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“Blackfish” spotlights exploitation of orcas
“Blackfish,” a documentary about captive killer whales, premiered at Sundance more than a year ago. It has steadily grown in reputation and notoriety, as more and more people became aware of the issues surrounding the capture, training and lives of these visually striking and social marine animals.
Through distribution by Magnolia and CNN Films, “Blackfish” has been able to reach a much wider audience than most documentaries—even important environmental films like the Oscar-nominated “Gasland” haven’t developed the same sort of following. Part of this might be that the anti-fracking film does have a definite political lean and there are plenty in the country that are more than willing to protect business interests over water quality. The two sides are very evenly defined.
“Blackfish” is something different. The innate beauty of these animals and the compelling evidence against their captivity casts a dark shadow over the popular “Shamu” style shows at places like SeaWorld. As the film progresses, SeaWorld looks more and more like a three-ring circus that exists only to exploit these animals for financial gain.
Whether this is the whole picture is up for debate. Animals like the orca are easy to personify, given their social nature and majestic behaviors, and projecting ourselves into the psyche of a wild animal doesn’t necessarily make that view reality. Still, the film makes a clear and complex argument that outlines the danger inherent in the training of orcas.
There is a certain irony to the fact that the presence of these animals in parks and aquariums was the catalyst behind a deeper understanding of their minds and behavior, which indicates that there is much more behind their black-and-white faces than previously thought. “Blackfish” presents a strong case against captivity—one that has resonated with the world and may bring change to an entire industry.
In the wild there has never been a recorded attack on a human by a killer whale. Despite the fearsome name, orcas are friendly, playful, and curious about humans in the water. It’s this very behavior that makes the animal prime material for training. But as the film presents, the captive environment is very different from the wild. Orcas are very large, very social, and very intelligent.
The film argues that each pod has its own “dialect” and mixing individuals from different pods causes confusion and stress among the animals. Add to that the small enclosures, the disregard for the social need of the whales, and the shortened life spans of killer whales in captivity, it becomes evident that these animals do not belong in tanks.
The film focuses on one whale, Tilikum, a male captured in the waters of Iceland in 1983. His youth, energy, and size made him a wonderful attraction, and as a result Tilikum took up residence in a small marine park in Washington state. The film outlines the abuse Tilikum suffered from the other whales in the park, the long nights spent in a small dark cell, the challenges of living in the environment due to his size, and ultimately his involvement in a fatal attack on a young trainer. A
After the death at Sealand of the Pacific, the park closed and Tilikum was sold to Sea World. Despite the danger, he was incredibly valuable as a breeding male. The trainers at the Sea World were never told of the attack.
Part of what makes the film so stark is the interviews with former SeaWorld trainers. These are passionate people, who love marine life and want to protect it, but have little to no say over what happens to these animals that they care for.
Animals are moved from one park to the other, loaned out like pieces of art, with no regard for the stress that breaking social bonds can cause. The trainers state that the animals grieve, deeply and visibly, when their calves are taken from them and moved to different parks (the majority of theme park orcas in the world were born in captivity).
This issue alone raises questions about how these animals are treated. The film carefully lays out these facts, one after another, suggesting that the effect of these combined injustices eventually cause the animals to turn violent and unpredictable. The evidence is hard to deny.
Humans tend have a very narrow view of sentience. It’s hard to say what exactly it is and how it is measured. We think that we have it and animals don’t simply because we can’t prove otherwise. Perhaps consciousness is more of a spectrum rather than a binary state.
If that’s the case, we should examine our relationship with animals more closely. Creatures like Tilikum deserve better.