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If you can, go and see the documentary film “Blackfish”. Don’t buy popcorn. You will have plenty of food for thought. Do take tissues and time afterwards to reflect and let the images, twists and turns sink in and carry you into your own depths. How deep are you? Do you live life on the surface being spoonfed images and information by the media and agencies with an agenda? Do you get emotionally involved in soaps, ride along life on the crest of a wave not actually orchestrated by you? Are you consumed by the drive for possessions, status, admiration, fame, love or the pursuit of a sculptured body? What pulls your strings the most..reality checks or reality cheques?
The Blackfish Official Film site invites you to watch as
“Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the mulit-billion dollar sea-park industry.
This emotionally wrenching, tautly structured story challenges us to consider our relationship to nature and reveals how little we humans have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow mammals”
Try a little word association exercise. What are the words that come into your consciousness when you hear/see the word(s) “killer whale” or “orca”? – Most people might think of words like whale, sea..killer.. These “words” that we assign to species other than us are merely labels and the associations that we as a species have hooked onto them do not even begin in any miniscule way to capture the essence of the animal. Orcas, like dolphins and many other species, land living or sea dwelling are mammals like us. Mammals give birth to live young and nourish them with milk from the mammary glands. This is nature’s blueprint for a bodily, mentally and emotionally entwined form of intimacy from birth. Another feature of mammals is the neocortex which is Latin for “new bark” or “new rind”. The six layer cortex appears in the brains of mammals and not in any other species. Refer to sources like “Science Daily” and it will clarify that the neocortex is instrumental in mammalian higher functions including sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language. Science Daily implies (as us arrogant humans do) that the language function is purely a human attribute. Actually that and it, language, is an invention. It is obvious that all animals communicate so all have language be it manmade, monkeymade, whalemade, snailmade etc…
I outlined the above points because they were referred to within the film. It informed us that research has shown (they had the brain to illustrate it, literally) that the neocortex of an orca is larger than ours at the point/layer which, based on our human hypothesis of the function , indicates that their capacity for social and emotional functioning is quantitatively and qualitatively more advanced and different (more specialised?) than ours. I interpreted that as, that their emotional and social structural functioning is off the scale compared to ours. We cannot really begin to take baby steps to understanding or verbalising what their innate capabilitites within these spheres of being are.
Orcas are higly social animals, much more socialised than our species with tight knit social dynamics and group living. A baby orca nurses for about one year. Some calves remain with their mothers for a lifetime. Others may go off to join or start another pod. Mothers stay close together indefinitely. Tilikum and others like him have been snatched from the ocean with nets in drive hunts (he was three when he was became entangled by and with humans in Iceland) Research on the orca’s neocortex structure has revealed that their sense of identity is not like ours. No culture of individualism for them. Their sense of “self” is not about them as an atomised unit but as a “pod”. The “pod” = the individual sense of self. This is more than just blood is thicker than water and the human conception of family and loved ones. You know about the human anguish and sense of loss when separated from a family member but separation for orcas is enhanced to beyond our comprehension and our capabililities of feeling. We are born and (usually) live with our families until adult but we still leave the unit periodically for school, socialising etc but orcas do not. So when an orca is captured the other pod members stay there because they CANNOT leave. It is just not in their makeup/nature to do so.
There is footage of a calf being born in captivity which spent time with its mother and was then removed to be transported to another facility. One of the lifelong memories of the Blackfish film for me will be the image and the haunting crying of the mother. I can still hear the cry and see what I processed as anguish. It is imprinted within me. I carry the sorrow. I report the sorrow (inadequate human word)
Tilikum has endured nearly three decades of apalling human treatment. Snatched from his pod and his natural environment which is suited to him and he to it from evolutionary development over the eons, he has “sublived” -it cannot be called “living” in a totally alien reality being totally dependent on and dominated by representatives of his captors. Food is no longer a natural right but has been manipulated into a pay off for learning routines and performing them rigidly and regularly for no purpose other than to stimulate and delight the human Gaze. Both Tilikum and others like him and the Human Gaze have become a commodity, objectified into an exchange rate. Each sign that is programmed and acted out by Tilikum et al, including the trainer/performer is translated into an uberlanguage of dollar signs.
It is not only Tilikum who has been programmed and become embedded in this symbolic exchange rate. The dolphin trainers, the underlings of the SeaWorld enterprise are also lured, woven and force fed not fish but false consciousness. Seaworld in their inFINite wisdom have even recruited other orcas to train Tilikum. When he has not performed correctly they did not merely withhold food from him but from the other orcas too. They did the dirty work of the trainers and attacked him. But he spends most of his time alone. (When you hear that orcas are with their own kind in these facilities so they have a new family do not be fooled. Orcas live in pods which have their own language and identity/culture. These individual orcas are placed in small holdings with other orcas, that are of the same species but do not speak the same dialect aand do not have the same background. There is no escape – no place to retreat to. They have all been traumatised. There are no counsellors for whales.) The trainers imagine that they have a special bond with Tilikum and say that they feel so bonded that they worry about leaving their jobs because they do the best that they can for his welfare. Granted that key information is kept from them, including it was revealed, the truth about three human deaths with which Tilikum is associated. These notions of a special irreplaceable relationship between orca and trainer are manufactured and managed by SeaWorld. But I feel that SeaWorld and other facilities in this industry are playing on something much more deeply rooted and powerful within the human psyche.
From the moment that we gaze into a human’s eyes as an infant, from the moment that we first catch sight of our reflection in a mirror, we become transfixed by the “image” and by the Gaze. The effect is so powerful that psychoanalysts call it “The Mirror Stage”. From this we start to build up an “Ideal Image” of an “Ideal Self” that we are from then on compelled by, driven by at an unconscious level. Words cannot articulate this because it is initiated at a pre-verbal moment. This “Desire” to become our “Ideal Self” as image -ined and to attract the Gaze and desire of the Other (not self) becomes intrinsic to our deep psychological scaffolding. Watching film, TV, being photographed, catching a fleeting glance at ourselves in shop windows, on the tube is also entangled with this. If there is a live show, there is always an exchange of Gazes. Various psychodynamic processes are activated. When watching TV – the spectator becomes/identifies with the protagonist which is why you literally “lose yourself” in the film/narration. When watching live shows, like orca ones, I am saying that the Gazes become more entwined, more complex and that this is where the psychological pay off comes from for the trainers/performers. This is the “perk” that the trainers/performers receive and that SeaWorld knowingly manipulates.
The trainers appear on stage dressed in black and white outfits. When they swim to choreographed sequences and move through water with the orcas they become overidentified with the orcas. The Audience Gaze is on the orcas, this Gaze becomes audibilized (my make up word) into a collective gasp. The audience Gaze gets entangled with the Ideal Self and the audience are at that time entwined with the trainer/orca. The trainers are the orca and the audience are the trainer/orca.
But there is another Gaze involved here. The Gaze of the orca. With whom would the orca identify? With himself as humiliated and dominated? With the Gaze of the audience seeing his Un-Ideal Self? He is caught between two entangled Gazes and both Gazes at a deep level want to be him, are identifying with him.
Without giving too much away because I would like to encourage people to go and see the film for themselves, there is a moment in the film which shows the build up to Dawn Brancheau’s death. My friend (Oephebia Animal Healer – check her out on the internet ) discussed the film afterwards at length and we both caught this moment. Tilikum had shown sighns (that spelling mistake is a Freudian slip so I will not correct it) of non compliance when he continued circling the pool when he was supposed to have paraded round once waving ” at the “Gaze” with his fin. SeaWorld interpreted from the footage that he did not hear the trainer’s commanding whistle. Oh come on, the hearing range of an orca is much more finely tuned than ours. It was coming to the end of his act and it was said that he would have known this because there was not much fish left in his bucket. He was being awarded less and less and he would have registered the clinks of glass at the bottom and known that the fish was tasting more watery. The well was running dry and he was being asked to perform more tricks. Then he would be locked into his undersized tank for a lengthy period. There was a moment when the camera caught Tilikum’s Gaze. Granted we knew what was going to happen next. Therefore it would probably be said that Oephebia and I picked up something that was not there. But the catching of that Gaze may have been a pivotal moment when the energy and dynamic shifted. I wonder if Tilikum “saw” his image in the camera lens. Not long after, he had pulled Dawn Blancheau in and she was dead.
SeaWorld will not accept liability, their Gaze is deliberately blind to the fact that they produced and directed the build up and execution of this incident, which was not the first death that Tilikum has been implicated in. Why? Well you know why. Money. Tilikum is a brood bull. He has fathered around 21 calves. He is worth his weight in dollars.
SeaWorld have been involved in litigation, which they have skilfully choreographed. At the moment during orca shows, there has to be a barrier between the orcas and the trainers. SeaWorld are fighting this. They want barriers removed and insist that it was trainer error that caused the fatalities. Of course they do not want barriers. It affects the Gaze dynamics. The trainer cannot identify in the same way with the orca (this will start to chip away and break the spell that the trainer has been under) so the audience Gaze cannot identify with the Ideal Image of the trainer and orca. The attraction and psychological impact is watered down.
That orcaward moment when SeaWorld might have to close these shows. It cannot come soon enough.
My thoughts are with Tilikum and all marine animals currently held in these barbaric facilities. Please do not think that the Gaze of the trainers and audience represent all humans.