Sad life of a serial killer whale

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Blackfish (M). Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite. 79 minutes

In his seminal 1975 publication Animal Liberation, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer laid the groundwork for animal rights theory. He argued that it is the capacity of all animals to experience suffering — and not their relative intelligence — which should dictate the standards by which society treats them. Non-human animals, he argued, have rights, insofar as these rights are derived from their capacity to suffer.

Singer's utilitarian argument pertained particularly to the suffering endured by animals bred for the purposes of human consumption. Whatever you make of the argument in this context, how much more potent does it seem when considered in light of animals held for the purpose of mere entertainment. As such the documentary Blackfish finds much ground for moral outrage in its consideration of the suffering endured by performing orcas.

It is not merely a work of environmental activism, although it certainly contains elements of that. The film centres on Tilikum, a seven-metre, 5400kg bull orca, a star attraction at Orlando's SeaWorld theme park for decades, who is also responsible for the deaths of three people. 

From its portrayal of the grief experienced by mother orcas when separated from their babies, whether in captivity or while still in the wild, to its revelations about the inherently tortuous environments in which the orcas are held, Blackfish argues that whales are creatures of intelligence and innate dignity, whose capacity for emotional and psychological as well as physical suffering renders such treatment repugnant.

It draws a straight line between Tilikum's violent streak and the traumatic days of his early life in captivity (at the now closed Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia), where he was bullied and repeatedly savaged by two dominant females in the dark, cramped enclosure in which they were stored at night.

This doesn't merely evoke the difficulty of domesticising a wild animal. It is a picture of a living creature that has been permanently, psychologically damanged by its cruel treatment by humans.

Orcas are beautiful, majestic creatures, and Blackfish contains plenty of cute moments, of trainers embracing the animals or exchanging kisses through glass, as well as dramatic footage of the performing orcas in full flight. But even for those who are untouched by the Free Willy effect, Blackfish has a case to make. Director Cowperthwaite prods her subject deftly from a variety of fronts.

Tilikum's victims include 20-year-old marine biology student and competitive swimmer Keltie Byrne, and 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer. They are the human faces of the tragedy, and Cowperthwaite renders their stories sensitively and movingly, through old footage and the recollections of colleagues.

Blackfish sets these specific human stories against a broader issue of workplace safety. The documentary is framed around a court action by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which sought to compel the park to cease the practice of directly exposing trainers to the potentially dangerous animals. Blackfish presents a compelling case for this as a serious workplace safety issue, with sometimes graphic footage and eyewitness accounts from park employees of colleagues who experienced real peril due to their proximity to the animals.

I watched this emotive documentary in the open plan Jesuit Communications office, and was grateful that I had my back to my colleagues. My tears were occasionally due to sadness, but just as often they were a result of outrage. Consider the park's practice of deliberately and dramatically misrepresenting facts (such as the reduced life span of orcas in captivity) to the public. Or the vision of a SeaWorld spin-doctor standing in front of a news camera and fallaciously, unjustly, placing the blame for Dawn Brancheau's death on Dawn herself.

In the end Blackfish stands as an impassioned riposte to a commercial model in which death and suffering, human and cetacean alike, are merely the byproducts of profit. Singer would approve.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Peter Singer, Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite



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I'm guessing - anthropology would show that as humanity has become less elementarily connected to nature, (more urbanised), that as a species we have become unconnected to other species. Narcissistic. Thanks Tim for being moved, and for writing of it.

MichCook | 23 November 2013  

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