It was clear that Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary, Blackfish, struck a chord with the Atlanta audience when the manager of the Midtown Art Cinema had to use a gentle nudge more than once to stop the questions in last night’s special appearance by Emory Senior Lecturer Dr. Lori Marino, to allow the 9:30 showing to begin even close to “on-time.”
Members of the packed house at the Midtown Art Cinema last night were visibly moved by the journey that they had just witnessed, a journey of not only the orcas who were captured by an industry intent on using them for their commercial value, but also of the trainers who were used in much the same way.
Whether they came to “training” as a calling or on a college-age whim, what was striking was that the trainers’ journeys were not unlike Tilikum’s own. Trained and rewarded for appropriate behaviors and shunned for missing a “bridge” is a method employed not just on the non-human charges. While this method is not restricted to the aquarium industry, what is restricted to that industry is the maintaining in captivity of marine mammals who do not thrive in those conditions and using “trainers” to keep that captivity machine running.
What is also clear in the film is the nearly-inevitable stress-response that results and how that stress-response is an individuated process, both for human and non-human. For a thinking being who in a natural setting makes both individual and group choices, merely having this choice removed may induce a stress-response. The continual exposure to a lack of control will, once it reaches a point of saturation, express. Learning, as we do in the film, that the brains of orcas have an extremely developed brain structure related to communication and emotion, this lack of control and the inability of echolocators to fully “express” themselves in concrete sound-bouncing chambers, it is little wonder that orca-human interactions are bound to “go wrong.”
The humans involved, too, react to this inherent, systematic and institutional ignoring of marine mammal requisites for a full life. John Jett’s statement in the film that he remained a trainer “for” Tilikum, and his question, “who would take care of Tilikum,” revealed a growing awareness that things were not right for Tilly. Carol Ray shares her first inklings that the welfare of the orcas was less important than their survival and distribution among parks.
While Tilikum has nowhere to go to address the “flight” in “fight or flight stress-response,” it is heartening that certain trainers and others around the world recognize the horrors of marine mammal captivity and are taking on the fight for their freedom, in their own way, on their own journey.
What was also clear to the moviegoers was the “pink dolphin in the room,” and one brave young woman gave voice to it, when she asked whether what she had seen in the movie applied to dolphins and whales, as at the local Georgia Aquarium, which holds 11 dolphins and four beluga whales and is seeking more. Marino’s answer, born of her own research on dolphins, was unqualified in its response: dolphins and whales are not suited to captivity.
For more information about Tilikum and the facts revealed during the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s enforcement action at SeaWorld, I highly recommend the very readable Death at SeaWorld, now in its third printing in just over a year.
What you can do: