Why it doesn’t matter if Blackfish is accurate or not


Blackfish is a documentary about orcas — in particular an orca named Tilikum that was acquired by SeaWorld — and the dangers to both orcas and trainers that arise from keeping the animals in captivity. It aired on CNN, and can now (I think) be found streaming on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, you should, because it is a powerful movie, emotionally speaking, and because you’re bound to learn a thing or two in the meantime. For me that thing or two consisted of the following: (1) the way orcas used to be captured was horrific (additional info here); and (2) SeaWorld has spread misinformation about both whale longevity and dorsal fin collapse, presumably in order to make themselves and their practices look better.

If you do see it, or if you’ve already seen it, you should probably be aware that there is some controversy surrounding the documentary. That’s to be expected with any documentary that makes such strong claims as Blackfish does, but I want to discuss some of the opposition to the film, because some of it is important. Via Facebook, I was made aware of an article, a report, and a YouTube video of a former trainer, all of which denounce the documentary for various reasons. Some of these reasons are valid, some, I believe, are not, but none of them change the fact that Blackfish is correct in its conclusions.

Much of the criticism is ad hominem

Time after time, the critics of the movie call its director and those who support it “animal rights activists” (or worse, “armchair activists”) and move on to the next topic as if this proved anything.

Firstly, yes, the documentary is a call for the rights of a group of animals to be respected. I don’t personally think that’s a fit subject for mockery. After all, we humans are animals too, and a appeal to animal rights is only a few shades away from a appeal to human rights. And whether or not Gandhi really said it, I do think it’s true that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

But even if it were a contemptible thing to be an animal rights activist, that wouldn’t mean that the opinions of those activists can be dismissed without examining them. That’s why ad hominem attacks are considered logical fallacies in the first place: because anybody can be right about anything at any given time. Saying that Blackfish is essentially animal rights propaganda is equivalent to saying that SeaWorld must be mistreating its animals because it’s a big business, and big businesses specialize in the mistreatment of those who can’t defend themselves. But we wouldn’t ever want to say that, now would we?

Much of the criticism is vague and evasive

Watching the video, and reading those articles, I heard and saw a lot of “Blackfish is wrong,” but I didn’t see a lot of specific examples as to where, why, and how it is wrong. It’s as if these critics think that if they say it enough times it will lodge in people’s heads and they won’t have to do the work of actually proving what they’re claiming. I’m not saying there’s no way Blackfish is wrong; I’m just saying that if you’re going to make the assertion, you should be able to back it up.

Where the critics are (apparently) right

When the critics do get specific, it appears they may have somewhat of a case. Gabriela Cowperthwaite does appear to have engaged in some misleading, dubious, and possibly dishonest filmmaking practices. For instance, I was lead to believe that, in the video of the trainer with blood pouring down his face, the injury was caused by one of the whales. Apparently that’s untrue. I did feel as if my experience of the film was cheapened a little bit by this knowledge. And this does call into question the rest of the information in the film, to a certain extent.

Why it doesn’t matter

In the end though, Blackfish is a creative production that was, I think, created in service of a larger purpose. That purpose is to change, or at least cause us to examine, the way we hold certain animals in captivity, and whether we should in fact do so at all. There is a larger cultural paradigm shift in the works here. And whether Blackfish was poorly or dishonestly made or not is irrelevant because the facts still remain: these animals are intelligent; their health is adversely affected by captivity; and holding them captive has caused, and will likely cause again, the injury and death of both animals and trainers.

When I say that there is a larger cultural paradigm shift in the works, the main thing I have in mind is this. Last year, India declared that cetaceans are “non-human persons” in the eyes of the law, and that keeping them in captivity is therefore illegal (not to mention immoral*). My response when I read this? Hell, yes! Go India! So long, and thanks for all the fish, right? It’s a major step in what I think is the right direction for humanity as a whole.

SeaWorld was the focus of Blackfish, but they’re not the only target on which we should set our sights. For instance, a bit closer to (former) home for me, there’s the Georgia Aquarium. It’s the only aquarium in the world outside of Asia that houses whale sharks. But whale sharks have a particularly dismal record of dying in captivity, and the Georgia Aquarium has had controversies of its own to deal with in the past.

Arguments in favor of keeping animals like whales and dolphins in captivity often center around the idea of awareness. Sure, they say, maybe conditions in the aquariums aren’t ideal, and maybe they don’t live quite as long, and maybe they’re not so happy there, but what if little Suzie Lou Johnson hadn’t seen Shamu as a 7 year old? Then she never would have grown up to become the world-changing marine biologist that she is today. 

Yes, marine parks like SeaWorld do provide people the opportunity to see and interact with animals they never would have dreamed of seeing in the wild. And, yes, such experiences are potentially powerful for mammals such as we. Just two things about this:

1. I never went to SeaWorld as a kid. I’ve never seen an orca in the flesh. But I grew up obsessed with orcas. And even though I didn’t become a marine biologist, my scuba diving career was started because of that childhood obsession. An obsession made possible by the technology of our times, the technology that brought you Blackfish: photography.

Videos and photographs are available of nearly any creature you can imagine, most of them in HD quality, and many of them retrievable by a simple Google search. And the raw footage of these images is made time and time again into beautiful and inspiring documentary works of art (Planet Earth, anyone?). These productions easily rival the influence of kitschy marine parks, they’re more universally available, and they come at no cost to the animals. We don’t need zoos and marine parks anymore, except to assist in the recovery efforts of endangered and critically endangered species (see the October 2013 NatGeo article on the subject, or check it out here).

2. If your argument is that marine parks like SeaWorld are worthwhile and good despite their shortcomings, then please allow me to throw that argument back in your face by saying that Blackfish is worthwhile and good in spite of its failures. Funny how that logic goes both ways.

I guess that’s enough about one depressing-plight-of-a-marine-mammal documentary for now. Maybe I’ll watch The Cove next.

Calvin & Hobbes is always relevant


*That India would see fit to label whales and dolphins “non-human persons” brings to mind an uncomfortable thought I had while watching Blackfish. Namely, that the language, practices, and rationalizations surrounding the capture and captivity of orcas sound uncomfortably like they were lifted from 1800s pro-slavery literature. I know, I know. I didn’t want to be thinking it either. But the thought kept recurring. And I don’t mean to somehow equate human beings who were or are in bondage with some sort of “lesser” animal or anything as stupid as that. What I do mean, though, is that perhaps if talking about the memory of capturing orcas and separating them from their families can bring a bearded, burly, tattooed old sailor-man to tears (watch the movie), then it’s probably a practice we should be actively reconsidering.