young man.

A passive, friendly, funny and compassionate young man who made a very DUMB mistake.  A hugely DUMB mistake.  And he paid the price.

“Dumb” was sentenced to four years in state prison after a plea bargain down from five and two strikes on his record; with good behavior this could be whittled down to about two years. This state prison was far from the white-collar country club type…this was of the high security true badass variety.

“Dumb” was thrown in with the worst of the worst of society: Killers, rapists, you name it. The innocent boy from Santa Clarita would soon be no more. He witnessed a murder before his own eyes while in prison.

Now….my tension.

“Dumb” made a huge, colossal mistake from which he will likely never fully recover.  This was his only colossal mistake as had a completely clean record until this point. Yet, as I heard his dad tell me his sentence of four years in state prison, I was flummoxed. I thought to myself that, as a society, are we collectively better off with “Dumb” going to hardcore prison for four years or worse off?

I concluded the latter.

“Dumb” needed to pay a huge price for his error. Agreed. Understood. Yet, now all of us reading this blog are living in a more dangerous society since we have a taken a compassionate, good kid—who harbors no malicious intent to hurt in his heart—and schooled him in the art of prison life; he now potentially poses a risk to society far more dangerous than several years ago.


I do not believe that sentence was fair to “Dumb;” perhaps more importantly, it was not fair to the rest of us in society as well. What once was an innocent kid capable of making dumb choices, is now a, well who knows what? How did he change? Did being around the criminal element for four years help him? Soften him? Maybe. Yet I cannot see how.

We shall see. According to “Dumb’s” dad, “Depressed,” with a nearly seventy five percent return rate for prisoners, the odds are not good.

“Dumb” is set to get out of prison in just a few weeks, the middle of January 2014. Now 21 years old and, according to his father and good friend of mine, “Bulked up and strong like you wouldn’t believe,” he will reenter society not a young boy but a man. It remains to be seen, yet I have a feeling that look of innocence and naiveté in that young boy’s eyes will be long gone. 

To be clear, “Dumb” had to pay a big price for his transgression. Absolutely. It sure seems to me that as a society we can be far more creative in our penal system and not allow essentially harmless citizens to be mentored by thieves and murderers for several years.

Prison is full of two kinds of people: Bad people with malicious intent and DUMB people who harbor no such ill will, just stupid. I would like a separate system for both. 

Would it not behoove us as a society to attempt to make the dumb ones smart rather than our feeble and futile attempts to make the bad ones good?

I realize we have different stratification of prisons, yet, essentially, we throw them all in the same place whether just dumb or pure evil.

Sometimes dumb people just need an education. Perhaps  we are all just too dumb to realize it.

Maybe Everyone DOES Wants to be Naked and Famous

I think our world is turning into one giant metaphorical and not-so-metaphorical, nudist camp. I was reminded of this once again when I saw the taped footage of actor Paul Walker’s recent fiery crash in a Santa Clarita parking lot, albeit obscured by a fence. There is not much we can hide these days -not even the hour of our death. Simply, we are naked to the world.

Naked technologyCurrently I am engaged in a reading discussion group analyzing the book The Shallows: What the Internet is doing our Brains by Nicholas Carr (next semester the selected book is One Nation Under Sex…though more on that in another blog). The book explains the various ways that technology rewires and changes the landscape of our brains and how this alters the way we process information and, as result, changes one’s self and culture.

I could go on and on about technology, namely mobile devices, and how they are changing the way we think, act, believe, and behave. Yet a new thought occurred to me the other day while conversing with a bright student regarding this topic when it hit me: The internet is making all of us metaphorically -and perhaps even literally- naked, stripped of our protective public clothing; displaying to the world some of our most secretive and hidden moments. And we seem to be doing it willingly with a smile on our face.

As we surrender any sense of privacy in our lives to the welcomed invasion of technology, we are wiping away the facades we have created to effectively manage the impressions we want to present to the world. Indeed I can work to control technology in such a way that I can limit that flow of revealing information, yet it is eventually a losing battle. A simple google search can yield all the information about a person you could ever want to know….and a lot of things we would prefer not to know. Or see.

With cameras on every street corner and in every hand, when anyone with a moderate or high profile attempts to conceal any behaviors it is a losing battle to be sure. Whether it is Brittany’s crotch or Anthony’s wiener, there is no such thing as a flawed or embarrassing moment gone unnoticed or a moment of lack of good judgment gone undetected. In a world of technology, we are its naked and vulnerable inhabitants. How are we to respond to such vulnerability in a culture of everyone knows all?

Society effectively has two choices. The first choice is to reduce the amount of poor choices we make in our life that could possibly get exploited and do our best to keep our legs clenched tight when getting out of a Ferrari with a short skirt. I have no trouble complying with the latter though have fallen victim many times to the former.

The second choice is a much more likely and palatable choice. We must become more accepting of flawed human beings making flawed choices –that is if you believe a man sending a picture of his penis to a potential lover to be “flawed” -some might call it just poor strategy –or good strategy, depending on the penis I suppose. I long for a day when society does not bat an eye when a prominent figure sends out a picture of his junk, likely in a drunken foray, because they realize they could be the next victim in this tell all, see all world. As my grandma once told me, “Let he who is without a picture of his naked penis cast the first stone.” Or maybe it was “don’t go into the neighbor’s yard.” I forget. It was a long time ago.

Am I suggesting that sending out lurid pictures is good idea or is a complete non-issue in sizing up one’s character? No and no. Probably rarely a good idea and may be a relevant issue in determining one’s character pending context of the photo. The issue is not about a revealing photo, rather the issue is lack of discretion and sound judgment by a political leader who is need of such attributes.

Hence we believe sending nude pics is the bastion of the perverted, exhibitionist few, think again. Recently in my Interpersonal Communication class the subject of “sexting” came up. Our textbook states: “One survey revealed that 10 percent of young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 have texted or emailed a nude or partially nude image of themselves to someone else, and 15 percent have received such pictures…of someone they know. Perhaps even more disturbing, 8 percent reported that they had received a nude or partially nude image of someone they knew from a third party.”

After some further discussion, our entire class concluded that those numbers are WAY off- in fact, not even close to the truth (the studies were 5 years old…a lifetime in a technological world). Their estimate was somewhere closer to 75 percent having sexted in one way, shape or form. And they should know…they are the age group in which sexting essentially originated. I guess we are living in both a figuratively naked -everyone can see our business- and literally naked technological world -we are willingly allowing people to see our naughty parts.

Perhaps the dramatic increase in our willingness to share our physical nakedness is only symptomatic of a society losing its desire for any privacy, at any level, whatsoever. We are all becoming metaphorically naked and vulnerable and seem quite comfortable with it. I know I am. Should I be?

I have very little to hide in my life (notice I did not say nothing?) which seems a good place to be in our naked world. I am not sure Paul Walker’s family is pleased his death has been captured on image, albeit an obscured one. Yet, for better or for worse, we can all rest assured that nothing anymore is sacred or private…and I am still trying to decide if I like this nudist camp we have created or not.

In the meantime, think twice before you send your next sext…your political future may be in jeopardy.

Listen At Your Own Risk: The Urbanovich Family Podcast -Mature Subject Matter Ahead

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Urb FamilyThe day after Thanksgiving the Urb clan sat around the kitchen table and went into pod mode. Listen to this irreverent bunch chat about our lives, animal vs. human rights, women’s rights, suicide, respect, Nathan’s love for the Cincinnati Bengals, and, of course, the role of bullshit in our lives. The audio is not great — so turn in it up to 11 and enjoy!