Saturday, March 19, 2016

Black and White

It's about 45 degrees outside.

The light breeze coming off the choppy water of the Puget Sound wisps through my hair. The boat turns off it's engine and like a movie theater dimming it's lights, everyone becomes silent. I have fifteen pounds of camera equipment hanging from my neck, but as I grip the side of the whale watch vessel's bow, I don't dare touch my lens until my eyes see them first.

Slicing through the water like a knife, a huge, black dorsal fin breaks the surface. Soon after there are several others in it's wake. Before I grab my camera to begin taking pictures for a magazine piece I was writing, I look around me. People are gasping, screaming in delight, and nearly crying at the sight of a magnificent creature. A killer whale. As I look at the passengers, I remember where I was when I first had that very same feeling. The wonder, the curiosity, the respect. For me it was a feeling that turned into a deep love for a species, which had lead me to the very spot I was standing at that day.

My moment was when I was five years old and I was sitting in a stadium at SeaWorld. 

Just a few days ago, a "historic" announcement was made by SeaWorld's CEO, Joel Manby, that they have ended all killer whale breeding programs. While "historic" was their chosen word, to many SeaWorld team members and SeaWorld supporters, a word like "horrific" or "unthinkable" may have been more accurate. Needless to say, many of us are heartbroken.



Since the release of Blackfish in 2013, a film I can't ethically call a documentary, SeaWorld has made many changes. While many of these changes may have come about by Blackfish's terrible misrepresentation of SeaWorld and their core purpose, the changes to their shows, exhibits and animal experiences are something I believe most have enjoyed. They have added all new shows, such as Killer Whales: Up Close, which is narrated by members of the top-class Education and Conservation Department and SeaWorld trainers. Education has always been important to SeaWorld and since the media has gotten so much of what they do wrong lately, the reach for more educational programs has increased.

I truly believe that once we learn about something, we can care about it. But once we have a real connection with that certain thing, be it a whale, a shark, or a sea star...we not only care about it, but want to conserve it. There is a big difference.

That is what SeaWorld is all about. Creating opportunities for every guest to not only learn something about what they are seeing but also create a memory with it. SeaWorld is one of the only zoological parks in the world that staffs trained educators at every major exhibit. They narrate, answer questions and most importantly talk about what guests can do to help protect the species in the wild. Even the most prestigious zoos and aquariums in the world do not have that. Because SeaWorld is a theme park, it has the means to employ a strong department of educators who not only narrate in the park exhibits during the day, but also lead educational programs for school-aged children in the park after-hours, give behind-the-scenes educational tours, and provide outreach trips to underprivileged communities. Isn't it funny Blackfish never mentions any of this, or the fact that over 27,000 animals have been rescued and rehabilitated by SeaWorld over the last 50 years?

So if it is just the breeding of the killer whales that is being stopped, why are we all so upset? Because it means that future generations won't get to have the connection and the up-close interactions with the incredible animal that has made millions of us care about all animals, our oceans and our planet over these past 50 years. SeaWorld's killer whales are their icon. And while we are completely heartbroken to think of a future where people cannot connect with them at SeaWorld or the ability to continue researching them to protect their species in the wild, I think we are all scared of something even more.

Blackfish and PETA supporters aim to free all animals from captivity. They mean to see the end of zoos and aquariums around the world. The announcement to no longer breed killer whales means much more to those in the education and conservation community and I am sure to many individuals beyond. What it means to us is that media and "trends" can not only cause people to lose their jobs and rid animals of a chance for a better future. It also can steal from us the future and the very reason we all fell in love with animals in the first place. Our real-life connections with them.

Just last week I took some of the kids I watch to the San Diego Zoo. My kiddos, who would prefer to spend much of their free time on iPads and in front of the TV, were more alive along the paths of the zoo than I had ever seen them. They were asking questions, running to their favorite exhibits and loved all the "quiz" questions I was giving them for the animals we saw. They were having connections. They were making memories. And while sure, if it didn't have the consequences so-called "animal activists" ignore, I'd love to see every animal in the zoo and SeaWorld have a life outside of an encounter. But that is something that would most likely kill an animal ambassador, since most have been born in captivity. We have to remember that having these animals allows us to study them and educate about them in a zoological environment. It gives us better means to protect their species in the wild, and more importantly, the opportunity to create new, real animal activists who will fight for the animal's welfare and health both in zoological care and in the wild.

SeaWorld CEO, Joel Manby, put it best in a recent article in the LA Times,

"Wild animals and wild places will continue to disappear — biologists call this “the sixth extinction,” comparable to previous cataclysms such as the ice age — unless humans awaken and take action. In this impending crisis, the real enemies of wildlife are poaching, pollution, unsustainable human development and man-made disasters such as oil spills — not zoos and aquariums."

Someone standing outside on the freeway with a paper sign (which they probably won't recycle) while their friend sits next to them dressed as a whale, sitting in a bathtub, doesn't make them an activist. It makes them uneducated and close-minded. If you really cared about the animals, you wouldn't spend that unnecessary $100 on crap and instead donate it to a conservation project. Or even better, get off the highway and pick up trash on the beach instead.

Despite my disappointment in SeaWorld's choice to end any future breeding, I still stand with them. I honestly do not know who I would be without having gone to SeaWorld and falling in love with killer whales at a young age. It is something that makes up so much of who I am today. Good friends from kindergarden through college could tell you all about my plethora of whale folders, t-shirts, posters, stuffed animals, and even a whale bedspread (I was 9. Don't judge) I even had a whale dress when I was 20 (still no judging!). Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was so fortunate to be able to see killer whales in the wild several times. I was incredibly lucky to get to write a story about the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population while I was in college.

Writing that article, and being on the boat in the middle of the Puget Sound, I knew I had to do something to protect and care for these animals for the rest of my life. Three years later I began working for SeaWorld. It was a first step in a path of learning to reduce, reuse, recycle, eat sustainably, buy ocean-safe cleaning products, and most of all, support programs and research that help killer whales everywhere live long and healthy lives.

Someday I hope to take my children and grandchildren out to see the Southern Resident killer whale pods. At this point, I am less worried about them not seeing them at SeaWorld and more worried about them not seeing them at all in the wild. Our toxic runoff and overfishing are killing these animals we love. SeaWorld educates about it. Blackfish ignored it.

I don't know what the future will hold for SeaWorld and all the animals that are cared for there, but my hope is that all people supporting the end of animal captivity take a step back and think about the future. Without zoos and aquariums, education and research is lost. Soon after, species will die out. It's not a black and white issue. I understand it is complicated. But may we all keep an open mind and think first about the animals we love, and not what is thrown at us by the media.

Kalia and her daughter Amaya. She was four days old this day. 

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