Considering “Blackfish” and the Question of Mammals in Captivity

Considering “Blackfish” and the Question of Mammals in Captivity

Whatever your opinion about the controversial documentary Blackfish, its impact can’t be ignored. CNN has been airing Blackfish periodically since October 2013. The documentary has won several awards and inspired numerous boycotts. Personally, I have three friends who vowed to cease taking their children to SeaWorld after watching Blackfish; one of them even had an annual pass! Hollywood’s elite is also jumping into the debate, with some artists pulling out of performances at SeaWorld. And now the film is inspiring new legislation.

A California state lawmaker (Richard Bloom–D) recently introduced a bill that would prohibit theme park entertainment shows featuring orcas, such as the popular whale shows at SeaWorld San Diego. Bloom says that Blackfishinspired his bill. According to Bloom’s press release,

There is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes. These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete pens for their entire lives. It is time to end the practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement.

Bloom’s bill not only prohibits the use of orcas for entertainment in California, but also provides certain protections for those orcas currently in captivity. The goal of the proposed law would be to rehabilitate captive orcas and return as many as possible to the wild. In those cases where release isn’t possible, whales must be transferred to ocean-based pens where there is adequate room for them to swim according to their natural instincts. Furthermore, they would not be used for public display or entertainment.

The Message of “Blackfish”

Made in response to the orca-caused death of a veteran SeaWorld trainer, Blackfish features former SeaWorld trainers, whale harvesters, and marine experts to marshal the filmmaker’s case that keeping large-bodied mammals in captivity is unhealthy for the animals and potentially dangerous for their keepers (view the trailer here). The film’s premise is simple: long-term existence in a small, chlorinated tank separated from their natural pod is physically detrimental and psychologically traumatic to orcas, to the point that it drives some killer whales to act out against their trainers in psychotic behavior. After months of silence, SeaWorld finally responded to Blackfish in December 2013, asserting the film is propaganda, not a documentary.

The reasoning of the anti-SeaWorld crowd generally runs along these lines:

  1. Whales were designed to live in the open ocean and reside in pods.
  2. Whales are a highly intelligent species, capable of communicating and of reaching certain levels of reasoning.
  3. Whales are a highly social species, capable of bonding with their young, their pod, and even humans.
  4. Whales are a highly emotional species, capable of feeling such emotions as anger, trauma, and loss resulting from mistreatment or separation from their young or their pod.
  5. Because of their high-level of intelligence, sociability, and emotions, whales deserve protection in their natural habitat and should not be on display for human entertainment.

The Dignity of Soulish Creatures

Blackfish is part of a larger discussion in our culture about the use of higher-level mammals, including those in circuses and zoos, for human entertainment. After watching Blackfish several times, I’ve been struck by the relevance of this discussion to the Christian worldview.

In his book Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job, RTB founder and president Hugh Ross outlines his case for three categories of life: (1) purely physical life; (2) life that is both physical and “soulish” (Hebrew: nepesh); and (3) life that is physical, soulish, and spiritual (humans only). Ross builds a biblical and scientific case for the special creation of soulish creatures.1 These advanced mammals and birds exhibit certain high-level mental and emotional characteristics, including a drive to protect offspring, the ability to foresee the future to some degree, and the capability of engaging in symbolic thought.

If Ross’s theory is correct, then it raises provocative questions about its application to our treatment of these advanced animals. How should an animal’s soulish nature influence political policy regarding captive animals? How should it impact what we view as appropriate for entertainment purposes?

In the case of orcas, is it cruel to keep large-bodied, highly intelligent nepesh creatures in constricting, chlorinated tanks? Since God created whales to roam freely in pods in the ocean, what role should we play in preserving orcas in their natural habitat? Should these animals’ natural desire to serve and please others2 be exploited for mere entertainment?

In addition, I think that the topics raised by Blackfish provide potential for thoughtful dialogue between Christians and the broader culture. It is true that some people believe whales and other animals should have rights equal with humans’. However, that’s not an adequate reason for Christians to remain disengaged from the public dialogue about this issue or to ignore the plight of higher mammals in captivity. Rather, I believe it’s cause for Christians to engage more deeply in the discussion and explore how the Christian worldview comes to bear on this issue.

Although God conferred His image on humans alone (Genesis 1:26–28), perhaps there is a way to recognize the God-endowed soulish properties of high-level mammals without demeaning the special status of humanity. Simply because soulish animals aren’t created in the image of God doesn’t mean that their soulish qualities should be disregarded. Politics aside, our biblical responsibility as stewards of Earth’s resources ought to encourage us to provide some level of protection for higher mammals from exploitation or cruelty.

This is a sensitive issue for many people, but it’s my hope that my reflections here can start a conversation to consider critical questions about how humans ought to be proper stewards over nepesh creatures.

  1. Hugh Ross, Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job (Grand Rapid, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 119­–29.
  2. Ibid., 132–33.