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The ‘Blackfish Effect’

March 18, 2014 | Marine Animals

The 'Blackfish Effect'
World reacts, and co-writer becomes vegan

By Nicole Rivard


It’s been a year-and-a-half since Blackfish, which reveals the dark side of the captive killer whale industry and explores the deaths of some orca trainers by Tilikum, debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. 

But the “Blackfish effect” continues to wash over the industry and world, a phenomenon that co-writer Tim Zimmermann spoke about at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut on March 11.

“The ultimate ‘Blackfish effect’ was on March 7, when a California Assemblyman put forward a bill to ban orca shows (and captive breeding) in California,” Zimmermann said. “That is the first real existential threat to SeaWorld that has come out of Blackfish. He (Assemblyman Richard Bloom D-Santa Monica) was so disgusted and appalled by what he saw that he put forward this bill. … This could really be the first step in America toward an end to killer whale entertainment.”

One person elated by all the attention Blackfish has gotten is Stan Minasian, writer of A Fall from Freedom, the first film to expose the long and controversial history of the captive whale and dolphin industry. 

But he admits he was a bit surprised.

“All this information has been out in the public domain for quite some time. Where have people been? ... I think A Fall from Freedom revealed a lot of things that people were in denial over, but Blackfish hit on one point real hard; hard enough where it was impossible to ignore it any longer. There should be a film on belugas too, and bottlenose dolphins and any cetacean species held in a captive environment. But Blackfish might have lost its luster had it gone into other species.”

In his lecture Zimmermann pointed out that people are paying more attention to what is happening with dolphins, not just orcas, in the wake of Blackfish appearing on CNN. Zimmermann described the media explosion this year surrounding the Taiji dolphin drive hunt in Japan, which happens six months a year. Dolphins are driven into a cove to where they are slaughtered for meat. But in recent years, the drive has become more about capturing dolphins that can be sold to dolphin parks. 

“Caroline Kennedy, who had just been installed as the US Ambassador to Japan, responded to the outcry on social media and Tweeted about it,” he said. “It was a shocking thing for an ambassador to go on Twitter and call out Japan.”

Minasian believes the "bounce effect" of Blackfish now taking effect in things like the introduction of legislation in California to ban killer whales from captivity in the state is only the first “volley.” 

“Those who are against captive cetaceans in any capacity are not going away, and will not go away until captivity goes away. Eventually, captivity will end but it will be a progression; it will not happen overnight. There is just too much money to be made from enslaving these animals,” he said.

“When Dr. John Hall, former senior biologist at Sea World, told us that 70 percent of the revenue at SeaWorld was generated because they have killer whales, it is obvious that they feel they cannot survive without these animals.”

Minasian points out that the Blackstone Group, which owns SeaWorld, has enough money available to defeat a bill, and if the bill were to pass, relocate SeaWorld San Diego to another state. 

“SeaWorld would merely transfer their whales to their other parks, or build a SeaWorld in Las Vegas,” Minasian said.

But what’s more important than whether legislation passes or not, says Minasian, is that, like Blackfish and A Fall From Freedom, the bill is another step in getting the public to realize that captivity isn’t a good thing so they stop visiting SeaWorld altogether.  Several bands, including Willie Nelson and Bare Naked Ladies, cancelled concerts at SeaWorld after seeing the film.

“One of the most personal reasons I made A Fall from Freedom was that 35 years ago I was totally oblivious to the situation, and was actually working with a marine park, although my work was educational exhibits on the animals,” Minasian explained. “I walked past dolphins, killer whales and pilot whales in captivity and thought nothing of it. It did not take long to wake up to their plight and when I did I realized that the captive industry makes its living duping people into believing these animals are happier in a tank than in the ocean. I mostly directed the anger I had at myself for being so naive. Then I started to research the captive situation and listen to others who knew more than I did about it. A Fall from Freedom was a natural progression, and it was a film that needed to be made.”

Minasian and Zimmermann are adamant that SeaWorld’s assertion that exposing people to killer whales and dolphins makes them care about them is an absolute lie and a distortion of reality. 

“As Dr. Lori Marino said in A Fall from Freedom, people have never seen a dinosaur and yet there is an international fascination for these extinct animals,” Minasian said. “Most people love penguins, yet few people have never seen one alive. There are so many ways now that people can be exposed to animals they would never see in the flesh: books, documentary films, live-cams, newspaper and magazine articles, etc. And there is an even more pertinent point to be made here. When people see a killer whale with a trainer on its back, or jumping through a hoop, or spinning on a platform, they are not seeing a real killer whale. They are seeing a beautiful animal that has been rendered into a dancing bear, or a boxing kangaroo or a circus elephant. That, plus the blatant lies that the Sea World employees are vomiting during the show only add to the circus atmosphere.”

For Minasian, the making of A Fall from Freedom was cathartic. And Zimmermann was personally touched by the “Blackfish effect.” The movie took about a year-and-a-half to make, but he was immersed in the captive killer whale industry even prior to that when he was researching the article “Killer in the Pool” for Outside magazine, which inspired the film.

“While I was writing Blackfish, people kept asking me, ‘Why do you care so much about orcas?’ And I realized that it wasn’t just orcas I cared about,” Zimmermann said. “For me the Blackfish effect was to get me thinking about how I lead my own life, what I choose to eat and how that affects the lives of animals.”

As a result, he adopted a plant-based lifestyle.

He explained that at the time he was also reading a book called Eating Animals, which gives a disturbing account of what happens to a chicken to go from a live chicken to a package on the supermarket shelf.

“Once I read about the fecal bath I decided I was going to be a vegetarian,” Zimmermann said.

Then while filming Blackfish in the San Juan Islands, a conversation led him to grasp the harsh reality and cruelty of the egg and dairy industry, which slaughters male chickens and male cows.

“For me it came down to a personal question that I asked myself, ‘Does any animal need to suffer and die for me to eat?’” Zimmermann said. “Because of Blackfish and because of the questions that Tilikum raised for me, I ended up giving up all animal products. My next thing I am interested in writing about is the inevitability—in some ways over some period of time—of the imperative of veganism because not only is it obviously good for animals but it’s also good for the environment and your health.

“I am preoccupied with veganism and the reason is I meet lots of people who are worried about climate change, who care about animal welfare and who generally care about their own health. The truth is the single most powerful thing that any individual can do, and this is what the core of the book I would like to write, is to stop eating meat. In terms of climate change, livestock production contributes 40 percent of the greenhouse gases, transportation about 17 percent. So there is a preoccupation with alternative fuel vehicles but people aren’t looking at the main driver of climate change.”

Friends of Animal’s vegan starter guide reports that U.S. residents annually emit about four tons of global warming gas each but vegans cut that by an impressive 1.5 tons a year. A non-dairy diet is crucial here, as dairies use ruminant animals that emit high amounts of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas. 

Zimmermann said that he would consider a documentary on animal farming.

 “The problem with a documentary on animal farming is that I think it would be incredibly disgusting,” Zimmermann said. “That’s not a reason not to do it. But the bigger problem is that now state after state is starting to pass laws that you can’t get access to what happens in slaughterhouses and if you do you will be prosecuted. I think if anyone saw how their food is produced they wouldn’t eat it.”



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