On February 24, 2010, an experienced trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, was killed by an orca she’d worked with for many years. She was the third fatality associated with this particular killer whale, Tilikum, over a period of roughly two decades, and the documentary Blackfish argues that these incidents shouldn’t be dismissed as mere accidents. Several former SeaWorld trainers appear on camera to explain the reasons why they no longer believe it humane to keep orcas in captivity, performing tricks for a few hours a day and spending the rest of their lives in a constricted, unnatural space, separated from their families.
Oddly, nobody ever points out that the same argument, minus the performance angle (which is not a major factor, really; it’s never suggested that the orcas are overworked), would apply to any animal in any zoo anywhere in the world. That’s not to say that the interview subjects or director Gabriela Cowperthwaite are hypocrites—it’s entirely possible that they believe zoos are a bad idea in general. As with another recent advocacy doc, Project Nim, however, there’s an implicit suggestion that we owe certain animals more respect and/or consideration than others, merely because we identify with their intelligence. Extending the outrage to the entire kingdom would apparently muddy the waters too much.
Blackfish does make a pretty strong case that it sucks to be in a cage, even underwater. Its efforts to demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between captivity and violence, contending that the orcas snap and kill people out of chronic frustration and boredom, are considerably shakier. Tilikum has attacked two trainers in more than 20 years of regular interaction. (The third death involved an idiot who snuck into SeaWorld when it was closed.) Tragic, to be sure, but yo, he’s an animal. There’s an inherent risk—which SeaWorld ludicrously denies, and even the ex-trainers tend to downplay—in palling around regularly with a 12,000-pound mammal that has lots of teeth and a mind of its own. Orcas are naturally much friendlier to humans than, say, lions, but that doesn’t mean that people who work with them shouldn’t be aware that they might potentially be injured or even killed any time they enter the tank.
Fuzzy logic aside, the reason we as a society capture orcas—regardless of a personal belief about whether that’s right or wrong—is because we enjoy watching them, and Blackfish offers plenty of impressive footage, both majestic and disturbing. Its most riveting sequence depicts a near-fatality in which a trainer somehow managed to remain perfectly calm as an orca repeatedly dragged him underwater and held him there for a minute or longer, his foot trapped between its massive jaws. (That remarkable gentleman isn’t interviewed, which is too bad—it’d be interesting to hear his thoughts on what happened, or even just find out if he continued with his work afterward.) Arguably, though, Blackfish’s strongest argument against the existence of parks like SeaWorld is how much more gorgeous orcas look in the open ocean than leaping about an oversized swimming pool. And the audience won’t get soaking wet watching them frolic in movies, either.