You may or may not have seen Black Fish, a documentary that looks at the serious issues surrounding training killer whales at Sea World.
If you haven’t, you should.
In a nutshell, the documentary follows the tragic life story of Tilikum, a whale captive since youth, all the way to the point where he killed a trainer.
Interestingly, the documentary does not label Tilikum as inherently dangerous, but rather warped by years in tough, constrained environments. It is equally interesting that the trainers are depicted as caring, and having deep emotional connections with their whales. This is not a documentary about placing blame, but about giving facts, even when not everyone wants them to be spread about.
I agree with the message of the documentary; keeping such large animals captive in those conditions is detrimental to everyone involved. As we see, multiple trainers have been injured or killed and the pods from which the whales are taken mourn the loss of their young ones.The whales themselves suffer because we still do not understand them completely.
This is the aspect I’m most interested in: understanding the whales.
In one part, the documentary talks about how each whale pod uses an entirely separate language to communicate with others in the pod. It also speculates that this might be the reason whales in captivity do not get along so well, often physically harming one another. If they cannot understand each other, they cannot get along.
I tried to do my own research on killer whales, and to my surprise, there isn’t actually a whole lot to be found. They are still relatively unknown creatures, particularly in the wild. So how could it ever be assumed safe to take such a large, mysterious animal out of its natural environment and put it under high amounts of stress?
Unfortunately, our lack of understanding of animals is not restricted to killer whales. If you look hard enough, almost all our interactions with animals are plagued with incidences of harm caused by our inability to understand them, even though we think we are showing care. Examples include race-horse whipping and poorly equipped zoos with good intentions.
What’s the solution?
More research. Lots and lots of research. The more we know, the better we can interact. As much as Black Fish shows us a terrible situation, it does also represent progress. Our understanding is ever increasing. We have higher standards for abattoirs, an emphasis on free-range foods and wildlife parks whose emphasis is solely on conservation and research. Much of the world is against whaling.
The more we understand, the better we can treat the animals in our world. And the fact that we are starting to realise that is a very good sign.