Blackfish, a 2013 documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, leaves the viewer submerged under the weight of reflection about what it means to be a human in the animal kingdom.
After all, humans exist in the animal kingdom and don’t. This duality of being an animal, but being able to transcend our animal nature to form a civilization and in parts of that civilization, to hold other animals captive for show and entertainment purposes speaks to that transcendence.
Within that duality, then, comes some sort of role or stewardship or obligation to protect the animal kingdom since we’re cognizant of our relationship with other beings and are able to impose a sense of morality on our actions in that relationship, even if they aren’t at our intellectual or conscious level or able to reciprocate in the same manner.
Cowperthwaite’s film is a call-to-action to this conscious, moral awakening, to step back and think about — in this particular case — how killer whales or orcas or the namesake of the title, blackfish, are treated and if captivity is humane.
The epicenter of this awakening is of course the most prominent place where blackfish are held captive for entertainment purposes: SeaWorld. And in particular, their star prize, Tilikum, a massive whale that’s mostly used for his sperm worth millions of dollars. He’s been “in the business” since the early 1980s and in that long, expansive time of captivity, he’s killed a few trainers at SeaWorld.
He’s still there today. Because it was the trainers’ fault for getting killed by a captive whale, of course.
To better understand the captivity of killer whales, we have to understand the freedom of killer whales. In the wild, they’re friendly with humans — one researcher notes that no killer whale has ever killed another human in the wild — and they have a highly developed social system. They are social beings, much like we are, but in some sense, even more so. Therefore, if you’re separating these creatures from their families, as one hunter describes doing, you’re already setting up a bad situation. Now, you’ve isolated a social being to a small, artificial swimming space and expect him/her to be your dancing monkey.
It’s ripe for mistakes to happen, for the killer whale to lash out, as Tilikum was prone to do.
In one scene, a female whale is separated from her mother and just wails and wails and wails for hours trying to reach her mother. It’s the most heart-breaking moment I’ve seen on film in some time. In fact, I dare say, it’s the most “human” moment I’ve seen on film in quite some time. That’s right. A female whale longing for her mother whale creates an intimate and desperately human moment on film, oddly enough. I honestly had to pause the documentary for a moment to just take it all in.
This is wrong. This is inhumane. We should know better than to do this to other creatures, especially ones that are so highly evolved as the killer whale.
One also gets the sense in watching the documentary that SeaWorld almost seems like a cult with the way its former trainers speak about it. For instance, how they had to toe the company PR line about how the whales were treated well and liked where they were. And the spin machine when things did go wrong.
SeaWorld is in the business of making money and there’s money in captive animals. For now at least.
The sentiment expressed above seems wild. Everyone loves the zoo! The circus! SeaWorld! But at some point, we’re going to realize what we’ve done to these creatures is barbaric and unacceptable in a moral society.
These are beautiful, powerful, but soft and playful, intelligent and social beings that when we’re not artificially creating animus in them, are okay around human beings.
Captivity in and of itself beyond necessary research purposes seems inherently wrong. Even if SeaWorld has taken measures to make the situation more safe and better for the whales and the trainers, it’s still an innately wrong structure. All of which is to remind the viewer, this is a call-to-action film, which means it does have an agenda. And for what it’s worth, it did win me over, but I think it’s worth being cognizant of that.
For instance, the family of Dawn Brancheau, one of the trainers killed by Tilikum, rejected the film and its account of what happened to Dawn, saying:
“The film has brought a great deal of attention to the welfare of animals, and for that we are grateful. However, “Blackfish” is not Dawn’s story. Dawn Brancheau believed in the ethical treatment of animals. Dawn followed her dreams and became a marine animal trainer. She loved the whales and was proud of her work as a trainer. Dawn thrived on introducing the whales to the audience and educating them about the animals in her care. Dawn would not have remained a trainer at SeaWorld for 15 years if she felt that the whales were not well cared for.”
There’s a lot of “in the weeds” back-and-forth between SeaWorld and researchers and the makers of the film, if you’re interested in that, but I think the main takeaway from this film is able to cut through all of that: Keeping such highly socialized whales captive — and in many cases, separating them from their families — is simply wrong.
And as a call-to-action, it was seemingly effective, as not a year after its release, attendance at SeaWorld was down and its CEO resigned.