How Walter Potter and Blackfish Illustrate Changing Environmental Attitudes

Attitudes about environmental, social and animal rights have shifted drastically in the past 200 years. In general, we care about what happens to animals and how they are treated. However, this hasn’t always been the case. Walter Potter is a notable example of how society used to think of the environment. Meanwhile, Blackfish illustrates current changing attitudes about animals and the way that we interact with them.

Walter Potter

Walter Potter was a taxidermist known for creating artistic tableaus that used preserved dead animal carcasses. In his work, the animals were clothed and depicted performing human activities. For instance, in his 1888 Rabbit’s Village School, taxidermized bunnies attended school in a classroom, where they appeared to be completing school work. Some of the bunnies toward the back of the classroom seemed to be slacking off instead of doing their work.

It’s easy for modern viewers of Walter Potter’s work to call the tableaus of animals both grotesque and disgusting because our view of animals has changed. Today, we believe that animals should be protected. In the United States, we have law enforcement agencies dedicated to the protection of animals. Pet owners regularly bury or cremate deceased pets to try to honor them respectfully even in their death.

However, this wasn’t the case when Walter Potter created his pieces. Cats, rabbits and stray dogs were considered vermin that would otherwise be exterminated. Farmers would bring bags of kittens they found on their property to Potter so he could use them in his tableaus. Popular museums featured his work up until recently. In 2001, the Victoria and Albert Museum displayed Potter’s Kittens’ Wedding.

It’s important to understand that Walter Potter was a product of his time, and he should be understood in that context. Even though we now think of his work as less curious and more grotesque, people used to think it was interesting and exciting to look at. Some of our current environmental views are changing, too. Someday, people will look back at what we do today and think of it as outdated, too.


In 2013, a popular documentary called Blackfish was released to criticize the captivity of orca whales at facilities such as SeaWorld. While this was not the first or most comprehensive documentary on the subject, it posed questions that people were already starting to have about the treatment of animals at theme parks. Is captivity good for animals? Are orcas good candidates for captivity? Do they have enough space to swim? Does it make them more aggressive? Is it appropriate to use animals for entertainment purposes only?

SeaWorld has had a captive killer whale population since the 1960s. Although there were a few protesters, the opposition to having killer whales in captivity only became a mainstream concern over the past seven or eight years. The documentary, its distribution through major news networks such as CNN, and the subsequent decision of SeaWorld to end its captive killer whale program illustrate that this is one environmental practice that has changed in our lifetimes.

When you face a decision about whether to go with the forward-thinking, environmentally-friendly choice or not, think about long term ramifications. For instance, if you can switch to solar power today, it might be worth the investment. Soon enough, using standard power might fall out of fashion, too.


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