Friday, August 23, 2013

The Other and animal cruelty

I saw Blackfish the other day.

A blackfish is another name for a killer whale, and the film concerns itself with captive whales held at theme parks. The thesis of the film, in short, is that keeping killer whales in captivity is cruel.  I think the film makes its case well, but the nature of the argument shows the difficulty of getting a general audience to care about animal cruelty. There are two main avenues the film takes in arguing against captivity for killer whales:

(1) Killer whales are extremely intelligent animals with highly developed emotional lives, local culture (!), and familial bonds. When taken from the wild, whales are separated from their pods and families, and are placed into unfamiliar social groups which can be dangerous and threatening. Whales are stored in small tanks that cannot hope to approximate the open ocean, and not given near as much attention or stimulation as they would have in the wild. Captive whale life expectancy past infancy is much lower than for wild whales.

(2) Captive killer whales put humans at risk. There is imminent danger to human trainers of killer whales, and many trainers have been injured (and some killed) by aggressive or unpredictable whale behavior. In addition, humans are brutalized by the cruelty they must do to whales to keep them in captivity and ready to perform.

Number (1) focuses on animal cost of animal cruelty. It suggests that animals cruelty is bad because cruelty is, independent of circumstances, bad. Number (2) focuses on the human cost of animal cruelty. It suggests that animal cruelty is bad because is it cruel and dangerous to humans. 

Both (1) and (2) are good reasons for ending whale captivity, but, for me, number (1) is enough. I think it's wrong to inflict suffering and death on animals for our pleasure. I think cruelty is bad, should be avoided wherever possible, and should definitely be avoided when cruelty occurs in the name of entertainment. Reason (1) is given a fair amount of screen time, and it's clear the film-makers care about the cruelty done to the whales. But reason number (2) dominates the narrative of the film, which is structured around the death of a SeaWorld trainer in 2010. Much of the film plays like a story of a faceless, greedy corporation tricking eager trainers who love animals into risking their lives for corporate profit. It's compelling, and the obvious disillusionment of the interviewed trainers is heartbreaking and sometimes hard to watch. The film shows that the deaths and injuries suffered by trainers could have been avoided, because the dangers of working with killer whales in captivity were well-known. The risk was kept obscure from trainers and the general public. Blackfish ends on a triumphant, if somber, note: OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), following a lawsuit brought against SeaWorld after a trainer was killed by a whale in 2010, has forbidden whale trainers from entering the water with captive whales (SeaWorld is appealing). 

But what if there was no risk to humans in keeping captive whales? What if trainers had always been fully advised of the risks posed by captive whales, and never swam with them? In all likelihood, the movie would not have been made. Blackfish's wikipedia page notes that the filmmakers' interest in captive whales stemmed from the trainer's death in 2010. The cruelty and violence done to that trainer is what made the animal cruelty visible to the filmmakers, and, ultimately, visible to the film's audience. 

Animal cruelty arguments are in a difficult spot: where animal cruelty coincides with cruelty or violence done to humans, arguments against animal cruelty are often made, and heard. Otherwise...?

The fact remains that animals--their bodies, their minds, their lives--are so different as to make their suffering nearly incomprehensible to us: animals are the Other. Historically, the Other has taken many forms, depending on who and when you asked, and Others have suffered always cruelty because they were other. Cruelty is almost always done for expediency as well as xenophobia, which is why it seems like a good idea at the time, but cruelty never looks good with enough historical distance. Because animals are so different from us (as opposed to people qualifying as Other, who at least are regarded [though not always] as part of the "human race," which implies some commonality), the empathetic effort to care about animal suffering and life is greater. A killer whale might be "intelligent," but what does intelligence even mean if it doesn't refer to a human?

This has turned a little rambling, so let me get to the point: to end animal cruelty, people must take an empathetic leap. Blackfish shows how cruelty and violence have been done to people in the name of corporate profit.  But that's not a reason to end killer whale captivity. For that, people have to consider the film's other argument: consider the mind and body of the whale. To end whale suffering at human hands, the whale has to become something other than Other in human minds.

No comments:

Post a Comment