The Free Willy Effect: Perspective and Time in the Anti-Captivity Movement

Promotional Photo for the 1993 film "Free Willy"

Promotional Photo for the 1993 film “Free Willy”

Almost all animal and anti-captivity advocates are aware of what has been called the “Blackfish Effect” – the advocacy efforts that have come as a result of the documentary “Blackfish.” The term itself developed in the lead up to the CNN Films documentary push for an Oscar nomination – but has also taken on a life of it’s own by grassroots advocates. Slick, manicured and symbolic PR moves have been matched by spontaneous petitions, 12 year olds disrupting SeaWorld’s narrative and tons of protest.

Having a massive corporate media outlet behind the film, and providing coverage for much of this “effect,” has made all of this advocacy impossible to ignore. The diversity of the tactics used, as well as the diversity of scale – between the producers of the film, the large national non profits engaging on the issue, and grassroots activists engaging themselves – have created pressure that SeaWorld is having a hard time gaining any traction in responding to. There are simply too many people involved for all of them to be written off as “extremists” – and their PR spin is clearly having issues trying to deal with the complexity of this opposition.

In this context many advocates have started to over reach on their “effect” – symbolic and staged press releases calling for the end of Orca captivity are being considered by advocates as serious efforts. Others have relied on linear understandings of their advocacy –  i.e. “it is just a matter of time.” This is worrying for advocates who know the long view and now that the anti-captivity movement has been here before.

Before the “Blackfish Effect” there was the “Cove Effect” the “Whale Wars Effect” the “Sharkwater Effect,” etc. In many ways those documentaries and shows could be considered as a linear whole – representing an escalating growth of the global anti-captivity movement since 2008-2009. More than a decade before any of this media though was the time of the “Free Willy Effect” – the 1993 family film which grossed $153 million at the box office alone. The “effect” of this story – detailing a young boys relationship with a captive Orca and the eventual liberation of “Willy”and his return to his family – was absolutely massive. Keiko, the captive Orca used in the film was actually rehabilitated and released to the wild in response to the film – a move that at total cost of tens of millions of dollars.

There was a noticeable response from industry as well. Here in Canada the board of Vancouver Aquarium, in 1996, passed a resolution to no longer use wild caught cetaceans and also shifted focus from an entertainment based model to a more educational focus. Canadian theme park – Canada’s Wonderland – under pressure from animal advocacy groups like Toronto’s ARK-II – actually ended their captive dolphin program in 1994 and close by (for me) Aquarium of Niagara in Western New York scrapped “far ranging” cetacean programs in the mid 90’s. These are just a few examples and long time advocates I am sure could provide even more. This was a specific and noticeable time where pressure both ended the practice of captivity at some parks, while ending specific practices at others and shifting much of the industry away from wild capture and entertainment based shows to educational programs and captive breeding. The mid 90’s also saw massive grassroots demonstrations, tons of symbolic press releases, reports, and media. In many ways we are still stuck in this “Free Willy”stage as the parks facing the most opposition right now (Marineland Canada and SeaWorld) are the ones who refused to change their practices in the mid 90’s – hold overs from the “Free Willy Effect.”

Why is this all important to keep in mind? Because between the 1999 – 2009 decade there is a significant lull and also because although the pressure mounted currently may be more intense – we haven’t seen an industry shift (yet) comparable to this mid 90 time period. In short, the anti-captivity movement is not linear. It’s not “just a matter of time” – it’s a matter of sustaining this pressure in the long term and not allowing for another long period for this industry to regroup.

It’s hard to try and urge for perspective when the mood is so celebratory and optimistic in the anti-captivity movement. I don’t expect this caution to be popular, or to make people feel comfortable. That said, without it how can we know exactly where we stand and continue to push forward? Revisiting the advocacy of many in the anti-captivity movement in the mid 90’s you will see a lot of the exact same optimism an the exact same belief that it was “only a matter of time” and that the industry was on the verge of collapse.

Currently, we celebrate when SeaWorld stock drops, but ignore when that stock rebounds (it is still well above is all-time low). For profit animal captivity is still profitable. A recent poll in B.C. illustrated an equal amount who are both passionately for captivity and those who are against it at 10%. The rest – the 80% of the population – is still up for grabs. We still have a lot of work to do.

We are winning, but that does not mean we have won and looking back will only help us on the road ahead.

For Keiko.

@dylanxpowell /


One response to “The Free Willy Effect: Perspective and Time in the Anti-Captivity Movement

  1. An excellent warning. That’s why I congratulate M.A.D. on its variety of tactics, and the way it continually evolves to reach out to more and different audiences. We can defeat Marineland. Holder cannot hold out forever.

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