Tilikum in a scene from the movie "Blackfish" (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures )
The weekday matinee showing of “Blackfish” drew about 30 paying customers in a theater with seats for 250. Mainly older couples, though there was a trio of brawny guys, so big they seemed unlikely to fit into a single seat each, wearing muscle shirts that showed off the tattoos that thoroughly covered their arms, and joking nonstop. Not the likeliest audience for a documentary about captive whales, screening in an art cinema.
Critics almost uniformly praised the film about captive killer whales and the trainers they have injured and, a few times, killed. And indeed there were surprising discoveries: how inexperienced and inexpert people can be and still become whale trainers. How regretful some of them are about their roles in exploiting the magnificent creatures — yet at the same time, the certainty among most of them that they had bonded closely with the whales. And how tiny the holding tank was at a marine park in Vancouver where, during his earlier years as a performing killer whale, Tilikum spent some 16 hours a day.
The main thrust of the film was an examination of the possible reasons why, in 2010, Tilikum attacked and killed his trainer during a performance at the much-better-equipped SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. Tilikum already had been involved in two previous deaths. Was he just a mean whale? Unlikely, as former trainers described a whale that in his earlier years was among the most amenable to training. Was he always affected in some way by the fact that as a juvenile he had been captured at sea, taken from his mother and his family pod? Did he develop a “psychosis” from his early years in that inhumanely small tank at Sealand in Vancouver? Was he traumatized? Frustrated? Naturally moody? Or did he perhaps not even understand what he was doing during the attack?
The trainers and experts don’t seem to agree, though since they’re being interviewed for an anti-SeaWorld documentary, they have many criticisms of the company and other marine parks. And though the film never says it, that lack of obvious answers is really the point: We attribute human characteristics and feelings to animals even when we have little if any idea how they perceive things. We don’t know what Tilikum thinks or feels. We might have the technology to keep killer whales — large, intelligent animals that form lifelong social relationships with their families in the wild — captive in pools that don’t even register a percentage point to how far they roam in the wild. But we certainly can’t claim the understanding to force our will on them.
Even the trainers, for all their obvious love of the whales, fall into this trap from time to time, talking about their close bonds with the animals. But are killer whales hanging out with humans for fun times, or because they have to? Are they doing those tricks because it’s such a stimulating gas for them, or because that’s the way to get some fish?
The movie doesn’t tie things up in tidy knots, but if more people saw it, there would certainly be greater public pressure to stop the shows and the captive breeding. (The parks shrink from wild capture these days; a permit is required, and animal-rights activists would launch an all-out attack of their own.) The trio of jocular tattooed guys sat in absolute silence throughout "Blackfish," except for occasional gasps of sympathy for the whales. At the end, they stood up and walked out without talking or cracking a smile.