The other night I made some popcorn and settled onto the couch to watch “Blackfish”. Somehow I missed all the buzz about it from last year, so I went into it blissfully ignorant of what I was about to learn. What started out as a seemingly harmless documentary quickly became an animal lover’s nightmare, haunting me far into the night as I lay in the dark reflecting on human nature, greed, and grief for the loss of majesty and grace among captive orca whales.
For me, this chilling film illustrates the unique intelligence of killer whales versus human intelligence gone bad, and highlights the price to be paid for tinkering with the animal kingdom in the interest of monetary gain. We are introduced to Tilikum, taken from his mother’s side when he was a young calf in 1983, and used to entertain families at Sealand Of The Pacific on Vancouver Island. His oceanic home had been ripped away and replaced with a prison cell of a holding tank, and whenever Tilikum failed to respond to the instructions of his trainers, food was withheld from him. Not surprisingly, he eventually killed a trainer. Sealand Of The Pacific closed down shortly thereafter, and Tilikum was moved to Seaworld in Orlando, Florida. The whole event was swept under the rug – none of the whale-handlers were informed of the trainer’s death.
Inevitably, a string of incidents involving Tilikum followed, as well as incidents with other orcas as well. At present there are around 35 recorded cases of captive orca attacks on humans, several of which were fatal. There are 6 recorded cases of orcas threatening humans in the wild. None were fatal, and they appear to be cases of mistaken identity: orcas mistaking humans for seals.
It is the bigger picture, though – beyond the specifics of Tilikum’s life – that cannot be ignored as deeply disturbing: the exploitation of orca whales (by water parks, in particular) as a means to profit. Animal families separated in order to sell tickets to human families. Animal children taken from their mothers, so that they may entertain and delight human children. All this rendered more cruel and more horrifying by the fact that orcas are incredibly social, profoundly emotional, highly intelligent creatures, who have a part of the brain that humans do not have.
I tossed and turned for hours that night, finally drifting into sleep. But my sleep was uneasy, and full of dreams about the catastrophic karma the human race is making for itself.