Image Credit: Bugsy, via Flickr
By Erin McKinney
Mark Simmons is, without a doubt, the most experienced trainer featured in the film “Blackfish.”
His 10 years at SeaWorld was the longest consecutive career with the SeaWorld orcas out of any of the former employees featured and his career with marine mammals has lasted nearly 30 years.
He was the only trainer who had any hands-on experience with the film’s orca of choice, Tilikum. He was the only person interviewed who made the journey with Tilikum from Sealand in Canada to SeaWorld Orlando. At the end of his SeaWorld career, he left to start his own consulting agency, the work of which involves improving the lives of cetaceans in zoological facilities across the world.
And unlike some of his “Blackfish” companions, there is no doubt as to his mental stability.
At the beginning of his newly released book Killing Keiko, Mark writes the following:
“There are those who would have you believe that killer whales at marine parks are somehow different than their wild brethren; that the whales in zoological facilities are crazed by years in ‘prison.’ In more then twenty-seven years working with and around killer whales in parks and the open ocean, I have never seen one ounce of evidence to support such a statement. What I have seen is that these amazing animals adapt well to almost any change. They are top predators, and among their many talents is the ability to thrive in many environments.” -Killing Keiko, page 19
Despite this definitive statement from an incredibly reliable source, first-person interviews, piles of scientific papers on orca behavior, biology and lifespans, and numerous facilities releasing information to the contrary, the activists and their keyboard following still spout the antiquated, falsified ideas and claims made in the film “Blackfish,” the book “Death at SeaWorld,” and by various anti-zoological figures throughout their movement.
Why do activists whole-heartedly believe pseudoscience?
What makes this vocal minority so resistant to new information? What makes them cling to a series of tweets from Samantha Berg or John Jett over actual scientific data? Why do they so violently reject the ideas of behavioral experts like Dr. Grey Stafford when he makes statements that don’t align with their agenda?
Why have articles authored by myself and others that bring to attention the carelessness of the anti-SeaWorld moment, (it has no time for the plight of wild orcas), made some people so angry they’ve launched verbal attacks on my character and intelligence, rather then the ideas I’ve presented?
The answer is simple: they don’t want to believe it. They will do anything in their power to not have to believe it.
Their brains are wired that way.
Psychologists have often observed a phenomena associated with strong beliefs, that of confirmation bias (for a research based interpretation of confirmation bias, see source 1.) The basic idea of confirmation bias is simply that once an individual has developed an emotional investment to an idea or concept, (in this case that SeaWorld and similar facilities are the root of all evil and that the “brave” team of “Blackfish” activists are selfless animal lovers to be emulated) it will alter the way they receive new information relating to the topic.
Since the keyboard activists have such an emotional stake in their “cause,” their responses to related information tends to be wild, irrational and aggressive.
If information is consistent with the deeply held convictions, the activists embrace it. If it’s contradictory, they reject it. Regardless of content, source, or credibility.
Some examples of this include:
- Continuing to accuse trainers of using food deprivation techniques to elicit behaviors, despite the fact that behavior professionals and PHDs have repeatedly and definitively debunked it. (For scientific papers on the use of positive reinforcement in exotic animal training, see citation 2)
- Stating ludicrous lifespan numbers like 4 and 5 for orcas in zoological facilities and 90-100 for wild orcas, despite the scientific literature that shows both numbers to be much closer to the 30-40 range (with wild lifespans decreasing.) (See citation 3.)
- Claiming SeaWorld and similar facilities still acquire animals from the Taiji dolphin drive fisheries, despite multiple layers of legislation, regulation and government review processes that make this impossible (and a breeding program that makes it redundant.) (See citation 4.)
In the case of the anti-SeaWorld activists, it’s not a lack of information, it’s a partially conscious, partially hardwired drive to reject any and all material that would shake the foundations of their convictions.
This is how they rationalize treating John Hargrove and Carol Ray like deities and ignoring the contradictory ideas put forth by equally (if not more) experienced and reputable former trainers like Mark Simmons. It’s how they frantically promote scientific material from Dr. Naomi Rose, but disregard NOAA’s reports on the lifespan of the Southern Resident Orcas (see citation 5).
It’s how they justify endless displays of anger and sadness of the death of an orca in human care, but ignores the inconveniently timed recent deaths of two of the very same Southern Residents.
It’s not always deliberate hypocrisy, it’s human nature. But to make a real and meaningful difference for animals, activists need to be aware of their bias and work to process relevant information accurately.
Our priorities should adjust with what the science, not propaganda films, define as the problem. And more and more definitively, the science and experts are pointing toward an increasingly unhealthy wild environment and away from the wildly misunderstood and misrepresented lives of animals in zoological facilities.
1: Confirmation Bias, Raymond Nickerson, Tufts University