SeaWorld, Blackfish, and Killer Companion Species

Growing up in Florida where the ocean was only a brief car ride away, I was conscious of my privileged proximity to sea creatures. Though not an everyday occurrence, I remember several occasions during my childhood when a pod of twenty-something dolphins swimming just off the shore punctuated a day of swimming and snorkeling. As a Florida kid, too, theme parks of the Disney, Universal, and Busch variety were also (an albeit less-frequent) source of entertainment, and a two-day pass to SeaWorld meant getting to see, feed, and even touch all the marine creatures I wanted, even the big mammals–those shining, speeding dolphins–who I at other times watched at a distance. I loved the dolphins in the tank and in the sea equally, and I hoped that they loved me, too: as children often do, I wanted to be friends with animals, for us to recognize in each other a sense of goodwill. In our post-natural world, one in which it no longer makes sense to appeal to a pristine Nature separate from Culture, or even to call wild animals “natural” and captive animals something else, how can we make sense of the differences between my relationship to the cetacean companions in the tank and those in the sea, both of which gave me so much pleasure to encounter?

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s recent documentary Blackfish provides one explanation. The film describes the capture, exhibition, and use of the orca Tilikum who, even after being involved in the deaths of three human trainers, continues to be held by SeaWorld for breeding purposes (as well as limited aspects of performance). In addition to Tilikum’s history, told alongside tales of other captive orcas and interviews with orca trainers and experts, the film presents footage from SeaWorld “Shamu” shows, images I often felt were extracted directly from my personal memory. Trainers rub and embrace the whales, leap into the water alongside them, and jump from the tips of their noses into mid-air dives. These feats are certainly impressive, but in the context of Blackfish, what looks like a triumph of animal intelligence and trainability takes on an air of foreboding: we know one of these whales has killed people, and beyond the consequence for our species, we know that the whales themselves, because of the conditions they endure at SeaWorld and similar venues, become bored, lonely, aggressive, and often express these feelings by hurting one another.

Killer whale and trainer. Image source: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/7314127/Killer-whale-facts.html
Killer whale and trainer. Image source: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/7314127/Killer-whale-facts.html

So what about the trainers and (what often seems to be) their loving relationships with the animals, not to mention the hundreds of people, like my younger self, cheering from the stands? Do the animals’ artificial living conditions necessitate that their seemingly close relationships with humans are also artificial? Drawing from Louis Althusser, Donna Haraway helps provide a partial answer. In her Companion Species Manifesto, she writes that, “[T]hrough our ideologically-loaded narratives of their lives, animals ‘hail’ us to account for the regimes in which they and we must live…We also live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies.” I read Tilikum’s story as an example of such an animal hailing, of one particular whale’s account of what it means to live in relation to humans. His is a call for recognition made through a meeting of flesh, an exposure of SeaWorld’s artifice told in orca language.

Put differently, Tilikum’s behavior illustrates one example of what it means to encounter killer whales as companion species, not as characters in SeaWorld’s fictional narrative of interspecies harmony and enchantment. Blackfish demonstrates that whales have a deep and complex emotional range: they feel despair, anxiety, happiness, and much more. That said, like other animals, including even our dogs and cats, killer whales may become angry and respond with a bite. Unlike dogs and cats, however, killer whales can also drown people. This does not mean that orcas are an evil species (Tilikum may have even had a sense that what he did to Dawn was in some way “wrong” or a transgression of safe and friendly conduct). It does mean, however, that, as killer whales, they might respond to their conditions of life in species-specific ways, and when they do bite, the consequences for humans are far more severe. I do not doubt that Dawn Brancheau, the trainer who Tilikum most recently killed, loved the whales with whom she worked, and I do not even doubt that Tilikum likely cared for Dawn. What I do doubt is SeaWorld’s genuine interest in cultivating human-orca relationships in ways that do not obfuscate the risks intrinsic to being a companion species. As Haraway reminds us, “[t]here cannot be just one companion species; there have to be at least two to make one.” SeaWorld’s most egregious fiction may be that companion species are one-sided, that humans call all the shots in their relations with whales.

For whale trainers and former visitors to SeaWorld such as myself, caring for and finding pleasure in another species necessitates perpetually taking stock of the terms of the relationship. Being a companion species can be messy, and communicating across species even messier: mistakes and missteps are bound to happen. More than some isolated incident, however, SeaWorld’s glossing-over of these issues in attempt to manufacture flawless, entertaining performances ignores the specificity of whales as animals, as creatures smart, social, carnivorous, and strong. By acting out as a killer whale, by communicating not according to some human sense of what constitutes “good behavior” but as a nonhuman animal, Tilikum calls to be recognized and treated as a killer whale and therefore with all the messiness and risks that entails. How we respond to Tilikum’s call reflects what kind of companion species we humans aspire to be, regardless of whether we encounter our fellow animal in a tank or across an ocean.

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