Blackfish: Movie Review (A Documentary)

Before we talk about Blackfish I want to tell you that I vaguely remember when, as a child, my parents took me (along with my siblings) to Florida for a family vacation. This was pre-Universal Studios.

We went to Busch Gardens and Disney World, which for most kids probably would have been the highlight of the whole ordeal. But for me, it was two other stops that have created the longest-lasting memories of that time: Gatorland and Sea World.

Is Blackfish a Fantasy?

I’ve been fascinated with the natural world of animals more than the fantasy world for as long as I remember. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with, in particular, big cats (lions, tigers – don’t say it – leopards, mountain lions … and little cats too).

Shortly after getting a cat (named Happy) after high school, I became very interested in his welfare, and then animal welfare in general. Well, jumping into this world exposes you to a myriad of information that you probably would not have known existed otherwise. As an adult animal lover, it’s hard to not be disgusted at the reality of the lives of many animals.

At first the issues of animal cruelty I came across dealt with puppy farms, dog fighting, and so on. Depending on one’s past experiences, this may be their only point of contact with the plight of animals in this, and other, countries. But if you dig a little deeper, you begin to see that not all forms of animal cruelty are illegal.

Many here would cite modern practices of commercial farming (i.e. jamming chickens into cages they can’t move around in and cutting off their beaks so they don’t peck one another, violently force-feeding turkeys so we can have a plump Thanksgiving bird, etc.). To give a wide view of the most blatant moral dilemmas we face, allow me to quote from Pojman’s Philosophy: The Quest for Truth (6th edition, p. 608):

Every minute of the day, 24 hours a day, 100 animals are killed in laboratories in the United States. Fifty million animals used in experiments are put to death each year. Some die during testing of industrial and cosmetic products, some are killed after being force fed or after being tested for pharmaceutical drugs. Product testing on animals is required by government before the products are allowed for use by human beings.

Legal requirements that animals be anesthetized are circumvented in many experiments. Recently, at a major university, baboons were strapped down in boxlike vises and had specially designed helmets cemented to their skulls. Then a pneumatic device delivered calibrated blows to the helmet to determine its strength.

The blows continued until the baboon’s skull was fractured and the animal was brain damaged. Dogs are driven insane with electric shocks so that scientists can study the effects of insanity. Cats are deprived of sleep until they die.

Primates have been restrained for months in steel chairs allowing no movement, and elephants have been given LSD to study aggression. Legs have been cut off mice to study how they walk on stumps, and polar bears have been drowned in vats of crude oil to study the effect of oil spills in polar regions.

Kittens have been blinded, castrated, or rendered deaf so researchers could see what effect these incapacities would have on their sexual development. Civet cats are placed in small cages in dark rooms where the temperature is 110°F and confined there until they die. The must that is scraped from their genitals once a day for as long as they can survive makes the scent of perfume last a bit longer after each application.

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Ad against animal testing from the Society for the Protection of Animals.

 remember my own shock when, as a student researcher in a research laboratory during my undergraduate years, I came across a catalog selling dead animals in bulk to high schools, colleges, and universities. I remember wondering how many animals had been murdered so that uninterested high school students could cut them open and do weird things to the carcasses in the name of humor.

Is there more?

So those are the horror stories we hear (and trust me, that only scratches the surface). Yet in that wide array of obviously horrific instances, some things can fly under the radar.

I remember I loved to see animals in the zoo, maybe even at a circus. Heck, I wanted to own a lion! But at some point you must begin asking yourself about the practices that you support with your dollars. Do animals want to be held captive? Do they want to be forced to perform tricks?

Well, many of these animals have been proven to be capable of emotions and are highly intelligent, just as we are (though not in the same ways, of course, but similar). So ask yourself – would you like to be taken from your habitat, stolen from your mother’s arms, and forced to perform (the alternative to performing is starving to death)?

All is not well in the zoos and other animal parks (or in private ownership of exotics, which is also a huge issue). Many of these places claim to be all about animal welfare and conservation practices, but tend to speak out of both sides of their mouth.

And that’s where this film comes in, examining the practices and consequences of keeping Orcas in captivity for the delight of children.

Blackfish: The Film

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Dawn Brancheau and Tilikum

The genesis of this film came after the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau, an animal trainer and performer at Sea World in Florida. She was performing in one of their daily shows when she was dragged down by the whale Tilikum and drowned.

But the autopsy reveals even more of the gruesome details, stating that Dawn’s “spinal cord was severed, and she sustained fractures to her jawbone, ribs and to a cervical vertebra, in addition to the drowning.” This was the 3rd death related to Tilikum.

Orca family in the wild
Orca family in the wild

The film uses Tilikum as the main subject, and uses his life as a lens into the plight of Orcas. As it turns out, his life isn’t all that uncommon for an Orca in captivity. Whale hunters hired by organizations such as Sea World go into the oceans to capture young Orcas. One man in the film was hired to do just this, and he recalls the awful sounds of the adults and children crying back to one another.

At this point, the man says, he understood what was really going on. It isn’t just capturing dumb animals, but is stealing children from their parents. The parents did not retreat away from the boats; rather, they stay close by, calling out to their young.

Then whales are transported and put into small tanks with other whales they do not know and cannot adequately communicate with. The close quarters often leads to fights amongst whales, resulting in painful injuries.

Eventually they are trained to perform. While many will explain that training practices are much more humane than they are today, none can argue that they are any more natural. Performing is just not what whales do.

One former trainer said that she wished she could say her relationship with the whales was due to emotions, but she knows that they realize they have to perform to be fed, and the trainer has the food. Without the fish, they may have had no relationship at all.

Whales in captivity, according to the documentary, show many signs of being unhealthy. For one, the vast majority of male orcas in captivity have a collapsed dorsal fin, whereas it is cited as happening in less than 1% in the wild. Whereas some animals can live longer in captivity than in the wild due to a better diet, veterinary care, and lack of predation or turf wars, whales actually live shorter lives.

Sea World employees have been trained by Sea World (college degrees in a related field are not required) to say that the average life span is 20-30 years, which is better than in the wild, but this has been proven false. Although rare, some females have survived to 80 years of age.

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Tilikum and his collapsed dorsal fin

These “killer” whales are also much more prone to violence in captivity, against one another and against humans. As stated earlier, Tilikum has been involved in 3 deaths now. Violence towards humans is well-documented in captivity, but not one case of Orca vs. human violence has been documented in the wild.

Tilikum has not been euthanized, which I think is a good thing, but is now held in even more solitary areas and showing signs of depression. But why would he not be euthanized as any other animal would? Because he is a big, money-making star and sperm bank.

What the documentary does so well is to use the promotional videos and other statements made by Sea World to make their case, and then uses former Sea World trainers (and other relevant interviewees, including one researcher) to discuss what goes on behind the scenes.

Only one of the many interviewed employees was on the side of Sea World. The company refused to be officially part of the documentary, although they were asked several times. They did, however, become much more chatty after the film was released.

Conclusion

My rating: 5/5

Rating:

Go see this movie now.

Not only did this do an awesome job at just showing bringing to light the issues associated with this practice, but they also pulled no punches (i.e. I hope you have a strong stomach). Though there would have been ample opportunity for people “in the know” to carry the banner of Sea World (or any Sea World type of organization), only one answered that call.

It is hard to say everything that I want to say in this blog. The issue is huge and complex.
One of my biggest things that disappoint me with many of the Christian communities I am a part of is their complete and utter indifference to issues of animal suffering. The debate often comes down to something in the ethereal philosophical realm: “Do animals have rights?” And then the debate can go down any number of rabbit holes.

It is amazing how much people can say about how little they know, making claims on souls, sentience, and emotional intelligence all for themselves. Many of my brothers and sisters claim proudly that “animals won’t be in heaven because they don’t have souls” and they could really care less about what happens to them. And I guess that is okay, because we all know that the last thing God wanted us to do was to care about His creation (have I introduced you to sarcasm yet?).

This blog is not to be a treatise on whether animals have intrinsic rights or not. That is an important debate to have (and to add in my own two cents, the answer is a loud YES), but there isn’t enough space to discuss that here, nor is it the purpose of this type of blog. But certainly we can agree that, whether you think they have rights or not, they shouldn’t be stolen from their families and held in captivity for our entertainment.

You would be hard pressed to find anything, outside of the Roman games of man vs. beast, more sadistic than this. The issue is that many people have grown up loving this, and have taken their children to see it, and so they will view this documentary and this blog as a personal attack on them and their moral fiber.

But that isn’t the case at all (as I stated at the beginning, I once loved this as well). Our ignorance on the issue isn’t what tears away at our moral fiber. It is our indifference to it when the ignorance is gone.

Scripture does speak about treating our own animals kindly, and it does use animals for help in farming. But the issues we speak of here were not issues in Biblical times. So we have to ‘jump off of the page’ on this one. I hesitate to quote many things I would like because of the issue of proof-texting and stripping Scripture of its context.

However, if you do believe what Scripture says and you do believe that we are stewards, then you must believe that we are morally and ethically accountable to God for how we treat His creation.

If the realities of these practices don’t at least sadden you, then I would strongly recommend placing two fingers on your neck or wrist and checking for a heartbeat. And pray to God for a heart of compassion not just for human beings and our troubles, but for the rest of creation as well.

If you would like recommendations to works by Christians on this issue, please don’t hesitate to ask. Our own C.S. Lewis had a few things to say on the matter!

C. S. Lewis – not a fan of animal suffering, nor was he a quiet opponent.
C. S. Lewis – not a fan of animal suffering, nor was he a quiet opponent.

Blackfish movie does offer some solutions in it, but I have offered none here (again, a space-saving issue, as this blog is already about 700 words over our limit!). 

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