I’m under orders to write this.
After watching CNN’s documentary Blackfish, my son told me to give it five stars on Netflix’s rating board and then write something really complimentary about it on the Internet.
If you missed it when CNN aired it earlier this week, then I really do highly recommend the film. I had never been comfortable with the idea of orcas in captivity. I told my wife this before we took our children to Sea World. Just knowing that orcas’ natural range is thousands upon thousands of miles of open ocean, I couldn’t imagine that it was justifiable to enclose them in such small pools for display. “It would be like locking a lion in a closet,” I would say. Especially given their exceptional intelligence, I had serious reservations about patronizing a park that displayed them.
But we were won over by Sea World’s contributions to conservation and by their assertions that the trainers developed tight bonds with the animals in their care. And, just as they are supposed to, our visits to Sea World provoked awe and wonder in my young children, fueling their curiosity and empathy for these incredible creatures.
That same empathy that was on display as they teared up while watching Blackfish.
It’s a double-edged sword. Two generations of Americans have come to know killer whales through the Shamu shows and promotion of Sea World, but it’s that very familiarity that helps us see now how wrong it is to hold these animals under those conditions.
To be sure, there are things we learned watching Blackfish that I hadn’t known, things that would have kept me from entering the Sea World gates. The stories of calves being separated from their mothers and the almost indescribable grief of those mothers as they wailed for their offspring convinced me we were wrong to ever give Sea World a single dollar–much less the hundreds we’ve spent there during our three visits over the years (one to each park).
It makes me ashamed of our other touristy interactions with marine mammals. We swam with dolphins in the Bahamas. Were we accomplices to their imprisonment? I remember the stories told to us there: that the dolphins themselves were rescued after Katrina and the assurances from the trainer who led our visit that “they don’t do anything they don’t want to do.”
And they sound just like the platitudes from the Sea World representatives, so many of whom report in the documentary that they look back with regret and shame for their role in the enslavement of these animals.
And it is slavery that is the nearest analogy I can find. Imagine being snatched away from your family–from right before their eyes as they call to you, not fleeing the threat as most animals would, but crying out in painful voices, helpless to assist you against your captors–and then being transported to a strange cell, perhaps the size of a small bedroom, where you are dropped into the midst of several other prisoners like you, but none of whom speak your language, and then, to earn your food, you must perform tricks for gawkers on the other side of the bars.
Such is the life of an orca in captivity. We know now that they are beings of intelligence, with their own languages and culture, and yet business interests have shuffled them around the map like interchangeable inventory to keep the shows running smoothly.
And that is the other theme that crashes out from the images of Blackfish. You are struck not only by how complex and deserving of their rights these creatures are, but also by how destructive corporate greed can be. Babies–who in the wild would have remained part of their mother’s social group for all of their nearly hundred year life span–being ripped apart from their families because their close bonds through off the rhythm of scheduled performances, all so they can continue their sad life of involuntary showmanship in some other tiny pool, a life that in captivity will be only a fraction of what it might be in nature. All of this, so that Sea World can sell plush Shamu dolls.
There are two forces writing our history–a history that, thanks to the scale of our global civilization, we now share with all the other beings of this world. Those forces are power and empathy. Two push-pull forces scribing every moment that ticks away. Here, they write yet another story of a corporation behaving inhumanely–if not inhumanly–to serve the profit motive, to bow before the power of the dollar.
Yet, the documentary Blackfish shows another side of us, of humans. Throughout the film, former trainers speak out against holding orcas captive. Its last scenes are first of protesters demanding the release of the animals, to the ocean for those young enough to manage and to sheltered coves for those too old to survive in the wild, and then of the former trainers boarding a boat to visit orcas in the wild, to watch them move majestically through their native habitat, the only way our species should ever appreciate their beauty.
Sea World doesn’t want us to see it that way. They don’t want us to see this documentary. In fact, the single salient response of this organization through every incident when one of these whales has rebelled and lashed out against its captors has been denial, obfuscation, and spin.
As in the human world, stripping power from others and hoarding it for yourself always requires a willful blindness, and for Sea World to perpetrate this on its customers, it has tried to maintain an illusion so that it can keep the money flowing and so its patrons will love the sight of its performing animals without ever really feeling empathy for their actual plight.
I allowed it to happen to me, too. I knew better. I knew it couldn’t be right, but I let a slick marketing machine gloss over the crime beneath what was happening right before my eyes–and those of my children.
The sins of the world are always being perpetrated like that–half hidden by the machinations of those who are exploiting others, and the other half concealed by the willful indifference of those of us who look the other way.