Friday, April 25, 2014


Blackfish (2013)
Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite


Here’s a little lighthearted fun for ya: A slick, lugubrious bit of documentary muckraking about a SeaWorld killer whale who seems to have humans pretty high up on his kill list. Following the death of one of his trainers, Sea World took the stance that it was an unavoidable tragedy which was caused by trainer error. BLACKFISH director Gabriela Cowperthwaite disagrees, and instead offers a counterargument that starts decades ago and leads along a twisted path of animal abuse, willful ignorance, corporate greed, and violent death. It’s basically the HANNIBAL RISING of whale docs.

SeaWorld begs to differ, of course, and has offered a detailed point-by-point refutation to the film, which the filmmakers subsequently refuted themselves. SeaWorld claims to have lost 15.9 million bucks last year in declining attendance, the filmmakers take credit for a job well done while SeaWorld gets to work suing them and anyone involved with the film. Meanwhile, the family of the poor trainer who ended up whale food meekly points out that their daughter saw her work and her employer pretty differently than the movie which revolves around her death does.

Who’s telling the truth here? Hard to say. The movie is devilishly effective at constructing a convincing and emotionally gripping narrative to make its case, and it’s hard to ignore. And of course, SeaWorld is a big corporation which can almost certainly be counted on to be up to no good, with a huge media machine to fire up in its defense. But predictably, the filmmakers aren’t exactly playing fair, either. Several of the people interviewed as experts were previously in a PETA lawsuit which attempted to legally force the release of the killer whales under the auspices of the 13th Ammendment. That’s right, whale slavery. So suddenly I’m not so sure their testimony in this movie represents anything which might be called “informed” from a technical standpoint.

That's right, I'm out here and you're stuck in a cage. What're you gonna do about it, eat me?

Whenever you see this kind of public battle over the basic facts, things get a little weird. The film begins with a 911 call, in which you can hear an EMT guy describing the state of trainer Dawn Brancheau’s corpse upon his arrival to the scene. The dispatcher asks about her arm, he says that it has been removed by the whale. But SeaWorld says: “the film includes a recording of an EMT technician, subsequently proved to be mistaken, suggesting that Tilikum swallowed Ms. Brancheau’s arm during the incident. This is false.“ Now, I don’t claim to be an expert in medicine, but usually it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 100% clear to me if someone’s arm is or is not attached. That’s not the kind of thing you can really be “mistaken” about, assuming you have two eyes or at least a working pair of hands. Clearly, something about one of these stories doesn’t quite add up.

The typical bullshit media thing to do in this kind of situation is to go for the, “well, the truth is somewhere in the middle” safe zone. I’m against that, because of course the truth is an objective thing, if someone’s lying it doesn’t make it any truer because someone else is actually telling the truth to balance it out. This approach has turned our media landscape into a nightmarish mess of spin, distortion, and shameless narrative-building by those who are best served by obfuscating reality from the people who might object to the truth. But in a case like this, it does become pretty hard to know exactly what to believe. Clearly, BLACKFISH is playing as much of a PR game as SeaWorld is, they barely even make an effort to appear unbiased. It’s mudslinging, emotionally manipulative propaganda, but that also doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth here, too.

SeaWorld wants to debate the details, i.e. whether the arm was literally severed and eaten or not. Fair enough, I’m certain there are instances in the film where it plays somewhat loose with the details. One of the most heartrending sequences --in which an old hippie is nearly reduced to tears remembering his role in capturing a baby whale and basically kidnapping it while its mother attempted to protect it-- definitely implies that this practice, not used by SeaWorld in more than 30 years, still represents an industry standard. It’s misleading, although to be fair not exactly untrue, since that is, indeed, how the killer whale in question entered the whale-display industry. Some of Seaworld’s criticisms of the film seems valid in this way, particularly since the SeaWorld employees interviewed in the film have repudiated it, saying the filmmakers took their comments out of context. It’s pretty easy to see how that would be the case.

Yeah, and it didn't help that the acid started to kick in right then.

If that was all there was to it, we could fight about the minutiae all day long and in the end, SeaWorld would almost certainly win purely based on the possibility that someday an Alien probe may come to Earth and demand whalesong or the Earth will be destroyed, and it’ll really be handy to have a couple of the big fellas conveniently located in a tank with speakers. Shatner’s getting a little old to do that much swimming, so in terms of protecting the Earth from alien menace, keeping whales in captivity seems like a good plan. But what all this quibbling over the details misses (or perhaps tactfully avoids) is that the film’s central message is more philosophical than muckraking: the film makes a claim that whales are intelligent, social animals with a complex familial life, and that keeping them in tanks is cruel to the point of causing severe psychological damage, tantamount to locking a human being in a tiny cage with two or three other strangers and expecting them to be happy.

That opens a whole different can of sardines, because it asks us to try and judge what circumstances make a killer whale happy, and, indeed, if that’s even a meaningful question to ask about such a creature. I mean, it’s abundantly clear that these whales are highly intelligent by any metric that we want to put to them. Of course, so are octopuses(i?), so are pigs. Whales have a highly complex social structure, but so so ants. Heck, so do dogs. Is keeping a dog in a smallish backyard really that different from keeping a whale in a tank?

The question becomes, does the fact that whales are highly intelligent and social (as defined by people, of course) entitle them to special treatment? I mean, I doubt that most of the people interviewed in the film would object to swatting an annoying mosquito*; probably most also don’t object to at least some variety of animal domestication; a few are probably not even vegetarians. So why and how do we create our sliding scale of responsibility to animals? Insects can be killed with impunity, pigs can be kept in pens, dogs should be treated better than we treat a lot of humans, and whales are exempt from the whole lot: you can’t kill ‘em, cage ‘em, or domesticate them, at least as far as BLACKFISH is concerned. Intelligence is clearly a factor here: the movie panders to our empathy for how a human would feel in the same situation, kidnapped from its home and forced into a tiny cage with frightening strangers. But that only raises further questions: can we meaningfully deduce the way these events are interpreted by killer whales and correctly assume the parallels are at least on some level analogous to human experience? It’s clear that whales protect their offspring, for example, and become stressed when parent and child are separated. But would their experience of this scenario be psychologically similar enough to a human for us to call such an act cruelty?

OK lady, geez, we won't make you perform in a circus environment anymore.

I sometimes get irritated with my lefty friends for anthropomorphizing their animals in a way which feels a bit intellectually dishonest to me. Ascribing human emotions to animals is such an easy, natural thing to do, because animals so clearly do display different emotional states, just like we do, so it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that it’s the same thing. It’s so easy to say, “my dog is happy because she loves me!” and believe it, because you feel affection in that way. But let’s take a moment to also consider that your dog will spend hours on end barking incessantly at a mop. The point is, animals see the world in a radically different way which --to me, anyway-- is probably so entirely alien to us that it’s a mistake to imagine we can identify with it. Wolves, after all, have complex familial pack structures and obviously nuanced interpersonal relationships. But if they sense weakness in one of their own, they will kill the shit out of him or her and not give a good god damn. Whatever it was they “feel” for each other, it’s not something that you or I would experience as “love.” That doesn’t mean it’s inherently not important just because it’s not comparable to a familiar human experience, but I still think its an important distinction to make. Pretending otherwise, and --indeed-- imagining you can really know what an animal is experiencing and why… well, that seems starkly wrongheaded to me. It’s funny, because the anti-SeaWorld people in this documentary rightly criticize the SeaWorld trainers for believing they have this intense, positive personal relationship with the whales (who go on to kill several of them). But then they also claim to know what the whale is thinking, and that it’s depressed, traumatized, even psychotic**. Clearly someone is wrong here, if not both parties; but the real reason we’ll never know is that there’s no way to measure it, since they both stubbornly couch all this in terms of human thought and emotion, asking “How would you like it if…” questions. Jeez, I don’t know, dude. I’m not a whale.

Free Willy... before he frees you. From being alive.

So OK, animals do not experience the world in the same way humans do, and although they do clearly have “feelings” they’re likely so alien to a human way of thinking that comparing them is probably not productive. They’re also less intelligent than us, by any metric we want to put to them (although of course, it probably helps that we get to define what intelligence means, and measure it by human standards in comparison to humans. Kinda convenient that the people who designed the measurements just happened to end up the highest scorers). But that doesn’t exactly let us off the hook when it comes to our responsibilities towards animals. It just means that it can sometimes be unclear how other species are best served, what a proper relationship ought to be.

So where does that leave us with the SeaWorld folks? I’m not sure. I do know that any time you keep a gigantic predatory animal in close contact with humans, there is some inherent risk. The movie suggests that the trainers are somehow not aware of this, which I find hard to believe but not absolutely outside the realm of possibility. If they really don’t know, let me settle this for them right now. SeaWorld trainers, and, indeed, anyone who works training massive animals which are vastly stronger and larger than you: YOU ARE DEALING WITH A MASSIVE ANIMAL MUCH STRONGER AND LARGER THAN YOU. ALTHOUGH YOU MAY BE LABORING UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT YOU CAN PREDICT ITS ACTIONS, IT IS A LIVING THING AND THEREFORE YOU CANNOT, AT LEAST NOT WITH CERTAINTY. IT WILL NOT SPARE YOU BECAUSE OF LOVE, THAT’S NOT HOW THIS WORKS. Somebody needs to get these guys a copy of GRIZZLY MAN. Or at least ZOO. That shit ain’t 100% safe, and it ain’t ever gonna BE 100% safe. But. Then we need to also remember that lots of stuff we do is unsafe. Driving racecars is unsafe, touring the country with a metal band is unsafe, walking on a highwire between the two world trade centers is unsafe. But we still do those things, because we like them, and we like watching them


OK, so the safety issue is taken care of. But what about poor Tilikum, then? People can choose to work around dangerous animals, but the big guy doesn’t really get a choice about whether or not he’d like to be in whale prison. And he can’t really tell us one way or another what he thinks about it (unless eating his trainers should be taken as a hint). But as much ambiguity as there is around what exactly whales are thinking and what our responsibility to them is, there is one thing which is definitely clear in my mind: there may be a fuzzy gray area in the middle, but there is still a clear distinction between responsibly using animals for food and labor and subjecting them to horrific torture. I mean, I eat animals, I don’t feel bad about it, it’s nature. But on the other hand, if to get to my plate you had to take a chicken and rip off its beak to prevent if from mauling the other chickens stuffed into a tiny box with it and then drown it in antibiotics to prevent sickness from the appalling sanitary conditions resulting from the crowding… well, I got a pretty big problem with that. And I don’t even like chickens, but I know horrific torture when I see it. That’s blatant, brazen cruelty and frankly there’s no other way to see it. I don’t have to know what the chicken is thinking to know it doesn’t like that. So while I’ll allow for a good bit of personal leeway, there’s got to be some point where it just becomes obvious that we’ve gone way too far.

Obviously, the whales at SeaWorld are treated better than factory-farmed chickens. Even so, BLACKFISH offers some pretty shocking footage: whales “raking” each other with their teeth and turning the water into a bloody mess, and then being kept separated in tiny cages to prevent further injury. Even setting aside the filmmaker’s other points about severely shortened lifespans and troubling physical changes (drooping dorsal fins, for example, which they assert occur only in captive whales) as potentially misleading (though I notice SeaWorld does not refute those claims) I just can’t help but feel like the basic scenario doesn’t survive the “horrific torture” test. We moved past concrete boxes decades ago in zoos, how come Seaworld didn’t get the memo? The lady who describes it as essentially a "circus environment" is pretty hard to argue with, and I don't think anyone really continues to labor under the impression that circus animals are happy with their lot in life.

Then how do you explain that you've captured... my attention?

I don’t think SeaWorld is inherently evil, and in fact I think they do a lot of good to get people excited about nature and to spread positive messages about conservation. But there’s enough evidence in this movie for me to concede that at least on some level there’s a compelling responsibility to pressure private whale owners to give their wards a significantly better living environment. You can still train them to jump and touch a red ball and whatnot, just give them more room to live and a bit more stimulation when no one in a wetsuit is around. Give them a bit of life beyond their utility to humans. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, guys, right? I think that’s a practical solution which ought to please everyone and address the concerns of all relevant parties, and as such will almost certainly make everyone involved angry.

It’s funny, though, because even with that judgement, I feel like the biggest flaw of BLACKFISH is not a claim that it makes, but rather something it doesn't address. There are, what, maybe a hundred or so captive Killer whales in the whole world? Yeah, we oughtta take better care of ‘em, but one thing the film oddly never seems interested in is the whales in the wild. They’re the ones I’m really worried about. I have no idea if performing before crowds is psychologically healthy for captive Tillikum, but I can damn well tell you that the world’s oceans are in absolutely shameful shape. Overfishing is spiraling further and further out of control every day, chemicals and climate change are bringing the fragile reef ecosystems of the world to the brink of utter disaster, large-scale pollution has turns thousands of miles of ocean into fetid garbage dumps, and many kinds of marine life are being pushed towards extinction. If we can’t bring ourselves to deal with the horrific way we’ve treated the natural world and all the creatures in it, it’s gonna end up a moot point if Tillikum is emotionally satisfied by the size of his cage, because that’s gonna be the only option for him. We’re going to be facing irrevocable losses of sealife on an absolutely monumental scale which will require significant changes in human behavior. It’s important to be good stewards of animals on a small scale while they’re in captivity, but unless we can come to terms with the deplorable conditions we’ve tolerated for the world writ large, it’s not gonna mean much in the long run. For better or worse, human are now stewards of the planet as a whole, not merely the animals we keep in cages. If we’re morally responsible for those animals who depend on us for their care, we’re equally responsible for the well being of those whose entire environment we’re reshaping in our own image, and it’s time we started acting like it.

Anyway, my point is that BLACKFISH is an interesting movie, but it would be a better name for a death metal band. Thank you for your attention, there will be no encore.

*Would they draw the line at a Mansquito?

**Perhaps taking a cue from Herzog’s questions about psychotic penguins in ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD.