In last week’s tutorial, we watched the notorious film Blackfish. When I found out we were watching it, I sort of dreaded it because I had seen half of the film before and found it too depressing. Blackfish is the story of Tilikum, a whale captured from the wild and forced to live his life in aquatic parks such as Sea World. The film investigates the death of Dawn Brancheau, a Sea World trainer who had been working with Tilikum for years. After her death, Tilikum was isolated from trainers and served as a sperm bank for breeding. He later died in 2016.
Blackfish really had me torn: I pitied the trainers who were so dedicated to their job and had such close relationships with the orcas they trained, despite their dangerous nature. On the other hand, I understood why the orcas acted out- captivity drove them crazy. Such erratic behaviour exhibited by animals in captivity was given a name by Bill Travers in 1992: zoochosis. Symptoms of zoochosis include pacing and circling, tongue playing and bar biting, neck twisting, head bobbing, weaving and swaying, rocking, overgrooming and self mutilation (Ramos 2014). Imagine being torn from your family and home in the wild and placed in a small enclosure for the purpose of entertainment. Of course you’re going to react! The film made a valid point: there are no recorded cases of orcas in the wild attacking human beings. The film did a great job of showcasing the impact of captivity on wild animals and generated discussion about the issue.
I was thinking of other films I have seen or heard of featuring animals in captivity and Madagascar came to mind. Why? Madagascar sends a message to children that animals enjoy being trapped in a zoo. The animals in the film are “living the life” at Central Park Zoo- being waited upon, groomed and showing off to receive that giant applause from the audience. One night, Alex the lion decides to escape from the zoo for a night out. His friends Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe and Gloria the Hippo follow but they end up on board a ship to Madagascar. They are in the wild…and want to go back home to Central Park Zoo. This insinuates that animals prefer living in captivity to the wild: a wrong idea to present to children. Organisations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have made a child-friendly site to educate children about the effects of captivity on animals, teach them about animals and encourage them to pledge to never visit zoos.
Another interesting aspect of Madagascar is the way in which the animals are presented. Robert Ebert (2005) suggests that cartoons have created a divide between animals who are animals and animals who are human. The characters in Madagascar think of themselves as human like. They are all anthropomorphic: cartoon animals are given human attributes (bipedal walking, speech, sense of humour etc) (Beardsworth & Bryan 2002, p.86). They can walk, talk, make jokes, catch trains and roam the city streets. Some can even read, like Phil the monkey. At one point earlier in the film, the gang were surrounded by cops and are confused as to what is going on. They did not realise that humans perceive them as being dangerous when they are not trapped in an enclosure.
In a sense, developing anthropomorphic characters assists in developing a connection between the viewer and the animal. The viewer (in the case of Madagascar, most likely a child) will be more likely to empathise with the animal if they can understand them. This was also apparent in Blackfish. The film revealed that orcas are emotional creatures, and viewers witnessed this when a baby orca was separated from its mother at Sea World. Viewers could empathise with the orca’s feeling of despair. We as viewers will always feel some sort of connection to animals and will continue to both enjoy and scrutinise their representation in the media.
Beardsworth, A & Bryman A 2001, ‘The wild animal in late modernity: The case of the Disneyization of Zoos’, Tourist Studies, vol. 1, pp. 83-104.
Ebert, R 2005, ‘Madagascar Movie Review and Film Summary’, RogerEbert.com, 26th May, viewed 29th March 2017, available from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/madagascar-2005.
PETA, ‘5 Secrets Zoos Don’t Want You To Know’, PETA Kids, viewed 29th March 2017, available from http://www.petakids.com/save-animals/zoos/.
Ramos, J 2014, ‘Zoochosis: The Disturbing Thing That Happens To Animals In Captivity’, Care2 Causes, 22nd May, viewed 29th March 2017, available from http://www.care2.com/causes/zoochosis-the-disturbing-thing-that-happens-to-animals-in-captivity.html