Image: Kyra Laughlin at the driftwood sculpture at Edmonds ferry terminal. Photo by Chanzelle Diaz.
Blackfish, a documentary about Tilikum and other orca whales held in captivity at SeaWorld (and other aquariums worldwide) exposes the inherent abuse of capturing and holding large, intelligent mammals for public amusement. The documentary amplified a nationwide debate on animals in captivity, and many former SeaWorld performers, trainers and patrons are calling on the amusement park to stop the abuse and return these whales and dolphins to a more natural habitat, such as a seapen.
However, for Laughlin, Blackfish made an even more personal impact.
“Blackfish finally brought to light what I had been trying to selfishly suppress for many years: animals, especially those as intelligent as orcas, do not belong in captivity. I have always considered myself an animal lover. However, until I watched Blackfish, I believed that meant that I should be supporting captive animal facilities like zoos and SeaWorld as opposed to advocating for their well-being in the wild,” says Laughlin.
For many patrons of SeaWorld, getting to know orcas like Tilikum and Keiko is associated with a fun, positive and exciting experience.
“I have only been to SeaWorld twice (both times at the San Diego park); once when I was 5, and again at 16,” Laughlin explains. “My first visit there, I loved it. I dragged my parents to the splash zone where we got soaked and my favorite part was watching the trainer surf on the whales’ backs. That same trip we bought an inflatable orca pool toy, and I would put on Shamu shows for my parents. After that I really wanted to be a SeaWorld trainer.”
Laughlin says that although her aspirations to be a SeaWorld trainer waned over the years, she didn’t have anything against the amusement park, per se. However, her instincts told her differently.
“[S]omething just didn’t seem right. I remember asking one of the staff members [at SeaWorld] why the dorsal fins were flopped over, and the same answer was given to me as is in the film: ‘there are many orcas in the wild with bent dorsal fins,’ ” remembers Laughlin. “[W]ith a Google search you can quickly dismiss that false information. But at the time I believed them.”
Laughlin explains that we are taught from a young age to support and trust these institutions zoos and aquariums, and says that is why so many schools send students there on field trips.
“We have been taught to appreciate animals but only when it is at their expense. Hopefully through the Blackfish effect, that selfish behavior will change,” adds Laughlin.
At 19 years old, Laughlin has lived her entire life in the Puget Sound area with orcas in our waters.
“Up until watching the film, I admit that I took these majestic animals for granted,” says Laughlin. “And it was through Blackfish that I became to love these naturally loving and social creatures that I am fortunate enough to have swimming in my own backyard.”
Laughlin is currently attending Edmonds Community College (EDCC) and will graduate with her AA degree in June. Afterwords, she hopes to volunteer at the National Wildlife Federation through the Washington Service Corps, and then continue on to get her bachelor’s degree. She is still deciding on a major.
“[A]fter everything that’s come about from Blackfish, I might focus on something having to do with animal welfare.”
Today Laughlin is putting her energy into educating others about the tragedies of animal captivity. She is organizing a showing of Blackfish at Edmonds Community College on March, 6th. Two cast members of Blackfish, Seattle resident and former SeaWorld trainer Carol Ray and the co-founder of Orca Network Howard Garrett, will speak and answer questions at the event. See the event Facebook page for more information. Laughlin says that a few of the EDCC professors plan to bring classes to the event.
“The staff who I have told about the showing are very excited and they believe it to be a great learning opportunity for their students and anyone else who decides to show up,” Laughlin explains.
Armed with new information about orca whales, Laughlin has now found her voice to advocate on behalf of these creatures.
“Tilikum’s story is heart-wrenching, but what’s worse, is that (apart from the killing) his story is not unique. Every whale that wasn’t born in captivity has a long history of suffering; being forcefully captured, ripped away from their family, placed in inadequate facilities, and left to spend the rest of their lives performing cheap tricks until their death brings their retirement.There is no amount of so-called ‘education’ to justify that gruesome behavior,” declares Laughlin.
Laughlin hopes the EDCC Blackfish showing will help people connect with these animals that live so close to our home. She is optimistic that the movie will continue to enlighten the public that orca whales and other animals do not belong in captivity, and she hopes to inspire her community to ensure the survival of the orcas living in Puget Sound through environmental advocacy.
“Killer whales rely heavily on Chinook salmon which are fighting for their own survival because of dams, over fishing, and pollution,” says Laughlin.
Beyond her work organizing the Blackfish showing, Laughlin is working towards making an even bigger impact to help animals.
“Blackfish changed my perspective on everything,” she says.
“I considered myself an animal lover because I went to the zoo on many occasions or because I did the wildlife interaction programs like the one I did at the Georgia Aquarium where I got to play with beluga whales. Those were my “contributions” to advocating for animals at least back then. I no longer consider that being an animal lover, but rather what I do now,” explains Laughlin about her expanded perspective on animal welfare.
Laughlin has now has been asked to coordinate a similar Blackfish showing for Sea Shepherd. She recently joined the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, which calls for the retirement to a sanctuary for elephants Chai, Bamboo and Watoto at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo.
Laughlin serves as Opinion Editor at the EDCC newspaper, The Triton Review, and she was recently hired to provide public relations and marketing for a new documentary in production called Fragile Waters. The documentary focuses on the issues surrounding the Southern resident killer whales and Chinook salmon. Amazingly, Laughlin even finds time in her busy schedule to serve as president of the Wildlife Committee with LEAF, an environmental club at EDCC.
“My goal [as president] is to partner with as many animal-advocate organizations as I can so that the public can actually learn about animals.” says Laughlin. ” In fact, I didn’t really know anything about animals until I became anti-captivity. The only purpose of captive environments is to gawk at animals, whereas once you step back and begin to educate yourself about their behavior in the wild and their psychological and physical needs, then you have actually learned.”