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The 2013 documentary "Blackfish" shined a light on the cruelty that orcas face in captivity and created a sea change in the public's perception of SeaWorld and other marine life parks.

This "Blackfish" backlash nearly deep-sixed SeaWorld and led Canada to pass a law that bans oceanariums from breeding whales and dolphins or holding them in captivity. Animals currently being held in Canada's marine parks are allowed to remain as well as those taken in for rehabilitation.

Podcaster and MMA announcer Joe Rogan saluted Canada's decision on a recent episode.

"First of all, what assholes are we that we have those goddman things in captivity? A big fucking shout out to Canada because Canada, mostly probably through the noise that my friend Phil Demers has created in trying to get MarineLand shut down, Canada has banned all dolphin and all whale captivity. It's amazing. I hope the United States does it well, I hope it goes worldwide," Rogan told his guest, economist and mathematician Eric Weinstein.


Rogan has been a big anti-captivity advocate and frequently has Phil Demers, a former walrus trainer at MarineLand in Canada, on his show to discuss animal abuses at marine parks.

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"I think it's slavery, I really do," Rogan said of whale captivity. "I think it's a different kind of slavery."

While some may be taken aback by Rogan's use of the term "slavery" to describe non-humans, he makes a compelling point. There is a long history of research on dolphins that shows they rival humans, intelligence-wise. As for orcas, "If anything, since orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family, their intelligence is perhaps superior to other dolphins," Lori Marino, a Emory University neuroscientist, told NBC News.

And, like slaves, they are held captive and forced to work for someone making a considerable profit.

Two orcas that have been enslaved the longest are Lolita and Corky, both in captivity for around 50 years.

Lolita is a female orca at Miami Seaquarium who lives in a tank so pitifully small, it would now be deemed illegal. She's been held in captivity since 1970 when she shared the tank with Hugo, a male orca. Hugo died in 1980 in an apparent suicide after bashing his head against the walls of the tank.

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via Piotr Domanradski / Wikimedia Commons Hugo's carcass being removed from the tank in 1980.

Corky was first captured and put on display at Marineland in California in 1969. Shortly before that park's closure in 1987, she was sold to SeaWorld and has lived there ever since.

Throughout her time in confinement, Corky gave birth to six calves, all sired by her cousin and tankmate, Orky. None of them survived. Orky died in 1988.

via Bryce Bradford / Flickr


The Great Whales - Corky's First Calfwww.youtube.com

Rogan hopes the U.S. will wise up and put an end to whale and dolphin captivity, but will it ever happen?

In 2016, the state of California banned orca shows for entertainment purposes and breeding of captive orcas. Since, SeaWorld San Diego's shows have become more educational in nature.

In 2015, California Congressman Adam Schiff proposed legislation that would prohibit breeding of captive orcas and prevent wild capture for the purpose of display. The act would ultimately phase out all orca captivity in the U.S. but has not seen much movement through Congress since its introduction.

You can't breed orca whales in California anymore.

On Sept. 13, 2016, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that'll make it illegal to breed orca whales in California. It'll also majorly rewrite what captivity itself means for the whales.

The law comes into effect next June, and it'll change things in a big way. Places like SeaWorld, for instance, won't be able to breed orcas at all anymore nor use them for entertainment or performances.


Instead, the only way you can keep an orca in captivity is if you're a bona fide educational or science institution or if you're trying to save its life after a rescue. Under the law, orca whales currently in captivity can stay there, but the facilities holding them will need to conform to the new standards.

This is a big deal, partly because it's a result of major public outcry about keeping orcas in captivity.

Two orca whales during a performance at SeaWorld. Image by Gerardo Mora/Stringer/Getty Images.

Orca whales are large, smart, social animals, and it's often really, really difficult to keep such animals in captivity. Some people have said it's even cruel.

And although some people have pointed to scientific progress that's only been made possible through such close contact with them, the public outcry has been, on the whole, pretty deafening.

Though it's not the only institution to hold orcas in captivity, SeaWorld has been a major target for the outcry, starting with the 2013 documentary "Blackfish."

Photo from Matt Stroshane/Getty Images.

The documentary focused on the life of Tilikum, an adult male orca whale at SeaWorld who killed one of their trainers. Since the premiere of the documentary, SeaWorld has come under major pressure to change its orca whale shows and keeping practices.

In March of this year, SeaWorld (which has 24 orcas in captivity in California, Texas, and Florida) promised to stop its breeding program and end its use of orcas for entertainment purposes. It will still keep them on their property, but there are plans to transition the whales to a more natural, education-oriented focus.

"SeaWorld has been listening and we're changing," said the company in a statement, as reported by The Independent. "Society is changing and we're changing with it. SeaWorld is finding new ways to continue to deliver on our purpose to inspire all our guests to take action to protect wild animals and wild places."

With this new law, SeaWorld will be able to keep the whales they currently have, but they can't really breed or bring in new ones.

This law should hopefully help protect orca whales in captivity while still allowing for good-faith rescue attempts and education.

It's huge progress for animal activists everywhere and for orcas, mostly made possible by people — regular people — like you and me. And that's pretty cool.

Like in a Greek tragedy, SeaWorld stepped onto the stage with good intentions and then crumbled its own empire through hubris, selfishness, and the mistreatment of a kingdom it claimed to love.

Photo by Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images.


In three acts, this is how SeaWorld's orca program collapsed:

Act I. In the beginning, Sea World convinced us to love orca whales. And we listened.

"Americans' attitudes about orcas have changed dramatically," wrote SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. "When the first SeaWorld Park opened in 1964, orcas, or killer whales, were not universally loved, to put it mildly. Instead, they were feared, hated and even hunted."

Who do we have to thank for that shift in whale PR? According to Manby: SeaWorld.


Photo by Matt Stroshane/Getty Images.

Of course, back in 1971, when the "Shamu Goes Hollywood" show premiered, no one knew that SeaWorld’s methods of acquiring the whales were questionable enough to get them sued by Washington state in 1976 and land them in a three year court battle in 1983 while trying to capture whales illegally in Alaska.

Given that most people’s knowledge of killer whales came from SeaWorld, we believed the company when it said orcas only live to be 30 years old, that dorsal fin collapse was normal, and that whales at SeaWorld were kept with their biological families.

Families vacationed at SeaWorld, children left the park carrying armfuls of Shamu stuffed animals, and the amusement park raked in profits by the hundreds of millions.

SeaWorld built its empire and cemented itself as the best place to see the world's new favorite creature for decades, and, with money coming in by the truckload and a public that loved seeing the whale tricks, it had a lot to be proud of.

As always, though, pride cometh before the fall.

Act II. "Blackfish" premiered, and we learned things were not as happy as they seemed.

Despite news coverage of two tragic deaths happening on Sea World properties in 1999 and 2010, no event in SeaWorld's history affected the company's public image more than the release of "Blackfish."

The2013 documentary focused on the story of Tilikum, the Sea World orca responsible for those deaths, and the treatment he experienced at the park that may have led to his behavior.


"Blackfish" director Gabriela Cowperthwaite at the Sundance London Film and Music Festival. Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Sundance London.

After the documentary premiered, attendance at SeaWorld dropped, and profits plummeted by a staggering 84%.

Though SeaWorld maintains that "Blackfish" misrepresented its treatment of whales, the facts continue to prove that orca whales do not belong in small tanks, forced to perform for eager crowds. The millions of people who saw the film could never erase it from their image of the theme park, and we as a culture became irreversibly aware of how whales in captivity actually live.

The so-called Blackfish Effect culminated in further profit losses for SeaWorld over the next two years as well as a wave of protests.

In 2014, 19 people were arrested during the Tournament of Roses Parade in Los Angeles for trying to stop a SeaWorld float mid-parade, and four people including a 13-year-old girl jumped the barricade at the 2014 Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City to stop a SeaWorld float from progressing.

Photo via Prayitno/Flickr.

"Jackass" star Steve-O went to jail in October 2015 for scaling a massive crane with an inflatable orca in his own protest, and One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles shared a tweet imploring fans to stop going to SeaWorld. Protests became a regular occurrence outside SeaWorld locations and even at the airports of cities that SeaWorld called home.

Act III. SeaWorld swallowed its pride and finally began responding to the public outcry on behalf of the whales it had taught us to love.

Last year, SeaWorld announced that it would begin phasing out orca shows, marking the official end of days for its most famous (and infamous) attraction. On March 17, 2016, the company made waves again when it announced that it would officially end its controversial orca breeding program.

"SeaWorld has been listening and we're changing," the company said in a statement released on its website.

The park hasn't collected an orca from the wild in almost four decades. With the breeding program shutting down, the whales currently under SeaWorld's care will be its last. Of course, many of those whales are young, and some of them are pregnant. So it will be quite a while before orcas disappear from SeaWorld all together.

Photo by Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images.

And another thing that should be noted about this announcement is the timing — after all, Tilikum (the subject of "Blackfish") is currently dying of a bacterial lung infection.

Tilikum is in his 30s, and despite being connected to three deaths, he's SeaWorld's main source of breeding. When he dies, the SeaWorld breeding program would likely die with him, with or without SeaWorld's decision.

The collapse of the orca show is as much a victory for public opinion as it is for animal rights.

Despite the park's wealth and a team of lawyers that included Eugene Scalia (son of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), SeaWorld's orca shows simply couldn't survive the backlash of an angry public.

More important than anger, though, is evolution. It's one thing to be angry about how whales are treated, but "Blackfish" only highlighted something that had been going on for years.

The real victory here is that, once we were shown how bad it was, we voted with our wallets to let SeaWorld know that the mistreatment of animals is not something we support.

Photo by Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images.

That's not just a victory for the whales, it's a victory for our culture.

The 2013 documentary "Blackfish" took SeaWorld to task for keeping killer whales in captivity — which the film argued is highly detrimental to the creatures' mental health.

An orca show at SeaWorld Orlando. Photo by David Bjorgen/Wikimedia Commons.


Since then, SeaWorld has come under major fire — from animal welfare organizations, celebrities, and lots of people in between.

Harry Styles of One Direction publicly criticized SeaWorld back in September. Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images.

The economic consequences to the company have been enormous. The company's profits dropped 84% between the second quarter of 2014 and the second quarter of 2015.

Today, the company finally decided to take action to try to quell the criticism.

As reported by Lori Weisberg in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

"SeaWorld intends to phase out its longstanding killer whale show at its San Diego park next year as part of a comprehensive strategy unveiled Monday to re-position the embattled company amid persistent criticisms of how it treats its orcas."

While ending shows at one park won't (and shouldn't) stop people from criticizing SeaWorld, it's a welcome first step.

Ending the shows could help make life much safer for SeaWorld's trainers, many of whom have been injured or killed in orca attacks, which some argue are triggered by the stress of confinement.

SeaWorld still has a long way to go, however.

Photo by Gordon2448/Wikimedia Commons.

Ending the shows doesn't address the underlying issue — that keeping orcas in captivity puts the animals under an enormous amount of mental and emotional stress.

California Representative Adam Burbank plans to introduce a bill that would ban breeding orcas in captivity and would make capturing them in the wild illegal.

But starting to phase out the shows means SeaWorld is listening.

Credit is due to the dozens of people who held the company's feet to the fire and the thousands who voted with their feet — and their dollars.

Hopefully there's a lot more change on the horizon.

Update: Keep your excitement on hold for now. Slate reports there will still be orca shows at SeaWorld, but they'll be ... "natural" or something. Let's hope the new shows represent an actual improvement for the animals and their trainers, rather than just a cosmetic one.