Blackfish documentary sparks debate on keeping wild animals in captivity

From European royalty who owned private menageries to the average person visiting a zoo today, people around the world have been drawn to the beauty and mystery of wild animals. Whether for education, conservation or entertainment, animals from across the globe have been collected, bred and exhibited for all to see.

In the past few months there has been growing controversy about the impact of keeping these animals in captivity. The 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, has caused an enormous amount of public outcry. The film initiated a debate on the morality of zoos and aquariums when it premiered on CNN and became available on Netflix.

“Blackfish” focuses on an orca whale named Tilikum and his life in captivity. Tilikum is no stranger to the public eye. He has entertained millions at aquariums, most famously at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. However, three deaths have been attributed to Tilikum: Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes, and most recently, Dawn Brancheau in February of 2010. There has been debate over the captivity of large animals like Tilikum because it is believed the space and resources they require cannot be duplicated in a captive environment, which can be mentally and physically detrimental to them.

“I think the larger issue, which many animal activists are neglecting, is protecting our oceans and those animals that are still in the wild. The animals currently in captivity cannot be released,” said Andrew Alba, a graduate research and teaching assistant at MU who has experience working in AZA-accredited zoos. “Some may argue that we should stop breeding them to phase out orcas in captivity, but given that family units are so important in these animals, others may argue that there are serious animal welfare issues with restricting reproduction.”

Following the popularity of “Blackfish,” an incident occurred in February 2014 at the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark that sparked worldwide outrage. The zoo euthanized a healthy young giraffe, named Marius, because he was not considered to be genetically valuable to the current breeding population. According to the Copenhagen Zoo, interbreeding still would have occurred if had Marius been transferred to another zoo in Europe.

After euthanizing the young giraffe, staff at the Copenhagen Zoo carried out the autopsy of the giraffe in front of zoo visitors. The remains of the giraffe were then fed to carnivores at the zoo in front of zoo guests. According to a publication by the Copenhagen Zoo, euthanizing the giraffe was the only viable option.

The Copenhagen Zoo is one of 300 zoos across Europe that are members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, or EAZA. Each zoo in the association agrees to abide by certain regulations, including working on a scientific basis and ensuring animal welfare.

“The Copenhagen Zoo is well known for the quality of its conservation programs,” said Kris Vehrs, executive director of the AZA. “The facility is a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and their programs and procedures vary from those of the AZA.”

In North America, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, released a formal statement regarding the euthanasia of the giraffe at the Copenhagen Zoo. According to the statement, “Incidents of that sort do not happen at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.” The AZA has a carefully managed breeding program for each species and an intricate system of exchanging animals between zoos.

“The zoo industry has tried to react with public statements that they can make explaining what practices they do and don’t use and why those practices are being used,” said Trista Strauch, an MU assistant teaching professor and coordinator of the captive wild animal management minor. “They try to add whatever scientific or management information has contributed to making those decisions.”

Conditions in zoos and aquariums have been improving for decades, but according to some, reforms should still be made to increase the quality of life for the animals.

“There is always room for improvement, especially in non-AZA zoos, but the number one goal is perfecting how they take care of their animals,” Alba said. “Zoos are making improvements, as well as putting more and more emphasis on science and research.”

New legislation is currently being debated in California surrounding orca whales in captivity. The Orca Welfare and Health Act, or AB 2140, has recently been presented by State Assemblyman Richard Bloom. This act would mandate that all use of orca whales for entertainment to cease. The orcas would be put into retirement and placed in sea pens to improve their mental and physical health.

With activists and reforms bombarding lawmakers and the zoo industry, only time will tell what the future has in store for captive animals in the United States.

Sean McNealy

About the Author Sean McNealy

I’m Sean McNealy, a sophomore at MU from Rockford, Ill., and I am new to the science and agricultural journalism program. I came into Mizzou as a fisheries and wildlife sciences major, but decided during my sophomore year to also pursue a degree in science and agricultural journalism. Proximity to both large metropolises, such as Chicago and Milwaukee, and unique state parks, really fostered my love for the city and for the outdoors. This led to my desire to pursue a degree I could apply to both rural and urban settings. I found science and agricultural journalism and thought it would be a great way spread the message of conservation, something that is very important to me. I currently don’t have a set career or profession I would like to go into, but as long as I’m happy doing what I love, I’m open to anything.