This project began with a visit to the gym.
On a Thursday night last October, I went to the gym to run. I was watching whatever football game was on, but when the game reached halftime, I had no desire to watch the commentators’ speculations about what would happen in the second half. So, I shifted over to watching one of the other televisions. On one of them, CNN was starting a movie called Blackfish.
I had seen the previews for this movie the week before but thought I wouldn’t have any interest in watching it. I like animals, and I’m a born and bred environmentalist, but I didn’t want to watch the film and then get invested in yet another cause to which I really couldn’t contribute.
That Thursday, I started watching it anyway.
After that first viewing, I became obsessed. I spent the next two months finding whatever information I could on orcas in captivity and watching Blackfish a half dozen more times. As I was researching, I noticed the pervasiveness of one particular conceit—one that asked the reader or viewer to put her consciousness into that of an orca.
I’ll give a couple of examples here. Right before the ten minute mark in Blackfish, Cowperthwaite includes a montage of news stories discussing the OSHA case against SeaWorld. In one of these, a CNN roundtable, one of the commentators made this statement:
- “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little irritated, aggravated, maybe a little psychotic?”
Chapter Three of David Kirby’s Death at Seaworld contains an imagined description of Tilikum’s life. This section begins with the following description:
- “Imagine for a moment that you are a young killer whale—a male, about two years of age, maybe nine feet long—and you are swimming alongside the safety and comfort of your mother through a cold, choppy sea, a generous stratum of blubber insulating you from the chill” (47).
Finding these anthropomorphisms over and over again wasn’t really surprising as we tend to put the unknowable in terms that we can understand. This is one of the central reasons we have used metaphor and story since the earliest time to explain the world around us. I recognize that sometimes anthropomorphism can be dangerous; however, in many cases, I believe it can be a useful tool since it can create the compassion necessary to consider the treatment of creatures other than ourselves and begin productive change – in whatever form it comes.
But these anthropomorphisms also started me down a unexpected road of thought. What if we were talking about humans rather than animals? What conclusions could we come to regarding cetacean captivity?
These were the questions that guided this project in its nascent stages. But having written and revised, thought and rethought, agonized, given up, and started again, I realized that this project is truly about dignity and the respect we should have for all life regardless of outward form.
I have no idea if this project is a good idea or a bad one, an insulting or an overly simplistic one, or even a worthy or valuable one. What I do know is that I saw a movie and asked what if, and this is what subsequently happened.
I respect your right as a reader to dislike and disagree with what I’m doing. After all, I very well might be treading on morally or ethically dubious ground. So, in the interest of creating a dialogue, I hope that even if you don’t like this project—especially if you don’t like this project—you will leave me a comment on the Contact Me page.
Before I finish here, I want to acknowledge the major sources that influenced this project.
- First, of course, is Blackfish. The entire story I’m telling here is based on the story of Tilikum that Gabriela Cowperthwaite highlights in her film.
- Second is Death at Seaworld. While the idea to write in the second person did come to me independent of reading this text (I started the writing six weeks before reading Kirby’s book), seeing David Kirby’s telling of Tilikum’s life has had a huge impact on the story.
- Third is Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain. All of the discussions of genetics are based off of the ideas that are present in Kress’s amazing novel.
- Fourth, and final, is JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst’s new novel S. The layered stories present in this blog are heavily influenced by the brilliant structuring in S.
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I hope you enjoy what you find here. Thank you for reading.