Review/Essay: Blackfish

[documentary, 2013]

by Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

View the entire documentary for free

This documentary is a powerful indictment of SeaWorld and other aquatic amusement parks that keep orcas (killer whales) in captivity and make them do tricks. These highly intelligent and social nonhuman persons fare poorly in captivity. In confinement, they often fight and injure each other, something that rarely occurs in the wild. Frustrated and angry, they frequently harm their trainers and each other. The documentary focuses most attention on Tilikum, who was kidnapped from his pod when he was a child and, over the course of his life, has killed three people. In each case, his “owners” either blamed other orcas (the film interviews two witnesses who were never interviewed by authorities but who were certain that Tilikum was responsible for the first killing) or the human victims. In the third case, a SeaWorld spokesperson claimed, in contradiction to video evidence and common sense, that the trainer victim, if she were alive, would have admitted that her death was her own fault.

What is perhaps most striking is the pattern of deceit by SeaWorld. They mislead the public and even trainers about the welfare of the orcas and the dangers to humans interacting with these massive beings. Though science has proven otherwise, SeaWorld repeatedly tells audiences and the media that orcas live longer in captivity than in the wild. Their cheerful staff tell audiences that doing tricks isn’t work for orcas, “it’s fun.” In truth, training involves withholding food until the orcas perform tricks properly. I think the film reinforces a general rule: whenever nonhuman persons are treated as property, they will be abused. Corporations are required by law to abide by the mandates of the shareholders, who almost always want to maximize profit. That means corporations will do whatever they can with whatever resources they have to make money. Slavery is never a good idea, whether the slaves are human or nonhuman persons, but as long as they can get away with it, corporations will do it.

This is not to say that we should abolish corporations or abandon the capitalist system that underlies them. Rather, I think we should regard corporations as man-made institutions that should not be trusted to act ethically or compassionately. Free-market capitalism harnesses humans’ tendency towards avarice to produce goods and services efficiently, but the faith that Jesus taught promotes a different set of values, including communalism, service, and mercy. Would Jesus endorse the imprisonment of orcas? I don’t think so.

Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.