“Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught.”
– J. C. Watts
I recently saw the Blackfish in my neighborhood at the Hillcrest Landmark Cinemas in San Diego, which is mere miles away from SeaWorld. In the summertime, I can hear their fireworks at 9:50pm every night through my open window as I try to fall asleep. I assume it’s the proximity that has caused this movie to be so popular at this hipster-y theater – the usher told us that Blackfish has vastly outgrossed all other films playing. They keep extending it as it continues to do well weeks after the initial release.
I’m not going to lie, this movie is hard to watch. I felt at times like I might need to take a breather, and I was worried others might walk out because it was too much to bare. But I didn’t leave and neither did anyone else. No one moved, no one talked, no one ate or drank, or went to the bathroom. You could hear a pin drop the entire time. The only sound from the audience was an occasional sniffle or a soft, shocked gasp.
The Blackfish movie is a brilliant and moving documentary. Part of what makes it so overwhelming is that it’s a very, very good movie. It draws you in and reveals itself in an engrossing and poignant way. Particularly heartbreaking for me was the trainers’ stories, realizing how much they loved the orcas they worked with and how they were caught in the middle a terrible situation but not wanting to leave the whales that they considered friends and partners.
Without discussing any particulars from the movie (because I believe it would tarnish the raw power of the movie to reveal all the information in it), I want to post a few thoughts in response to Blackfish. I posted this on my Facebook but I think it bears repeating here:
As people living in a consumer culture, our dollars are powerful beyond measure. I would argue that our dollars are more powerful than our votes. It is our responsibility as consumers to understand what we are paying for, what we are creating a demand for. The world bends to our demands when they are shouted from our wallets.
We live in a society that will make Free Willy, a movie about a boy helping a whale escape captivity, into a blockbuster hit and then turn right around and bring their kids to SeaWorld to see “Willy” up close…in captivity. I’m just as guilty as anyone else: for years my ex and I had a platinum-level membership to the zoo and we would bring friends there all the time. I think as an animal lover it’s really hard to not feel like you are doing something good by getting close to animals, holding them in your adoring gaze and wondering at their beauty. But access to animals is not our right. Our curiosity, or desire for a momentary thrill does not excuse ripping animals out of their natural habitats and essentially putting them in padded rooms.
When I took Intro to Philosophy in college and learned of René Descartes assertions that animals are automatons, unfeeling machines at our disposal for experimentation, I was chilled to the bone, even though I was years away from becoming vegan or truly caring about animal rights. I thought it was an absurd thought and was repulsed by Descartes. But I realize now that the general public must feel the same way about animals, if they believe that animals can be ripped away from their families and natural environments, stuffed into small spaces, and given no stimulation for their entire lives and not suffer. What else but a machine could withstand such treatment without losing its mind?
I used to love the zoo, but the last several times I went I couldn’t help but see the truth around me in every cage. Bears standing in one spot swinging their heads back and forth for hours, big cats pacing obsessively in a circle, hyenas hopping up and down the same step over and over. These animals were exhibiting OCD-like behaviors from being kept in such an unnatural environment. I finally stripped off the last layer of my rationalizations, gave up my membership and have never gone back.
This year, my company held our annual summer event at SeaWorld. I have never been and was really torn between going just this one time on someone else’s dime, and not going. I finally decided not to go. After seeing this film, I’m so glad. Maybe someday I can go out on a boat and spot some orcas in the wild. Maybe I’ll even have the chance to touch one if they swim up and say hello. But, I’m not owed that experience, and I’ve finally come to accept that paying an outrageous ticket fee does not entitle me to it.
Towards the end of the Blackfish movie, one of the trainers said that he believes in 50 years we’ll look back on the practice of keeping orcas in captivity for entertainment as barbaric. I hope it happens a lot sooner than that.