By Richard Schickel
Tilikum is a whale, some 12,000 pounds in weight, who since 1991 has been implicated in the deaths of three Sea World trainers. “Blackfish” is a very good documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite that recounts his sad and ultimately infuriating story—and, by implication, the story of all his kind. The documentary contains an enigma: There are no known deadly attacks against humans by these creatures when they are in the wild, where they range hundreds of peaceful miles over the seas, according to the filmmakers. The orcas become killers only when they are in captivity.
They are—or seem to be—amiable animals, quite intelligent, even playful, with a well-developed language system and the ability to do simple tricks that delight audiences at Sea World. They even seem to have a sense of humor. They turn surly and unpredictable, however, when they are penned in to small pools and pressed into duty for water shows. Orcas are simply not meant for confinement.
They literally don’t know their own strength. And being very big fellows, they are erratically dangerous. At the simplest possible level, one emerges from this film with the conviction that these creatures should not be deployed in water shows, that it is a stupid pet trick writ large. I mean, what educational (or moral) value do we derive from their ability to toss balls around in a swimming pool, or the good relationships they—mostly—maintain with their trainers? It’s show business as low business, putting the kindliest possible spin on these activities.
It seems to me that the real problem (not explored in the film) is the apparently endemic human need to anthropomorphize all of God’s creatures, to impute to them human motives for their actions, forgetting that, in this case particularly, these orcas are enormous and essentially irrational beasts. The notion that they can be seen as cute and cuddlesome is simply demeaning—to the whales and, of course, to us. By what measure of magical thinking does the occasional death or ripped-off limb seem a sensible price to pay for the queasy entertainment offered at enterprises like Sea World?
I don’t want to get too moralistic about this. We do a lot of stuff in the name of entertainment that is definitely feckless. However, the notion that these rather noble creatures are confined to what are basically swimming pools, subject to all sorts of wounds and illnesses, doing tricks that are far from enlightening, seems to me close to insane. Their trainers, who seem to love and respect the orcas, feel, in general, that their confinement is the most basic source of their misery. One of them asks: “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?”
That sentiment encapsulates the problem. Not that I think much is likely to change as a result of “Blackfish.” Sea World, which chose not to speak in the documentary but has issued statements disputing its conclusions, is a profitable, if marginal, venture. And stupid, heedless people will go on attending these shows, without realizing they are without value to anyone.
“Free the orcas!” I find myself wanting to shout. Let them go back to the wild. They are not circus animals—which, in general, make me extremely uncomfortable. But they have no constituency, which leaves you strangely infuriated as you exit the theater. I think our humanity is tested, very often, at its margins, and there is probably nothing more marginal than Diving for Dollars at Sea World. Maybe a few more arms need to get torn off by the orcas before they can be returned to their natural state. Meanwhile, there is this good, maybe even necessary, documentary to think about.