Watching Blackfish (2013) reminded me of the scene in the first season of The Walking Dead in which Rick rides a beautiful chestnut horse into Atlanta. He has no idea that he is entering a dead zone of utter destruction and chaos. The viewer soon recognizes that he has placed a beautiful, noble animal—and himself—in peril. The horse is visibly terrified by the smell of death. Zombies attack almost immediately. They tear apart its flesh, devouring it while Rick beats a hasty retreat into a nearby tank. This is the one scene in all four seasons of the series that I dread. Of course, there are countless human victims in the show, but there’s something special about animals that touches our souls.
Killer whales have a rich, inner emotional life that neuroscientists and animal behaviorists have observed. They communicate through a complex series of sounds that together form a type of language. In the wild, they travel in families, or pods. The children of a female killer whale never leave their mother’s side, unless they are forcibly removed. In such an event, the mother mourns her missing child. Captivity disrupts their mental stability, leading to tragedies like the one that occurred at Orlando’s SeaWorld in 2010 between Tilikum, a large male orca that had a history of aggression, and one of his handlers, Dawn Brancheau. Although Tilikum’s past incidents of aggression were well documented, SeaWorld chose to officially attribute them to “trainer error” in spite of the fact that highly capable and experienced individuals were involved. Eyewitness accounts often conflicted with the official reports.
Many trainers, all former employees of SeaWorld, are interviewed extensively in this documentary. It is heartbreaking to listen to their conflicted feelings as they recount the close relationships they developed with the animals as they simultaneously acknowledge that prolonged captivity led to dangerous behavioral problems borne out of frustration. You can really feel their sincere regret.
Large marine mammals should be allowed to roam the ocean. We should stop the practice of penning them into cramped, concrete enclosures for our personal amusement. Long ago, American Indians called orcas “blackfish” and revered and feared them from a respectful distance for their awesome power and strength. Can we not return to this ideal to regain our own humanity?