Why Blackfish is Misleading, Unoriginal, and Stupid
Blackfish, the Documentary About Seaworld
“See Blackfish!” they say, especially if you watch videos on YouTube featuring captive dolphins and whales. “A haunting, mesmerizing, psychological thriller,” one critic raves. The film opened to a warm reception at the Sundance Film Festival as well as probable Oscar buzz, and it was scheduled to air on CNN on October 24th.
But is everything in the recent documentary film Blackfish true?
Before the film came out, my review of the trailer was met with flagrant opposition. A few commenters offered some valuable information about the subject (which I include here) but most declared that I was ignorant and stupid for assessing a film that I hadn't seen.
When I first viewed the trailer, I found it highly unsettling and knew that many novices to the subject of animal behavior, animal welfare, and captive animal criticism would retain many unflattering, one-sided views of more than just the famed aquatic parks. Even the director of this film has stated, "We sometimes hear of dogs mauling other people, but in these cases we don't seem to hear about them attacking their masters," which is completely incorrect.
Many of the critics to my article erroneously presumed that I was also new to the subject of Seaworld, orcas in the wild, and the controversy of captive cetaceans because of my lack of emotion that matched theirs, but I’ve followed it for over three years, starting with the grisly photos of Kandu V’s death. The trailer simply embodied the debate, and that’s what I sought to respond to.
But here’s the thing—I was really providing my assessment of a mindset that is rapidly gaining momentum in our society.
Now that I have seen the film, did it haunt me, move me, or rub my nose in some truth I didn't know when I wrote the review of the trailer? No, I have seen at least 80% of the footage that Blackfish offers on Youtube. In fact, Blackfish even left a lot of things out. I found this very surprising, as I had heard that even readers of David Kirby’s Death at Seaworld would see and learn new things. After many lectures in my comments and past following of this topic, I felt as though I’ve seen this documentary before. Did I ultimately prematurely criticize Blackfish for non-existent elements with my trailer review?
Let’s review my main original points:
- Does Blackfish make the argument that orcas, which are presented as friendly and harmless to humans in the wild, attack humans because they are suffering from psychosis in captivity? (Yes.)
- Does Blackfish dedicate a large portion of its running time to exploiting the deaths of trainers (and others) for shock value even though most viewers are really only concerned with the welfare of the orcas, not humans? (Yes.)
- Did Blackfish romanticize and anthropomorphize wild orcas? (Yes.)
- Was neuroscientist Lori Marino not presented as a staunch animal rights activist and advocate, but simply as an objective animal mind researcher? (Yes, and those who were enthralled by her claim about the killer whale's "special emotional brain part" really need to read the second chapter of Are Dolphins Really Smart? by Justin Gregg.)
Was Blackfish a brilliant documentary? (No.)
All biases aside, the movie seemed to me to be of average PBS TV documentary competency. The film mainly consisted of interviews and footage which, if not seen before, might be considered emotionally powerful. Most people who would be inclined to watch this film are likely to have an emotional reaction to some of the footage, but this is absolutely no testament to the filmmaker’s directorial ability. Gabriela Cowperthwaite (the film’s director) picked a hot-button and emotional subject that features universally adored, cute, or magnificent sea animals which (unlike farm animals) we rarely hear about any harm coming towards. Due to this, it’s likely that Blackfish will receive accolades just like The Cove did, despite its banality. I found a lesser-known film that is also anti-captivity, called A Fall From Freedom (2011), to be more interesting and educational. It also deals with the same conflicts, plus others.
Orca Attacks in the Film
For inquiring minds, scroll to the end of this article to see the orca attack footage that was used in the movie. The actual attack and subsequent death of Dawn Brancheau was not shown.
Misleading Claims in Blackfish
So here we finally have it: not only did this film reinforce my previous views that I psychically deducted from only seeing its trailer, but now I have actual evidence from the film itself to add to my adverse reaction. For my first example of Blackfish’s contradictory elements, I would like to present exhibit A:
“What we’ve learned is that they’re amazingly friendly and understanding and intuitively want to be your companion, and to this day there’s no record of any orca doing any harm to a human in the wild.”
The footage where the orca is seen interacting with human children and a dog is deceptively used to justify the above quote that states orcas are amicable and respectful to humans.
In actuality, this juxtaposition is insulting to the true nature of killer whales and even unintentionally puts stock into the idea that trainers have special connections to the animals (a notion that seems to be criticized by the film).
Luna in Nootka Sound
What is not explained at all is that this footage features an abandoned, juvenile orca named Luna that was a local celebrity and was named by an 8-year-old contest winner.
Why is this significant? Orcas, like you and me, require close bonding and directional teaching in their youth. This young orca was a lost, wandering, playful child seeking socialization from anyone who would give it. In other words, this animal does not represent an average, well-adjusted-pod dwelling orca. Attempts were proposed to reintegrate Luna back into its pod, but they were impeded by the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations who considered Luna to be a reincarnation of a lost chief, and Luna was later sucked into the blades of a tugboat (due to its playfulness and lack of wariness of humans) and killed.
This orca was (ironically, despite never having been in captivity) ultimately a victim of people overly romanticizing and spiritualizing its existence.
Footage from Blackfish
The footage is touching and shows how this friendly animal made a bigger impact on people than other killer whales did.
Blackfish also makes a false claim about killer whales: That, as a whole, they are leerier of human presence and generally keep to themselves in natural conditions. The film asserts that these animals have differing lifestyles (termed "cultures"). Most of the resident orcas in the film are mainly piscivores (fish-eaters), some even opting to eat only one species of fish. There are other orcas called transients that have a much larger range and are not very well-studied, and I doubt too many people get the opportunity to get into the water with them, or would want to.
These transient ones are the orcas you see killing dolphins, seals, and baby grey whales (by prying them from their mothers, drowning them, and eating only their tongues).
Considering the fact that whales are said to be as self-aware and intelligent as orcas and dolphins, I wonder if they emit a similar crying sound, such as that we hear in the documentary (said to be one of the most depressing elements of the film) during this unfortunate ‘cultural practice’?
Blackfish criticizes SeaWorld for lying to the public, denying the animals' aggression, and perpetuating the orcas' image as a "cuddly toy” (a term used in the movie while SeaWorld's plush orca gift shop is shown). But Blackfish utilizes the same emotional manipulation to convince the viewer that the animals are normally friendly and inquisitive. The film also enhances the horror of captive orcas killing people by using Luna’s uncommon scenario out of context. It's clear that despite intensive research, the director has little understanding of animals.
The Myth of the Peaceful Orca
All too often I’ve heard and read that orcas won’t kill people in the wild. More than once I was told that Dr. Ingrid Visser routinely swims with them in New Zealand (so how harmful can they be?).
But how can we make such bloated claims about a largely little-studied species? Not only do humans seldom encounter orcas (as they tend to spend most of their time in cold or open waters), but the animals have demonstrated their ultra-conservatism in their ways of life (an important evolutionary mechanism). Orcas aren’t particularly interested in humans most of the time, nor do they have a palate for our unusual land animal flesh.
People often make an awkward comparison between orcas and sharks. But sharks are solitary and much less intelligent and are responsible for many human attacks and fatalities (given that their populations are far larger than orcas'). Sharks are present in the warm and shallow waters that humans enjoy (often being much closer than people realize), and there are up to 12 shark species that pose a risk to humans. Trainers spend significantly more time around the orcas and orcas must pay attention to them since they have their food, which is a totally different dynamic.
Pilot whale 'attack'
Therefore, I disagree with this idea of friendly orcas and their alleged refusal to attack humans in the wild. An orca attack is possible, but their lifestyles appear to make it less probable. We had no attacks by pilot whales (a species of dolphin, like orcas) until one dragged a curious snorkeler underwater off the coast of Hawaii (in a similar fashion to a featured attack in the film by the captive orca Kasatka), albeit this terrifying attack was likely to be more play-oriented.
I drill this point home because the film is asserting the idea that these normally passive animals are killing out of psychosis caused by captivity. Undoubtedly, captivity changes the behavior of animals, and this is especially true when they are acclimated to constant human presence. While I don’t doubt or deny that captive orca whales would be negatively affected by the capture processes presented in the film, or by a life where social strife cannot be alleviated by retreat, to insist that a "killer whale" kills out of psychosis is dubious. We do not nor will we ever fully understand the psychology of these animals well enough to be certain of what is going on. However, the trainers in the film gave what sounded like a reasonable explanation of why Tilikum was frustrated the day of Dawn’s death.
Blackfish Claims that Tilikum has "Killer Genes"
One of the interviewed trainers says:
“In a reputable breeding program, rule number one is that you certainly would not breed an animal that has shown a history of aggression toward humans. Imagine if you had a pit bull who had killed…that animal would have likely been put down…”
To accompany this statement is an animated graphic accompanied by whimsical carnival music to suggest the bizarre absurdity of what SeaWorld was doing. The real absurd thing is for this ex-trainer to make a comparison between an orca whale and a domesticated dog in the context of genes and behavior. Of course, the reason dogs are massively successful with humans is due to their flexible genome that dramatically shapes their traits and behavior, and this trait is not shared by all animals. For instance, you cannot breed away a spotted genet’s extreme aversion to human handling (and this is why they failed to become a popular pet), and cognitively complex animals such as elephants make even poorer subjects of domestication.
Hey, remember me?
Not only was that statement stupid, but it contradicts the main message of the film—that a killer whale's killing is a surefire indication of so-called psychosis (defined as abnormal behavior) instead of the unpredictability of a wild animal. While I’m no expert in genetics, genes do not code for so-called captivity-induced "madness." If I am onboard with the idea that captivity-stress is the cause of the killing (as it could be), why would this trainer suggest that a more placid male orca’s sperm would be a better way to carry out the breeding program? Would this orca be genetically immune to captivity-stress and pass that on to its offspring?
Blackfish predictably ends with an interview suggesting that the callousness of families who obtain enjoyment from seeing animals up close in captivity is the real crime. While this documentary is about orca whales, discussions about other captive animals are absent, and the overarching message remains ambiguous. Instead, it closes with a romantic shot of a trainer taking a trek to see wild orcas and exclaiming how tears began to well up in his eyes.
I’ve never seen orcas in the wild, but I have been whale-watching to see humpbacks, and I didn't have this reaction. Ironically, this form of tourism, bound to increase when people start seeing animal parks as sinister, is more likely to negatively impact wild orca populations.
What is Blackfish right about?
I’m of course not going to claim that Blackfish is entirely inaccurate or useless. It may surprise some that since I was young and forced to watch them, I’ve always abhorred killer whale and dolphin shows. I've always preferred seeing fish and animal exhibits without performances and cheesy music.
I’ve always felt that SeaWorld would do a better job presenting the animals in a more educational context such as is done in more traditional zoos. Regardless, the park clearly strives to be a leader in entertainment, competing with the Disneyland parks that are within close proximity of the Orlando location. I do not dispute the claims of SeaWorld glossing certain elements over, such as the danger element of working with the animals or the nature of the attacks that took place, nor am I equipped to. I will have to take their word regarding lot of what was said in the movie, such as Tilikum being the main perpetrator of the attack in Sealand of the Pacific and his even more cryptic role in the death of a person who broke into the park.
I also know that SeaWorld did skew some things closer to my understanding, such as the natural lifespan of orcas (in the documentary, it is stated they can live up to 100 years or even more, however the NOAA Fisheries website states that 30 is “typical” for males and 50 for females, with both capable of reaching 60-90, so I’m not sure why it is said that this is similar to a human’s lifespan or why the person being interviewed started with the jarring number of 100).
I understand the type of public relations tactics that are necessary to keep a business afloat. I do believe and have argued in the past that while working with these massive carnivores is clearly potentially life-threatening, this danger is not unique. Any person working with any large carnivorous animal (or even those that aren’t, such as elephants) is also at risk. In my mind, it is up to the public to decide with what and how someone can choose to risk their lives, and I guess that’s what took place. Blackfish introduced me to only one really surprisingly thing, that the trainers did not have to train for very long before getting in the water with the animals. What is a perfectly valid criticism is that in trainers, television personalities and good looks should not be valued over experience, animal behavior awareness, and intelligence.
Animals in Captivity
Some animals do well in captivity, and others don't. This is the most important thing to remember after seeing Blackfish. I would say that some animals may even thrive, others do okay, and some have major conflicts. For killer whales in captivity, I believe that what impacts them even more than space constraints is social imbalance and the breaking up of family groups. It might dawn on some viewers that while killer whales are clearly living in a tiny fraction of space (compared to the thousands of miles that they have in nature), this limitation also applies to every non-sessile animal in captivity.
This has contributed to the spread of anti-zoo and pet criticism. This subject is not so simplistic. Most zoo animals show the signs of having sufficient well-being, given that the enclosure size is adequate ("small" compared to the wild but sufficient anyway), enrichment is effective, and the five freedoms are met. It is a complex subject that I will examine in more depth in other articles.
Can SeaWorld improve?
Recently I've warmed up to SeaWorld. They announced that they have employed a killer whale treadmill, something similar to an endless swimming pool for humans, that may offer a new and enriching way for the animals to feel like they are swimming long distances. This has expectedly met a lot of misguided criticism. This device is certainly not going to simulate life in the wild, but it has the potential to give the animals exercise, a new stimulating way to play, and perhaps even offer a distraction from negative social strife.
My comments may be interpreted as a defense of captive cetaceans, but I simply would like to see captivity improve as much as possible. The release of most of the captive orcas is impractical and SeaWorld can no longer capture healthy dolphins from the ocean (a fact I do not believe is mentioned in the film).
The idea of releasing the animals into sea pens is promoted by most activists as the most humane option for non-resalable animals. We are lectured about this at the film’s conclusion, but it could also prove deadly for animals whose immune systems are not accustomed to ocean water. There is a presumption that captive animals yearn for the open ocean.
I am hopeful about SeaWorld’s attempt to find new ways to enrich their animals' lives and hope it continues. This attitude might also benefit other captive animals. Most of the detractors want to see SeaWorld disappear, and that, of course, would also erase their rehabilitation programs, which include the releases of manatees. It would also render thousands of animals that are not all poorly cared for homeless.
That is a pretty destructive and dumb wish for anyone to have, in my opinion. Many have emphasized the fact that orca breeding won't last in the long run and exists on borrowed time, due to the lack of genetic diversity. I wonder why people invest so much emotion in an issue that concerns about 48 orcas (32 captive-bred) where the problem may eventually resolve itself. The main thing that people should remember is that captivity can always improve, while nature, which is not perfect, cannot.
For those who’ve said that Blackfish succeeds as a “psychological thriller,” did we see the same movie? Perhaps to those completely unfamiliar with reality, the movie will seem shocking, and that's probably where most of the emotional reaction stems from. This film doesn’t leave much room for free thought, and instead assaults the naïve viewer with an incomplete perspective, while also encouraging a flawed view of zoological facilities and animals in general.
Blackfish reinforces no novel arguments in the noisy captive cetacean debate, but rather just re-illustrates them in 2013 HD.