Notes on Blackfish

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Notes on Blackfish

Blackfish movie poster

Most people with a modicum of humanity will be heartbroken in the first 15 minutes of Blackfish, as the story is told of a young orca –soon to be named Tilikum– who is stolen from his family in a shameless act of stratagem in 1983. The heartbreak keeps on rolling as we learn of the deaths of two “trainers”, Keltie Byrne (1991) and SeaWorld senior “trainer” Dawn Brancheau (2010). As isolated news stories, these deaths may have seemed like accidents, and SeaWorld has been known to blame the deaths on “trainer” error. However, Blackfish offers us a 30-year history that places the “trainer” deaths (and several near-deaths) into a narrative that explains Tilikum’s pathology, and comprises a formula that all too clearly leads to a frustrated animal.

Much of the film’s information is disseminated via ex-SeaWorld “trainers”, along with a couple of whale experts, and one man who participated, regretfully, in the seizure of Tilikum in ’83. Regret and remorse abound, and the “trainers” themselves admit to their complicity and seem to have been under a kind of spell, towing the SeaWorld party line until they couldn’t do it any longer. Some even shed a few tears. They spoke of their personal relationships with the whales and their commitment to caring for them, whilst questioning the ethics of the situation. Can they have it both ways? Ultimately, the trainers got out, because they were free to leave. Tilikum is still there, performing tricks for smiley, heedless families daily. There is a sustained tension as we are shown footage of deaths, near-deaths, and the attempts to spin events a certain way so that people will keep buying tickets.

The film is persuasive, and for those who are not aware that keeping animals in captivity for profit and entertainment is an issue, Blackfish makes it an issue. I suspect most people will have their minds made up in the first third of the film; the rest is just useful information. If Blackfish’s objective is to persuade people to boycott SeaWorld and other marine parks, I surmise it will be largely successful. It’s as single-issue as a film could be, however. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as it does not have the effect of viewers thinking they have done their work with a simple boycott of SeaWorld.

This is where the film’s limited breadth felt insular to me. Orca whales in captivity is an important piece of a very large puzzle, and Blackfish might have taken a moment to acknowledge that, perhaps by reminding us that there are also elephants in zoos, chimps in laboratories, chickens in battery cages, pigs in gestation crates. It’s all part of the same story. Instead, the film stays (somewhat) safely inside the gates of SeaWorld. This makes sense when I consider that Blackfish aired on CNN, so a certain level of populism is to be expected. Moreover, orca whales are glamourous animals in a way, and it’s easier to get people to care about them than say, pigs, chickens, cows; the animals people eat every day. Blackfish, though commendable for its focus, did not seem interested in opening up the conversation.

It’s relatively easy for the average vacationer or tourist to not buy a ticket to SeaWorld once every few years and feel like they’ve committed an act of boycott. They don’t have to sacrifice anything. It’s much more difficult to take the empathy one feels for Tilikum and apply it to other aspects of ones life, such as diet. Babies being taken from mothers is a common occurrence in the dairy industry, and a similar vocalized mourning occurs after the loss. But removing dairy from ones diet requires much more self-reflection and discipline, I think, because it is more habituated than an occasional visit to a marine park. Had Blackfish strived to go above and beyond, it might have made these connections.

Ultimately, this is much more an orca rights film than an animal rights film, but it’s a worthy contribution. My message to readers: if you haven’t seen Blackfish, see it! And when you do, please think about the core of what bothers you about Tilikum’s story, and how you can apply that empathy to other animals whose lives (and deaths) you are connected to in ways you may not realize.

(I have placed the word “trainer” in quotation marks so as to problematize the word in this specific context, and so as not to tacitly endorse or legitimize the “training” of wild animals.)

Chris Michael Burns is a screenwriter and journalist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @toemichaelburns

  • BradMan Shepherd

    Correction: Orcas are dolphins not whales.

    • http://www.cheese.com/ John Goatbirth

      Wrong, Orcas are a toothed whale belonging to the oceanic dolphin family. They form a form a suborder of the cetacean genus.

      • BradMan Shepherd

        From the same wiki page
        “The term orca is preferred by some to avoid the negative connotations of “killer”, and because, being part of the family Delphinidae, the species is more closely related to other dolphins than to whales”.

        Also search “dolphin” in wiki and read the first few lines or just google worlds largest dolphin.
        No apology needed as its a very common mistake
        thanks for reply :)

        • http://www.cheese.com/ John Goatbirth

          Wrong. “Also known as the killer whale, the orca (Orcinus orca) is the largest member of the whale family”. Don’t try and pretend you know anything. :o)

          • BradMan Shepherd

            The blue whale is the largest whale. In fact its the largest thing ever to have lived on earth.

            The term “whale” is a generic, non scientific term, it does not actually scientifically classify a group of animals based on their taxonomy but is just used to refer to a large bodied cetacean. This is why many species of dolphins such as the killer whale are called ‘whale’ and not ‘dolphin’: melon headed whales, pilot whales, false killer whales are all members of the dolphin family but due to their size have been named whale. However, you could say that all cetaceans are whales really.
            Calling Orca’s “whales” is the same as calling humans “primates”.
            Yes, a human is a primate but they are not chimps.

            Theres this site called Google (gets its name from a googol which is a number equivalent to ten raised to the power of a hundred) which might be able to help you out.

            Obviously by your stupidest reply in internet history you really need it, also get an adult to double check comments before you hit send.

            Imagine what your going to be like when you find out a peanut isn’t a nut.

          • http://www.cheese.com/ John Goatbirth

            “Imagine what your going to be like when you find out a peanut isn’t a nut.”

            “You’re”. Moron. And YOU’RE very wrong. What an imbecile, I’m through lecturing you I have better things to be doing with my time.

          • BradMan Shepherd

            Audience which is stupider the common rushed “your, you’re”,”yaw” mistake that really stupid people live in hope of happening whenever they are getting destroyed in an argument or a guy who says “The orca (Orcinus orca) is the largest member of the whale family”.

            Now ive got better things to do then help you make yourself look really really pathetically stupid.

            A peanut is a legume by the way.

          • http://www.cheese.com/ John Goatbirth

            You’re the one who doesn’t know fundamental grammar. Fail. :o)

          • BradMan Shepherd

            I failed one word, you failed a whole species of animal multiple times.

          • http://www.cheese.com/ John Goatbirth

            Wrong. It’s not a good day for you, is it? :o)

          • BradMan Shepherd

            Its a great day because i am totally destroying you and all you can do is argue about spelling.
            Post a link to where it says i am wrong or the Orca is the largest whale. I know you cant.

            Quote “Don’t try and pretend you know anything”

            If you are going to boast about your grammatical skills try not to type stuff like this. It makes no sense what so ever.
            My replies will take longer because i’m robbing you of your only source of argument by checking for spelling mistakes. There still could be some though so there’s still hope for you.

            A moose is the worlds largest deer just thought you should know that just in case you thought it was an elephant or a cuttlefish (easily confused)

            Knockout punch….I win the internet :D

          • http://www.cheese.com/ John Goatbirth

            Wow, you have an incredible ego complex. Some sort of narcissistic disorder almost certainly.

            Here’s a good fact for you; I just took a huge stinking shit in a toilet and it reminded me of you. :o)

          • BradMan Shepherd

            And yet still no whale or dolphin facts.
            Resorting to cheap insults is the sign of a true intellect.

            Humour me and type “worlds largest dolphin” into that google site i was telling you about. If you cant find it type “google” into google and it should come up.
            Then post link to a site that doesn’t say it’s an Orca.

            Now if you cannot do this then all this petty arguing has been because you’re (nearly did it) a weak person who just can’t admit he is wrong.
            I would if i was wrong (very rare).
            I have no shame admiting i have shit gramar and make bassic speelling misteaks all the time. (< see what i did there)

            Search "misnomer" in google for more mind blowing things that are not what they are named :)

            Knock me out mate…Free shot *taps finger to side of chin"

          • http://www.cheese.com/ John Goatbirth

            Jesus, mate, you’ve got way too much time on your hands. Grow up.

          • BradMan Shepherd

            Quote: “Wrong, Orcas are a toothed whale belonging to the oceanic dolphin family”

            this is your first comment as an argument to my comment “Orcas are dolphins not whales”

            Take special note to the “oceanic dolphin family” part. Can you see how stupid your comment is??

            Now i’ve explained the term “whale” to you in plain english but i obviously used to many words now i will try and explain it like im talking to a 5 year old.

            Sharks, Goldfish both fish but you would correct someone if they said Goldshark wouldnt you??….Bald eagle, canary both birds but you would correct someone if they said Canary hawk wouldn’t you?? Do you understand??

            Have you even searched “Worlds largest dolphin”??

            You have been on here as long as me so your last comment means nothing and really “grow up”. Who’s providing facts with their arguments and who’s resorting to schoolboy insults and down votes (who even does that)?? Down votes are called “troll hugs”…Awww thanks :)

            You’re the type of tosser that would say he one a fight by repeatedly head butting the other guys fists lol

            *Yawn* its getting to easy.

            A yaw rotation is a movement around the yaw axis of a vehicle that changes the direction the vehicle is facing, to the left or right of its direction of motion.

            I had to get the third type of “your”in this thread somewhere lol :D

          • BradMan Shepherd

            Would we class “Yore” as a word still?? if it is i stand corrected and have skilfully snuck the fourth one in before the grammar nazis found out.

          • http://www.cheese.com/ John Goatbirth

            Yore is okay. Well done. However, you mentioned Nazis. Godwin’s Law. I win the internet! :o)

          • BradMan Shepherd

            Grammar nazis are different to the Nazis you are referring to but im not going to get into arguments about “Meme” origins as id destroy you in that debate as well.
            Mate im thinking you dont care at all about whales, dolphins or any living thing. You only care about dancing around the fact you are WRONG!!!!!!

      • Maryann Birdsall

        well then I guess they are “whales” until they aren’t having their teeth drilled out or filed down by “trainers” then they are dolphins? regardless watch the damn movie and STOP going to Marine parks and Aquariums or any other captive facility because it’s wrong no matter what species they are or are not!

        • http://www.cheese.com/ John Goatbirth

          You said it, girlfriend!

        • BradMan Shepherd

          I dont go to marine parks or zoos. If you check my google+ you can see some of the thousands of animals i have successfully released back into the wild. I have done volunteer work at a wildlife rescue centre for the past 15 years.
          If someone called you Maryann the chimp i would correct them and say no its “Maryann the human” even though you are both primates. You will find most animal workers do this because we try to educate the younger generation.

          • BradMan Shepherd

            I wonder if future generations would care for the critically endangered ground parrot if it was called “Puppy killing Eagle” they are still both birds so what its called doesn’t really matter….or does it??