Zoos have always made me uneasy. As a kid, I remember feeling so saddened that these animals had been captured in the wild and placed inside cages to live out their lives. The animals never really looked happy to me. If you are like me, Blackfish will evoke the same sad and enraging feelings that animal exploitation has always summoned.
Emotionally evocative-inducing anger, frustration, and sadness-and psychologically thrilling, the film beautifully sheds light on the dark world of orca captivity. Centered on the death of an experienced trainer by one of Sea World's whales, Dawn Brancheau, Blackfish points out the dangerous consequences of raising and training whales in captivity, for both humans and whales alike.
As a scholar in a mostly anthropocentric field, the film struck me by first pointing out that orca whales exist within their own social contexts in their natural marine habitats. Each pod has its own distinct behaviors, cultural norms, and language (though as an orca expert in the film points out, "scientists are reluctant to recognize this fact"). When these animals are stripped from their families and transported to distant pools to live and perform for our benefit, it no doubt causes a sort of "psychosis" and emotional trauma in the whales (at least there isn't any doubt in my mind). One expert featured in Blackfish, a neuroscientist, stated that MRIs of whale brains showed that they have a more highly developed region of the brain that is responsible for emotive processes than do human beings.. This, she says, tells us minimally that orcas have emotions just like human beings, We can only assume that just like us when we are stripped from our families with no warning or forethought, whales grieve when they suffer the loss of loved ones.
Yet is it any surprise that people don't really care about this so much when it is time for their semi-annual trip to Sea World? It is only in recent human history that we've come to the point of POSSIBLY claiming that everyone at least knows that they should have compassion for their fellow human beings whether black, brown, yellow, or green. Before the movie premiered at my local independent movie theater/coffee shop, I overheard some a conversation between two individuals working that caused me to shutter a bit.. The male interlocutor commented that he "hated the poster for the movie" and that he also "hated the title." His female conversation partner thought it a bit silly too. He went on to add that he also "hated how people were going to come out of the movie all enraged, like look at what they are doing to those fish!" He thought the movie to be highly sensationalist. It just goes to show how little many people actually give a damn about anything outside of themselves. At the same time it shows something of interest to me and my work: The social, political, and cultural system in which you live matters in how you relate to those beings and things in your non-human environment. Blackfish, is what the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest called these majestic beings and they had much respect and admiration for them. They would never thing to speak of them with such triviality as the man I overheard. This isn't to say that they didn't hunt them for food because they certainly did, but the way that they related to whales was completely different, and I can only hypothesize that it is because of a completely different cultural system. (Disclaimer: I know that people get highly upset when people make cross species ethical assertions and analogies, but I am going to do it anyway. I think it is warranted.) Curiously enough, I'm sure that the supporters of slavery made similar comments, and shared similar sentiments to the male conversant in my story, when people left the talks of the abolitionists over a hundred and fifty years ago.