Image credit to snewton.8066 on Flickr. Used with permission.

Occasionally someone in the heated debate over orca captivity is convinced to change all their former beliefs on the topic. That’s what happened to @AkulaEcho, one of my friends on Twitter who was once convinced by a certain movie about the “horrors” of killer whale captivity. Recently I interviewed Akula, who is now pro-cap, about SeaWorld, conservation, and the switch from being a Blackfish fan to a SeaWorld lover.

How did you get interested in SeaWorld?

Well, when I was six years old, I watched some sort of documentary about orcas.  I really, REALLY liked something about them – no idea what.  All I know is that I ran to my mom and started babbling about going whale-watching to see orcas.  I kept saying that we had to go see orcas.  Then she said, “Whale-watching?  Why would you go whale-watching to see orcas?  That would be an expensive trip, and you hardly ever see anything on whale-watching trips anyways.  But, there is a place where you can see orcas.  There’s a place called SeaWorld in Florida, right next to where Mickey Mouse lives (aka Disney).  One day we can go there, and we can go to Disney as well.”  I was so excited!  She got her computer and showed me the website.  Instant obsession.  Soon after that, I got my first orca plush and named her Shamu.  I also decided that I wanted to be a trainer pretty soon after learning that SeaWorld existed.

Have you always been pro-captivity?

Well, I was pro-captivity since I was six years old.  I never imagined that anything could possibly be wrong with captivity, it was a foreign concept.  But back in about 2012, I started doing more research on it, and there’s a lot more anti-SeaWorld stuff online than there is pro-SeaWorld.  It shook me up, and I was starting to be against orca captivity.  When Blackfish aired on CNN the first time, I was shocked and horrified, and was anti-SW for several months following it.  Eventually, after lots of research, I came back to being pro-SeaWorld.

Why did you change your mind on SeaWorld and what was that process like?

In switching from pro-cap to anti-cap, Blackfish made me change my mind, and it was awful.  I can’t even put the guilt and hopelessness into words.  I felt like everything I had done had been going towards a goal that was hurting animals tremendously, and I felt really bad for it.  Plus, I was 100% certain that I could never be a trainer, now that I knew the “truth” about how evil SeaWorld was.  But even the next day made me question Blackfish a bit.  The night I saw Blackfish, I was actually in a hotel in Indianapolis, since I was going to Dolphin Training camp at the Indy Zoo the very next morning.  When I got there, I interrogated the camp counselor about dolphin captivity.  Do bottlenose dolphins live shorter in the wild?  Do they have unnatural rakes?  Are they depressed?  Do you steal their babies?  Do they cry over it?  Based on the answers to these questions, and the knowledge I had from observing the Indy pod my whole life, I decided that bottlenose dolphins must be okay for captivity.  But not orcas!  However, this made me realize that some of the arguments from Blackfish (such as “they’re too intelligent for captivity”) must be false.  But things like the lifespan issue, their unnatural captive social structure, the raking and “different languages” allegations, left me convinced that orcas weren’t suitable for captivity.

For months I did more research.  I read just about every anti-captivity paper, article, and blog you could imagine.  But instead of heaping fuel into the anti-cap fire, it made me less sure of my position.  I started noticing that a lot of their arguments applied to other captive animals.  Parrots, a family of animals that I have been around my whole life, kept coming to mind.  But I know that those other animals thrive in human care.  I also noticed some flaws in their arguments.  The lifespan issue used some misleading and outdated info.  The “languages” issue wasn’t even an issue, because almost all of SeaWorld’s whales are Icelandic, and have the same dialect.

I also sensed a deeper anti-zoo agenda.  When I really dug deeper into their arguments, I noticed that it always came back to “They don’t belong in confinement,” or “Captivity will never be as good as the wild.”  That’s not being against killer whale captivity because this species doesn’t thrive, it’s anti-captivity.  Period.  And I know that such a stance has no merit, and goes against conservation.  After a lot of thinking, researching, and soul-searching, I realized that orcas aren’t really any different from other animals in terms of captivity.  I realized that SeaWorld was a top-notch zoological facility, and being against them means being against the AZA and zoos as a whole.

Who’s your favorite captive orca?

Tilikum.  I had a life-changing experience with him when I was nine, so I absolutely adore him.

Can you provide some more detail on that experience?

When I was nine years old, my family and I went to SeaWorld for the first time. They surprised me by taking me to Dine With Shamu, and they used Tilly. We had a seat right next to the pool, and he came super close to us. I was literally under 15 feet away from the biggest, most gorgeous animal I had ever seen. He even exhaled while swimming by, and the mist hit me and even made my food a bit moist. Having that small bit of contact with him, being able to see him so closely, hearing him breathe…it was absolutely life-changing. That’s a moment that I will never forget, and it has inspired me to pursue my dreams and work to conserve these amazing animals.

Are you doing anything to help conservation of wild animals?

I like to think so, and I really do try very hard.  I work hard to educate people and garner interest and awareness for animals, especially endangered animals; I educate at my zoo, I educate my friends, and I educate online.  My biggest causes are endangered canids, reptiles and amphibians (aka “herps”), ocean health, and palm oil.  I educate as many people as I can on all these issues.  I’ve started donating to the Orianne Society, an organization dedicated to helping endangered herps, and have donated to Bornean reforestation efforts via the Indianapolis Zoo.

We’d like to give a big thank you to Akula for sharing her amazing story with us! Akula will be joining our blog as an author, and we’re so happy she could share her story with us for our first blog post.

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