Blackfish vs. Sea World: A Critical Look at an Emotional Issue

Irony.

Sometimes I have to really think long and hard about an issue to blog about. Other times an issue hits me over the head as if from out of the deep blue sea.

I just watched the popular documentary BLACKFISH about Orca whales and Sea World.  This powerful documentary leaves me no choice but to opine; it is extremely powerful, emotional and rife with issues to critically analyze once you can separate yourself from its intense emotional tone.  I am as stricken with sadness while watching a wounded and isolated whale as anyone.

Blackfish

The subject matter concerns a scathing look at Sea World and its apparent unethical and inhumane treatment of Orca “killer” whales. (Interestingly, there is not a known incident of these mammals ever killing a human in the wild, thus the name “killer” is rather misplaced, unless you count marine life.) The primary protagonist in this story is the whale “Tilikum” who has played a role in the deaths of 3 people over the course of 20 years.  As I will critically speak to the fairness and validity of the documentary itself in a moment, I must first say that whether you come out of this film loving or—though far more likely—hating Sea World, you will certainly gain a good amount of education about these amazing and highly evolved whales—an education I thoroughly appreciated and found very enlightening. Frankly, I will never look at any human-animal relationship the same.

Essentially, the primary source of information for BLACKFISH is interviews with former whale hunters and Sea World employees, primarily trainers. The documentary plays out like a traditional confessional for the long string of penitents who tearfully confess to being a part of a system that mistreated (albeit in ignorance) animals; their penance is 3 “Our Fathers” and an appearance in an anti-Sea World documentary in the church of BLACKFISH.  These interviews became the primary source of my cognitive tension.

All of these former trainers claim they worked at Sea World for one reason: The love of the whales. So, the former Sea World trainers, now reformed and repentant animal rights activists, have a bit of a quandary. They worked at Sea World because they loved Orcas and now they do not work at Sea World because they love Orcas. And the reason they fell in love with Orcas was due to their exposure at Sea World.

I get it…they evolved and now see the light.

The reason I have now learned and gained a thorough appreciation for these mammals is because a place like Sea World exists, bringing public awareness and education. Ultimately, and hopefully, this public awareness results in positive consequences for these animals, namely the global outlawing of their hunting and killing.

BLACKFISH, like most documentaries, takes an angle and must make the narrative fit its objective -complete with protagonist vs. antagonist, good vs. evil- if only the real world were that simple. For example, the New York Times reports that Kelly Flaherty Clark, who works as a curator of trainers for Tilikum, was represented in the documentary as a rather cold and cunning Sea World “suit” and was stunned by the portrayal of her testimony at an OSHA hearing -claiming the documentary was selective in a way that did not accurately represent her views.

“We sleep and breathe care of animals,” said Ms. Clark.

I believe her. It seems all those who invest themselves in these whales’ lives do so out of love and concern. There has got to be an easier way to make a buck than to tote tons of whales around.

Sea World has long left the business of capturing whales from the wild, as they now breed their own whales. (Although I could have gone my entire life without seeing a killer whale get jerked off, thank you very much…close your eyes on that one kiddos.)

Sea World has challenged the documentary with 8 assertions of misrepresentation. If you would like to read an excellent and critical dialogue concerning Sea World vs. BLACKFISH, this is a must read. For example, Sea World argues against “the accusation that (they) callously break up killer whale families.” According to this article, “Sea World does everything possible to support the social structures of all marine mammals, including killer whales.  It moves killer whales only when doing so is in the interest of their long-term health and welfare.  And despite the misleading footage in the film, the only time it separates unweaned killer whale calves from their mothers is when the mothers have rejected them.”

Don’t you hate that ‘two-sides-to-every-story’ thing? Again, I absolutely believe Sea World is in it for the money, yet I also believe they do care deeply about these animals. The former trainers actually convinced me of that.

“That is all fine,” one might contend, “then why did Sea World consistently reject requests to be interviewed for the documentary?”

I have always told my critical thinking classes that if anyone ever wants to interview you for a documentary the answer should always be no—as the success of the documentary is found in the editing bay. It is simply not a fair fight. A documentary can make anyone look as good/bad, dumb/smart, right/wrong as they want to. If I were Sea World I would have most definitely rejected the same requests. Contemporary documentaries are not about seeking truth; they are about creating compelling narratives— as a result, accuracy be damned if it ruins a good beginning, middle and end.

Our understanding of Orcas and marine life in general essentially only spans the past 30-40 years. As an example of our growing understanding, there is still a lot of debate about their life span due to the fact that our research is a relatively recent undertaking. In the 1960’s, when these now sorrowful whale hunters sought out these creatures for their marine zoos, we knew essentially nothing about them. Since this time, we have learned much about them…to the point we have studied their brains and found them to have a highly evolved communication and emotional system; perhaps even more evolved than our own.

The basic moral quandary is this: Does essentially “enslaving” (dare I say “domesticating”) a few highly intelligent animals for the purpose of raising public awareness in hopes of bringing more safety and advantage to the many, while turning a profit in the process, justify itself? Whales are not the only animals we enslave/domesticate; we enslave our dogs, cats, birds, etc. for no other reason than to bring us companionship, pleasure, and, in some cases to work for us (think seeing eye dogs). Is this morally justified? Is it animal slavery as PETA contends when they tried to sue Sea World for violating the Orcas constitutional rights? What is the difference between domesticating a highly intelligent German Shepherd for our pleasure or an Orca, other than one is much bigger? At least through domesticating the Orca it may ultimately save thousands of wild whales.

As with the solutions to most problems, there has got to be some middle ground. Why is it we need a hero and a villain? Black or white? Perhaps the villain is a bit hero and the hero a bit villain; after all, such moral ambiguity far more closely resembles real life.  The question is not whether there should be a marine zoo or not, rather, how can we change the nature of these facilities to best accommodate what we now know about these magnificent creatures?

I must confess to feeling a bit strange as a little child going to the zoo and observing animals locked up behind a cage. I would think they are either the luckiest and most fortunate animals on the planet without having to worry about their next meal or worse being another animal’s next meal; or the most miserable, enslaved and imprisoned creatures on the planet for essentially no good reason.

Apparently, I am not alone in this feeling because many zoos are transforming into mock natural habitats and rescues, moving away from the traditional zoo paradigm. Perhaps Sea World needs to follow suit.

BLACKFISH ends with several of the former trainers taking a boat out to the bay and watching Orcas swim in the wild, complete with their erect dorsal fins. It is a touching scene to be sure, yet I cannot help but drown in the thought that this tender yet powerful moment was made possible, for all parties, by Sea World.

Irony.