If you haven’t watched Blackfish on Netflix, do it immediately. It’s definitely one of the best documentary films I’ve seen in my life. Composed mostly of interviews with former trainers at SeaWorld amusement parks, Blackfish argues that it’s barbaric and morally wrong for human beings to hold killer whales in captivity, that regardless of their ability to learn and perform tricks and other complex behaviors, orcas simply aren’t meant to be living their lives in these fish tanks, prisons really, where the lack of stimulus often leads to aggressive behavior not seen in the wild.
The movie is powerful. I watched it a few days ago, and I’ve been carrying around a pit in the center of my stomach ever since, a weird sort of indefinable sadness lurking in the periphery of my thoughts. I’m not like a whale lover or anything, I mean, I certainly respect the majesty and the intelligence of these creatures. We share the same planet yet they occupy a totally different world, experience reality in ways that we can only guess.
And that’s, I think, kind of the root behind why I’m feeling so down. That while I can guess as to how the whales feel, out in the wild, in captivity, I really have no idea, and I’ll never have any idea. One of the trainers in the film looks back at his time with SeaWorld, he remarks that he used to feel like he had a special connection with his whale. But after having been removed from the situation, he starts questioning, was it really a connection? Or was it merely anthropomorphized responses motivated by the fish used to reward each behavior?
Who knows what a whale is thinking? I look at my dog, who knows what my dog is thinking? And this is where I start to get really bummed out. We adopted our dog Steve when he was only six weeks old. We were living in Ecuador at the time, and this flea-covered animal, barely bigger than a baseball, was all but thrown at us by a well-intentioned neighbor. “Here you go, look, a puppy,” was the gist of it, and we raised him, we brought him back to the United States with us, giving this animal that should have been living on the streets a life of luxury and comfort.
But is that what Steve wants? I know that he likes to eat, and if I’m holding out a dog biscuit or a piece of rawhide, he’ll sit, he’ll lay down, he’ll give me his paws. But if the reward weren’t a part of the equation, is there any way he’d be doing what he’s doing? Steve spends a lot of the time sleeping on the couch, or looking out the window. Is there a part of him that wishes he had his freedom? How big of a part is it?
It all boils down to the fact that, I have no idea what he’s thinking. I look at him and I make assumptions based on his behavior that he’s happy or not happy. And I do love my dog, and I really do hope that he’s happy. When I come home after work and he’s jumping at the door, I like to think that he’s excited to see me, rather than just excited at the potential that I might be moved to ask him to do a trick to be rewarded with a dog biscuit. When I’m sitting down on the couch and he lies down on top of me, I hope to think that he enjoys my presence, that he’s not begrudgingly using me as a substitute for what should be physical contact with other dogs.
Whales aren’t dogs, I know that. I know that dogs have a history of domestication, of a mutual partnership with human beings that dates far back throughout history. But dogs aren’t people either. And I can’t even tell what other people are thinking most of the time. If you ask me how I’m doing, I’ll probably always smile and say, “Great!” But am I really doing great? Maybe. Maybe I’m super pissed off. But I just want to come across as cheerful, because that’s going to get me farther in life than being pissed off.
I guess I just have to do the best I can, to try my best to be empathetic, to treat everybody with compassion and kindness. But there are always a million other questions that I’ll never really be able to touch. Like what the cow feels as it’s led to the slaughter. Or what the cockroach feels as I stamp it out under my shoe when I see it running across my living room floor. It’s too much. These moral dilemmas, I don’t have any convincing answers to make myself feel better.
But seriously, watch Blackfish, because it’s a great movie, and it made me certain of at least one thing: don’t go to SeaWorld. Don’t support them caging those whales. Fuck that.