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.)