Imagine being stolen from your family at an early age, forced to live in close quarters with people from different cultures from your own, attacked by those same people on a daily basis, kept cooped up in tiny living spaces with little stimulation outside of routine tasks, and subjected to brutal training techniques. Imagine being denied your freedom for years on end. In short, imagine being forced to live like a prisoner, or a slave. What would happen to you emotionally and psychologically?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film "Blackfish" is a shattering documentary, a horror show that details how killer whales are treated in just this sort of manner. In the case of Tilikum, a male orca who has contributed to the procreation of about half of SeaWorld’s killer whales over the last few decades, separation from his pod at age two, followed by a brutalizing existence in enclosed spaces with hostile females from other pods, may have created such a stressful situation that his frustration has, from time to time, gotten the best of him.
Killer whales -- called "blackfish" by some indigenous American peoples -- are not actually killers in the wild... at least, not of human beings. But orcas living in captivity have been involved in a number of attacks on human beings, and four deaths -- with three of those deaths seeming to involve Tilikum. The most recent fatality was SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, in 2010, when Tilikum dragged the experienced, highly skilled trainer into the water. The attack was nothing as easy as simply holding Brancheau under; the post-mortem detailed horrific injuries.
Next to a killer whale, a human being is extremely frail, and extremely vulnerable. Though both species are mammals, humans are not adapted for life in the water; moreover, Tilikum weighs 12,000 pounds (about five and a half metric tons), and measures 22 feet -- nearly seven meters -- in length. The devastating physical destruction he inflicted on Brancheau seems, to us, almost imponderable; to an animal as large and powerful as Tilikum, however, our frames are puny, and our flesh all too delicate.
That’s not to say that Tilikum is an unthinking, brute beast. Cowperthwaite’s film gives us plenty of evidence that orcas are smart, capable of strategic thought and deep family and social bonds. These are animals that not only have a sense of identity; they also have a sense of extreme empathy with their pod-mates.
Interviews with orca hunters and trainers re-confirm again and again the intelligence and sensitivity of orcas, and underscore the intolerable cruelty to which they have been subjected, especially when they were first taken from the wild. One sequence details a hunt that occurred in 1970, when adult orcas executed a clever feint in an attempt to divert hunters in fast boats and protect their young; when that tactic failed, and the hunters scooped up the young, the parents lingered at the scene, frantic and unable to rescue their offspring.
In Tilikum’s case, there’s a detailed history of trauma preceding his first deadly attack on a human trainer, which took place at Sealand of the Pacific in Vancouver. (The following year, Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld, where two more deaths followed: The first in 1999, when an unauthorized member of the public gained access to the holding pen where Tilikum spent his nights; then Brancheau, three years ago.) Among other things, Tilikum was lumped, as a juvenile male, with several females, who proceeded to maul him almost nightly. (Orcas are a matriarchal species.) Making matters worse, there’s a downside to the deep bonding orcas make with their own pod-mates: They don’t necessarily get along well with orcas from other pods. The stress from a life in captivity in and of itself seems to affect orcas, cutting their life spans in half. None of this was taken into consideration back in the day because little, if any, of it was known. But now that these facts have come to light, not much of substance seems to have changed.
It’s this kind of thing -- the abduction of the young especially -- that fills the sympathetic viewer with rage for his own kind. What we learn around these issues paints a portrait of corporate practices in which whales aren’t the only victims of management; so are the trainers, whose lives, it’s suggested, are put at risk by company higher-ups who know more about the dangers than they let on. (SeaWorld’s first and most consistent impulse, as presented here, is to blame the killed and injured trainers for their fates; indeed, we hear the emergency services call that was placed after Brancheau’s death, and the caller seems to go out of her way to blame the victim for being in the wrong place at the time of the attack.) In a lawsuit, OSHA pursued, and secured, changes: Trainers cannot be in the water with whales for SeaWorld’s shows. That, too, seems wrong, because when trainer and whale mesh, they create spectacles of beauty that are all the more gripping for the overt bond they share.
Cowperthwaite’s documentary presents a complicated set of interconnected problems with no easy solution -- unless, of course, we want to discontinue presenting marine life to crowds of appreciative human beings altogether. In a smaller, less systematically plundered world, that might be an option; but that’s not the world we live in. With oceans and the creatures that live in them increasingly at risk, entities like SeaWorld have their place: They can educate even as they entertain. The trick lies in learning how to allow our cetacean fellow creatures to be well-tended ambassadors, rather than cute trained animals at risk for mishandling and neglect. The trainers interviewed in this film know this: None of them seems to hold a grudge against Tilikum. Instead, they express the most profound concern, and even regret, about what we have done to Tilikum and his kind.