By Erin McKinney
Whenever I see a photo of a wild orca on social media, they are inevitably accompanied with comments from activists in the vein of:
These comments are just the most visible manifestation of a dangerous mythos: that the lives of marine animals in reputable aquaria like SeaWorld are difficult, painful and unhappy, while their wild counterparts have long, peaceful, existences free from the intrusions of human involvement. The “Blackfish” led insurgence of orca activism in the last 12 or so months has had one focus, exclusively: the “plight” of the SeaWorld killer whale and the alleged horrors of life in a tank. From the “documentary” to social media driven “empty the tanks” days to endless press appearances and Internet reports, the “Blackfish” movement has campaigned against orca captivity with all the force and pseudoscience the activists can muster.
And while people print “Free Tilikum” t-shirts and stand in the San Diego sun holding crude cardboard signs, Washington’s Southern Resident orcas die.
Earlier this month, NOAA released a 10-year special report on research focusing on the endangered orca population. After a decade of research into the whales and the community around them, they have found several deeply disturbing conclusions, the most alarming of which is that the Southern Resident orcas are among the most polluted marine mammals on the planet, with the highest concentration of pollutants present in the younger animals.
The sad truth is that 82 “free” wild animals are carrying around poisoned blubber reserves, while the “Blackfish” activists focus singularly on SeaWorld and ignore the demonstrable plight of the Southern Resident orcas.
These resident whales face a huge depletion of resources as humans plunder the seas’ forever-increasing quantities of seafood. According to the NOAA study, the whale watching business is booming and because of that, the noise pollution and traffic disrupts their natural feeding patterns. Despite existing regulations designed to limit increasing incidents of boat strikes, captains looking for a quick buck ignore the law for the sake of getting closer to the pods.
A shocking result is that the whales have to move more and eat and rest less. Calf mortality is around 50% and adult mortality is increasing.
And who knows about this?
Who is paying attention to the disturbing plight of the Southern Residents orcas?
How much outrage was generated by the 10-year scientific study that proved that this pod’s very existence might have an expiration date?
The newly converted armchair activists sure aren’t. The movie didn’t tell them to.
It’s not on the agenda.
It’s the wrong battle and it’s flat out selfish.
The plight of wild orcas and other marine life is largely ignored because it doesn’t raise money. It doesn’t sell tickets. It doesn’t get headlines for those with a questionable regard for the truth. Being outraged over the state of wild animals involves studying the plight of wild animals, which is admittedly more difficult then typing a rude comment on the SeaWorld Facebook page.
But as SeaWorld’s detractors sing the praises of sea pens and refuse to acknowledge positive reinforcement animal training, the lives of the Southern Resident orcas become more and more difficult. When taken to its logical conclusion, this trend shows that someday the armchair activists may look up from their angry Instagram debate to find that the SeaWorld orcas are in fact, the only orcas remaining. Because that is the path we are headed on unless we enact change. More science and more action is needed to protect Washington’s whales. And the true animal activists will take off their “Free Tilly” t-shirts and prioritize that battle.