Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Double Feature: Blackfish (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, USA, 2013) and Grizzly Man (dir. Werner Herzog, USA, 2005)

Contemplating the rights of animals was a lot simpler when I took Genesis literally, believing the earth and its creatures were ours to have dominion over and use as we see fit until Jesus returned.  Looking back on 30-some years of regular church attendance, I cannot recall a single sermon or Sunday school class nudging me to think more deeply on this important topic.  Now, as an atheist who reads science books for fun, I get to grapple with the reality that all vertebrate brains (humans included) have the same basic anatomical layout, differing only in the relative simplicity or complexity of various structures.  Just as challenging is the growing scientific consensus that mammals, birds, and even (believe it or not) octopuses and cuttlefish possess consciousness.  In striving to act on this hard data rather than an arrogant faith in humanity’s unique status as God’s image-bearers, how should we relate to our fellow creatures?

This question is key to both Blackfish and Grizzly Man.  Both films tragically revolve around the deaths of people who considered themselves friends to the species responsible for their demise.  Each film, however, approaches this question and their respective stories quite differently.

Blackfish chooses a more straightforward route of journalistic advocacy, to focus on the plight of orcas held captive by SeaWorld and the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at their Orlando facility.  Although only the second directorial effort by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish quite capably melds interviews, news footage, graphics, and recordings of SeaWorld shows to move the narrative tautly forward.  I do agree with my friend Ken Morefield that at times this movie feels as if it could become a snuff film, especially with its ambiguous opening imagery (are those orcas doing their show or attacking a trainer?) overlaid with the 911 phone call proclaiming Brancheau’s death.  Fortunately, the rest of the film is much cleaner in its storytelling:  while some of the imagery is horrifying, it feels necessary for our understanding, not gratuitous.

Through the course of Blackfish, we learn a good deal about orca biology and behavior.  Most interesting to me as a psychiatrist, MRI imaging has revealed that the orca limbic system (a brain region involved in emotion and memory) contains a structure that our brain lacks.  This paralimbic cleft very likely plays a role in the orca’s sense of self and the complex social bonds formed within their pods.  This knowledge makes all the more tragic SeaWorld’s longstanding practice of separating mothers from their young, many of whom would naturally stay with their parent for life.

If SeaWorld sounds like the villain of this tale, here are some of their deceits alleged in Blackfish to justify this label:

- Contrary to promotional videos claiming their employees receive years of training, the trainers interviewed for Blackfish recount entering animal enclosures from Day One of their employment.
- Tilikum, the orca that killed Blancheau in Florida, was likely the key player in the death of a trainer at a Canadian aquarium in 1991.  Additionally, his lunging behavior was noted in his SeaWorld profile.  Yet, in a courtroom trial, SeaWorld’s head trainer denied any history of aggression on Tilikum’s part prior to Blancheau’s death.
- SeaWorld guides routinely spout falsehoods to tourists, perhaps most egregiously and self-servingly stating that the normal lifespan for orcas is 25-35 years, which is prolonged by their veterinary treatment in captivity.  In actuality, orca lifespans in the wild are comparable to those of humans.
- Disgracefully, SeaWorld officials played the “blame the victim” game after Ms. Blancheau’s death, yet she was only engaged in standard SeaWorld operating procedure when Tilikum killed her.

In Grizzly Man, by contrast, the primary fictions are of the self-deceiving sort.  This movie’s central figure is Timothy Treadwell, mauled and eaten by a grizzly bear after spending 13 summers among this species on the Alaskan Peninsula.  Treadwell, in founding the organization “Grizzly People,” contended that he was advocating for the bears he lived among and adored.  However, a bear biologist interviewed for the film unequivocally states that the Alaskan grizzly population is quite healthy, safe from poaching, and numbers around 35,000 as it lives on National Park Service land.   

Though a college dropout and failed actor, Treadwell was a superb cinematographer, and Grizzly Man director Werner Herzog adroitly sifted through over 100 hours of Treadwell’s video footage to share magnificent images of bears fighting, fishing, and strolling across gorgeous landscapes.  As Herzog’s narration  informs us, Treadwell’s camera also turned inward and became a sort of confessional.  Treadwell tells the camera that he is clumsy in the human world and was nothing until he began to live among the bears.  Darkly, he also reveals a grandiose and paranoid streak in his monologues, expressing a belief that he alone has the ability to save the bears and voicing a delusional mistrust of everyone else who enters the bears’ territory.

Over his 50+ year career as a director, Herzog has excelled in introducing viewers to people striving to break through the constraints of their humanity, whether in trying to subjugate the jungle (Fitzcarraldo; Aguirre: The Wrath of God), escape Southeast Asia POW camps (Little Dieter Needs to Fly; Rescue Dawn), push the limits of flight (White Diamond), or live and do research in Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World).  And in Grizzly Man, Herzog has found another worthy subject for his ruminations.  Where Blackfish advocates, Grizzly Man meditates.

Truth be told, a current of self-deception runs through Blackfish, too, although of a different strain.  Nearly all of the former orca trainers interviewed for Blackfish experienced a creeping realization that they were partaking in a cruel enterprise, and their consciences no longer permitted them to recite corporate misinformation.  Four of these trainers commendably have gone on to found Voice of the Orcas, a clearinghouse for articles and videos about orca conservation and activism.

One of the Blackfish trainers urges that captive orcas ought to be released into the wild wherever possible or at a minimum placed into large open ocean pens.  After reading Laurel Braitman’s scientifically savvy and well-documented book Animal Madness, I’m starting to believe that the orca trainer’s reasoning should be applied to zoo animals, too, for at least three interlocking reasons.  First, we lack compelling data that zoo visits increase human empathy for other animals (and intuitively, why would we expect differently, when these animals are objectified and enclosed solely for the edu-tainment of Homo sapiens?).  Second, the high prevalence of captivity-induced mental illness - often necessitating treatment with antidepressants, antipsychotics, and/or anti-anxiety medications - unequivocally demonstrates that caged animals are not content animals.  Third, to end where we began, contemporary neuroscience increasingly reveals that our fellow vertebrates are sentient beings, capable of forming strong attachments within their tribe and feeling their forced separations quite intensely.

We desperately need to achieve balance here.  The life and death of Treadwell reveal the dangerous delusion of projecting our own psychological needs and overidentifying with wild creatures, while Blackfish persuasively demonstrates the cruelty of penning animals who would normally enjoy a habitat measuring dozens of miles into tiny enclosures, while using them to turn a profit and entertain.

(Both of these films contain material suitable for consideration by teens, though I think their violence would very likely be too distressing for younger viewers.)

Grizzly Man5 out of 5 stars
Blackfish4 out of 5 stars


  1. Thanks for the shout out, Andrew.
    I think both these films explore the fuzzy boundary between foolish anthropomorphizing and simply animal training. Can a film about the tiger that eventually bit the circus act guys be far behind?

  2. You're quite welcome, Ken. I appreciate your friendship and your thoughtful film analysis. What I'd really love to see is a documentary based on the book I mentioned above, Animal Madness. Braitman is one of the better science writers I've come across, blending good story-tellling, empathy, erudition, and a modest dose of advocacy.