Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Exposing the for-profit prison industry -- of orcas

Blackfish (2013) is a powerful and deeply disturbing documentary about the amazing whales known as orcas or killer whales, and the story of orcas in captivity.

The documentary centers around the life of a captive male orca named Tilikum, who was taken from the wild at a young age and turned into a performance whale.  The film explores the impact that decades of captivity and confinement have on the whale, and the tragic consequences.

The story of the capture of killer whales in the wild is heartbreaking, especially when the film documents the extraordinary loyalty and affection that orcas demonstrate within their family units (pods).  The scenes of the capture of baby orcas shown during the film is particularly disturbing in light of the descriptions given by Howard Garrett, an orca researcher and the co-founder and director of the Orca Network (bio on this page), beginning at about the 24:00 mark into the film (he can also be seen in the trailer clip above at about 1:09).  He explains:
They live in these big families.  And they have lifespans very similar to human lifespans.  The females can live to about a hundred, maybe more; males to about fifty or sixty.  But -- the adult offspring never leave their mother's side.  
Each community has a completely different set of behaviors.  Each has a complete repertoire of vocalizations -- with no overlap.  You could call them 'languages.'  The scientific community is reluctant to say any other animal but humans uses languages, but -- there's every indication that they use languages. 
Note that these aspects of orca society correlate very strongly with scientific research discussed in this earlier blog post entitled "Dolphins and Consciousness," in which dolphins appear to call to one another using specific "names" -- indicating that dolphins are aware of the individual identities of other dolphins, and that they are aware of their own identity as well.

Several scenes in Blackfish seem to demonstrate the same thing in killer whales -- only instead of the cries of joy and recognition which were recorded in the dolphin study, these orcas are seen issuing plaintive cries of bereavement and grief when their children or their mothers are taken from them.

The behavior of the orcas when being rounded up for capture indicates highly intelligent awareness and even levels of tactics which seem to indicate conscious thought -- and to indicate that the whales had learned from previous encounters with humans and formed plans that might be effective based on what they had seen before (Herman Melville described the same sort of deliberate tactical planning in Moby Dick):

Blackfish also centers its focus on the tragic loss of life of two young trainers when Tilikum deliberately seizes them and drags them under the waters of the tank -- incidents which took place at two different theme parks in two different countries, twenty years apart.  Another young person was apparently killed  when he snuck into the park and stayed overnight, and decided to enter Tilikum's tank.  It also focuses on the horrible death of another young trainer in a similar incident with a killer whale at a park in the Canary Islands, as well as other non-fatal attacks which are shown in horrifying video footage.  

The poignant reflections of former trainers who participated in performances with those whales and who now regret the treatment of these intelligent mammals by the theme-park industry is juxtaposed with callous and blatantly false statements and court testimony from the theme park's corporate representatives and executives, who are seen changing their story several times to try to cover up the systemic problems inherent in keeping orcas in captivity for decades and making them perform for handfuls of fish.  One of the park's representatives goes so far as to speak for the deceased trainer and say that if she were speaking today she would insist that the attack was her fault.

Blackfish is an important film on many levels.  

The film's ability to convey the absolutely eye-opening information about the sentience and level of individual care and affection which seems to characterize the relationships that these majestic animals form with one another is a tremendous achievement in and of itself.  

The bravery of the former trainers (and former whale-hunters) who told their stories, and who were big enough to admit in front of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people that what they did in the past, which at the time they thought was right, they now see as being wrong, is also profoundly moving.  

The expose of the cruelty of an industry which places animals in captivity for its own profit, and which forces the most intelligent of those animals to perform for audiences, and then tries to argue that the life these sentient beings have is better than what they would have in the wild, should ignite a firestorm of outrage and lead to people demanding change, as well as a lot of self-reflection as to how we (each of us) could ignore and even support such inhumanity without so much as a second thought.

But the film raises questions that go even beyond these.  The more we reflect on it, the more doors it seems to open onto other aspects of modern life which should elicit some soul-searching.  

The film's up-close profile of orcas might cause us to examine our whole relationship with animals, and the world-view which sees their exploitation for entertainment or a host of other purposes as completely acceptable simply because of their position in the "food chain."  For other posts which touch on some of these issues, see here and here.

The evidence presented in the film of callous attempts by corporate representatives to cover-up and sugar-coat the full truth surrounding the tragic deaths of the young trainers who were working for their company "on the front lines" (so to speak) invokes uncomfortable parallels with other hierarchical structures in which those at the top display little or no loyalty to those at the bottom of the pyramid.  The company's willingness to blame the trainers who lost their lives, saying it was their mistake alone and in no way indicates any kind of a systemic problem, is despicable -- but it is sadly not unfamiliar.  Readers of Tom Wolfe's classic nonfiction examination of the test pilot programs of the 1950s and 1960s, The Right Stuff, will find the automatic institutional blame of the deceased victim to be eerily familiar (and more recent examples could be mentioned, but viewers of Blackfish can probably come up with several on their own).

Finally, for all of us who have enjoyed killer whale shows -- either as children growing up or as parents taking our children to see them -- the film causes some very uncomfortable reactions.  Those shows cannot be all bad, can they?  There is something very magical about the interaction of human beings with wild animals, especially wild animals who are as beautiful and intelligent as orcas (or dolphins, or elephants).  But the revelation that these shows are built on a foundation of absolute imprisonment and exploitation of those majestic creatures is unavoidable after watching Blackfish.  

The cognitive dissonance that this realization generates should cause us to question what else in our world we accept uncritically -- hypnotized perhaps by the glamorous costumes, the thrilling music, the grandiose spectacle -- but which is actually built upon a foundation of absolute imprisonment and exploitation?