Image Credit Brian Gurrola
It should hardly surprise anyone that the killer whales who live in SeaWorld have a less than pleasant existence. But CNN's debut of the documentary Blackfish seems to have shaken many from their complacency on the issue, as many announced in tweets and posts that they plan to boycott SeaWorld over the treatment of their orca entertainment.
This Sundance favorite tells the story of the orca Tilikum, as he was captured as a two-year-old and trained for live performances. We're told of the carelessness of his captors who left him with hostile peers and trapped him for hours a day in cramped, dark enclosures. But despite what viewers might expect, this is a film decisively about workers rights rather than animal rights.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite continually emphasizes that Tilikum was a dangerous animal, and that SeaWorld should have known it. And by the time the death toll reaches three, it's hard to disagree. But what is the message here?
If the message were that Tilikum's interests in freedom, knowing his own family, and living out a life in his natural environment were being ignored, this would have been clear without any reference to his violent outbursts. Instead, we're delivered the message that the nature of his captivity is driving him crazy and making him act out in dangerous ways, putting at risk those who work closest with him.
Perhaps. But it seems just as likely that orca are complex individuals whose behavioral patterns might at times be erratic and unpredictable to members of other species. We don't need to posit marine psychosis to explain the fact that killer whales sometimes act in surprising and predatory ways.
What Cowperthwaite wants us to see is a repressed force of nature, beautiful in its own right, struggling against the hubris of its captors. Its captors, of course, being the corporate owners of SeaWorld, not the trainers who risk their lives. In this story, the trainers are like miners working in a faulty shaft, asked to take unnecessary risks for the sake of the bottom line. They are the victims.
It's not that the orca in Blackfish are supposed to be of no moral value. Several times the audience is assured that it's wrong to keep these animals imprisoned. But much more often we're told that it is the trainers who are in danger, and that SeaWorld is needlessly imperilling its staff.
If we're to take animals seriously as a moral matter, we've got to be clear that these issues are about them. The orca in SeaWorld are suffering because we chose to take them from the wild, trained them in captivity, and watched them perform tricks for food. We have wronged them and it is our fault.
Image Credit David Nestor
But given that the vast majority of our society consumes animal products at every meal, it is no surprise that we can't help but see them as resources for our use. The fact that we think we can use sentient beings for almost any purposes, regardless of the suffering and death we inevitably inflict on them, means cases like SeaWorld are hardly unique. The only proper response is to join the moral boycott of all animal use, and go vegan.
But this animal rights message is a bit too personal to make it to the big leagues in Sundance, or on to a special CNN broadcast. Its much better to talk about the beautiful, larger-than-life creatures who are beaten down by corporate monsters of SeaWorld. That way, we don't have to consider the ways in which we routinely and needlessly use and abuse animals daily.