Largely through the work of Charlie Camosy, this blog has raised important questions about the dignity of non-human animals and has tried to find resources from the Christian moral tradition that will aid in answering such questions. The documentary Blackfish (released on DVD Aug. 2013) contributes to these efforts to expand our moral concern beyond the human species in its examination of the consequences of keeping orcas/killer whales in captivity. For what it is worth, I prefer the term orca, which is what I will use in this post.
The film focuses on the male orca Tilikum, which was involved somehow in the death of three different people. The film was actually created in response to the most recent death of trainer Dawn Brancheau and the claim that the whale had attacked her due to the fact that she had worn her hair in a ponytail. The film, which does not pretend to be balanced and relies on the testimonies of mostly former Sea World trainers (not all of whom are happy with the way the film turned out), posits the hypothesis that Tilikum killed intentionally in response to a life of frustrating captivity. More frustrating for the viewer, perhaps, is that Tilikum is still doing shows at Sea World.
Now, I’m no marine biologist so I can’t judge some of the more specific claims of the film: that while almost all males in captivity have bent dorsal fins, less than 1% in the wild do; that in captivity orcas have a lifespan of 30-35 years but in the wild a lifespan closer to a human being; that orcas separated from their mothers in captivity emit high-distance wails as if calling for their lost relation; that orcas in captivity display signs of depression. Nor am I comfortable with the hypothesis that Tilikum lived up to his name and killed three individuals (including a wacky case where a South Carolina man was found one morning naked and dead on Tilikum’s back with his genitals bitten off). But the film should be watched for the question it raises: Is it just to keep these animals in captivity?
The orca is part of our national imagination. I remember vividly my parents saving up to take us to Sea World to see these magnificent creatures, a memory I am sure I share with a huge percentage of my generation. Shamu was regularly on television commercials during my childhood and even painted onto commercial jets. And there are arguments in favor of places like Sea World. They give us an incredibly intimate view of animals that we would likely never see in the wild and foster, particularly in the young, a love for such animals and a desire to protect them.
But places like Sea World also offer us a deceptive image of nature as under control. When we watch trainers dive off the noses of orcas and use a whistle to get them to race around a pool, splashing delighted onlookers, we tend to forget that these creatures have a purpose apart from human entertainment and that purpose might not be able to be fulfilled while in captivity. In other words, the purpose that we might have for these animals, noble as it is, might actually be at odds with the purpose they have in nature.
For example, the film explains that orcas are highly empathetic and social and live and breed in complex social groups. In fact, orca herds have been known to hang around when one of their members is being captured. In captivity, it is simply impossible to keep these family groups together. The safety of other whales and the trainers often depends on creating unnatural communities in small quarters. Orcas are also matriarchal, and as a result, males like Tilikum who share a pool with non-related females tend to get beaten up. The film shows footage of Tilikum covered in gashes caused by two other females he shared a pool with. The “family” arrangement that Tilikum lived in while in captivity was clearly not conducive to his flourishing even if it was best for the institutions that owned him.
Even the language of ownership, of buying and selling orcas, should cause us to pause and think. Can such an intelligent, sophisticated creature be owned? Should it be? Or is there a better model of being in relationship with such creatures?
The film clearly thinks there is and concludes with exultant footage of the former trainers who contributed to the film watching a herd of orcas from a boat “with all their fins upright.” It is as is if they see then what they were missing in their experience with orcas in captivity. But the movie is right here. The trainers were missing something. All of these trainers love orcas. Sea World loves orcas, and has responded to the film by reaffirming that its employees are true animal advocates. The issue, however, is not with the intentions of Sea World executives or with the people who work with these animals. For the sake of argument, I assume that most individuals involved with the care and showing of orcas are deeply committed to the animals. But the film encourages us to reexamine our commitment to non-human animals and ask whether what we are committed to is the well-being of the animal itself, or the human that loves the animal. The film concludes, and I agree, that it is the latter.
In our care for non-human creation, we need to stretch ourselves beyond a narrow anthropocentrism that sees all of creation existing for the purpose of humans (a position the Christian tradition has too often defended, though the tradition is also rich with alternative viewpoints, particularly from my man Thomas Aquinas) and appreciate instead that non-human creation has a purpose, a telos, apart from serving humans. Orcas do not need humans to glorify God and live out the purpose of their existence. In fact, human concerns may be precisely what is standing in the way of true flourishing for orcas.