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Blackfish: The Documentary as Argument

posted: 11.11.13 by Donna Winchell

Examples of argumentation do not have to come from the world of politics. The documentary Blackfish aired on CNN recently provided a look at the issue of keeping killer whales in captivity at parks like SeaWorld. It was a masterpiece of research. Film clips of the massive animals covering decades were interspersed with interviews of those who have worked closely with them. The show also served as an excellent example of the use of evidence and appeal to needs and values to support a claim.

Researchers for the show found a member of the crew who first went out and captured orcas to be trained to entertain the public. Even all of these years later, tears came to his eyes as he recalled tearing the young whales away from their families. Whales stay with their families for life, and the rest of a young whale’s family clustered around the ship as it was lifted out of the water and taken away. The emotional impact was clear as the man admitted that that was the worst thing he had ever done. He acknowledged that he should have known what they were doing was wrong on more than moral grounds when the workers were told to weight the bodies of three young whales killed in the attempt at capture and let them sink to the bottom.

Emotion was clear as well as numbers of former trainers spoke of their relationships with the whales at SeaWorld. The clips showed the beauty of their performances with the whales and the closeness with which they interacted with them. Some spoke of the rapport they developed with a whale named Tilikum, not knowing that he had a history as a killer.

That was where the show’s attention to factual evidence came into play. Tilikum had killed a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia before that park closed. Research also revealed that at Sealand, Tilikum was routinely caged with another whale that injured him repeatedly. Tilikum brought a history of abuse and violence with him to SeaWorld. In 1999, a young man who hid out at SeaWorld after closing was found the next morning dead on Tilikum’s back. Then in 2010, Tilikum killed a beloved trainer, Dawn Brancheau, during a performance. SeaWorld was fined by OSHA for safety violations, and the park is blocked from letting trainers perform in the water with Tilikum, who still performs and serves as a breeder.

The documentary was a masterful blend of the personal narratives of the capturer and trainers, of expert opinion by those who study whales for a living, and of emotional appeal. The clips of the whale families grieving the capture of their young were followed by those of the haunting keening of a mother whale whose baby was sold away from her to another park. Numerous others showed trainers playing with, petting, stroking, and even kissing the animals they loved to perform with. The performances, with their perfect timing and grace, were an argument for continuing to let visitors to SeaWorld and other parks have an opportunity to experience the orcas. Arguing against that is the video of a trainer grabbed by the foot and pulled repeatedly to the bottom of the pool by one of the whales. He survived because he was an experienced scuba diver and because he stayed calm enough to keep talking to the animal and stroking it whenever they surfaced until it let him go. Keeping the trainers on land and out of the water with the animals is an attempt at compromise that would allow the orcas to continue performing. Another development is false bottoms on the pools that would let whale and trainer be raised out of the water in less than a minute if something went wrong. New performers are now bred and raised in captivity instead of being torn from their families in the wild. These changes make it easier for those who would like to see performances continue and those who think they are too dangerous to reach common ground. All of the information in the documentary provides an interesting exercise in applying the elements of argument.

[Photo Credit: Orca by Raw Processor, on Flicker]


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