Blackfish (2013)

On December 1, 1963, Malcolm X gave one of his most famous interviews, in which he stated that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was an example of “chickens coming home to roost.” At the time, Malcolm was still the most visible member of the Nation of Islam, and it was this incident which signaled the rift that would later get Malcolm killed. The Nation of Islam silenced him for about three months after he argued that the chickens coming home to roost included the murders of Lumumba, Medgar Evers, and the four girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing earlier that year; Kennedy’s ineffectiveness, or perhaps his inattentiveness, or even his disinterest, in solving the problems of racism and colonialism made his death just.

When Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum a little more than four years ago, that was also a case of chickens coming home to roost.

If you’re reading this, the chances are good that you’re familiar with Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary. Blackfish showed up on Netflix a few months ago, and my newsfeed was inundated with people who were watching and were all similarly outraged. Having some interest (though hardly expertise) in biology and in the legal rights of non-humans, I watched it too. The documentary is expertly crafted; it knows the right moments to make you feel. The frowning dorsal fins on males are spoken to, as well as the shortened lifespans of captive orcas; the film lingers on the fact that these extremely emotional animals are separated from their children (a move on Cowperthwaite’s part which reminded me, certainly, of American slave markets); it moves you back and forth between trainer interviews and the footage of trainers getting maimed or nearly drowned by orcas, building up drama with tense music. It lets you get up close and personal with the loved ones of a trainer who was killed at a Spanish equivalent to SeaWorld, Loro Parque. It ends with former trainers like Jeffrey Ventre and Samantha Berg going out and seeing orcas in the wild, a scene which is so obviously calculated that it feels pornographic. It’s meant to appeal to your emotions and your “sense of decency” and it does so with the panache of a showman, and of course anyone with a heart is, at the very least, feeling something for the whales and perhaps questioning any institution, whether it’s SeaWorld or Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey’s or the San Diego Zoo, which profits because of the captivity (exploitation) of animals. And the documentary has been successful at pushing its point across, even beyond the angry Facebook statuses of Millennials (or their turgid blogs!). Lawmakers in New York and California have, since the release of the documentary, called for new regulations which would ban the keeping of captive orcas.

SeaWorld has been on the defensive about Brancheau for years now, but since Blackfish was released and gained popularity, they’ve become pretty edgy about the whole thing. Blackfish, like this or this or this, is absolutely propaganda. SeaWorld is right to say it, yet they fail to mention (or acknowledge) two important details: first, that Blackfish is incredibly effective propaganda, and second, that counter-propaganda like that document they use to pimp themselves is significantly less convincing propaganda.

Animal rights is obviously an important issue. Blackfish, I think, does an excellent job of not just making you wonder if PETA is slightly less crazy than you previously believed, but it also has to make you consider what legal rights need to be extended to non-humans. Then we need to decide how far those rights need to be extended. Legal rights have already been given to great apes in some nations; it seems to me that whales, from harbor porpoises to narwhals to blue whales to orcas, are next on the list. (India has actually already granted legal rights to dolphins.) Hyper-intelligent mammals are being accounted for in greater numbers, and I would be shocked if that set of legal rights did not begin to move outward to other endotherms within this century; I am less optimistic about the future status of reptiles, amphibians, fish, arthropods, and other non-animal forms of life, but not everyone can be a Jain.

Yet Blackfish raises a question which I find more haunting than any questions about “propaganda” or even animal rights. If you’re non-religious, then the word you’re looking for is “responsibility” or, better yet, “complicity.” If you’re Abrahamic-religious, then the word becomes “sin.” The question itself: When are victims not actually victims?

Brancheau, by all accounts one of SeaWorld’s best trainers, was attacked and killed by Tilikum twenty years after Tilikum attacked and killed a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific. In both cases, Tilikum presumably used the time-honored method of drowning, a practice which was detailed very publicly in BBC’s Planet Earth series in 2007. The trainers that Cowperthwaite interviews, almost to a man, sympathize with Dawn Brancheau. John Hargrove in particular criticizes SeaWorld for blaming Brancheau for her own death, arguing that it is at best disrespectful for SeaWorld to put her at fault when she cannot defend herself to them anymore. That is exactly what SeaWorld has done, especially by stating that her long ponytail was Tilikum’s point of attack. It is far more likely that her arm was grabbed, and despite what Mark Simmons or Thad Lacinek have to say, it is far more likely that Tilikum’s mental illness pushed him to kill Brancheau than anything that was her own professional doing that day. When I say that Brancheau’s death is a case of chickens coming home to roost, what I blame her for is not having a ponytail or some other superficial and frankly stupid piece of trivia. Her responsibility or complicity or sin in the matter was that she worked at SeaWorld, and even worse than that, was actively engaged in the enslavement of orcas.

This next comes from an interview with Vijay Prashad, a professor at the American University of Beirut:

That really affected me deeply, that however well-intentioned you are, however many blankets you hand out to people, however nice you are to people of different class backgrounds, your personal good sense, your personal character is not going to help us transform the hideous atrocities that happen in the world, and often the hideous atrocities that happen because of things we do, not knowing that we’re doing something hideous.

Sin is not just an individual effort; complicity requires more than one party. If Dawn Brancheau had lied to someone, that would have been a sin; if Dawn Brancheau had covered up a bank robbery, that would have been a sin. These are bourgeois conventions of sin which are, more than anything, comfortable. It is comfortable to believe that Brancheau and Keltie Byrne were victims, and it is comfortable to believe that if we don’t go to see Ender’s Game or eat at Chick-fil-a that we aren’t supporting homophobes, and it is comfortable to believe that giving to charity or giving up our time in charitable actions is a good thing. But, to rephrase a phrase from Carl Sagan, there are no loose threads in the fabric of responsibility. Every bite of food I eat is a bite of food that does not enrich the body of someone who is starving to death. Every moment I sleep in a bed is a moment that a homeless person does not have so much as a sleeping bag. Every time I go to the doctor, I am keeping his or her services from someone who cannot afford medical care. It’s more than that, even: if I eat a cookie, that grain could have gone to bread for someone who needs the nutrition. There are no actions which occur in isolation. Our sins aren’t offensive to God because God is pissy, but because God knows each thread in the fabric of responsibility.

And that is why Dawn Brancheau cannot be counted a victim. Brancheau must have seen the rakes on Tilikum’s flesh, and she must have witnessed the separation of parents from their children, and she performed in shows which used the slave labor of less fortunate creatures. The other trainers seem to have some inkling of this; John Jett, who worked with Tilikum, claims to have stayed at SeaWorld as long as he did for the purpose of watching over Tilikum. (If I may be so bold, let me put out there that the record shows Tilikum’s thorough ability to take care of himself as far as humans are concerned.) Jett’s lie – for, on the tape, it certainly comes across as a poorly rehearsed piece of stagecraft – is dramatically honest: he knows what blood he has on his head.

When you and I are held accountable, we will have to explain why we ate and why others did not, and why we wore clothes and others did not, and how we could sit idly and understand how others suffered without taking any meaningful action against it. Worst of all, how could we sit idly when we knew how immane our responsibility was? There is more to complicity than having been a resident of Osciewim in the early ’40s, and there is more to sin than breaking one of the Ten Commandments. Our existence must be counted loathsome until the loose threads have been accounted for. We who can turn blind eyes to injustices must not be surprised when the chickens come home to roost. If we claim to love justice, then like Malcolm X said, we may even need to be “glad” when they return.

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