Five killer whales performing at “Marineland” in Antibes, southern France in 2008. Photo: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty
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What hubris makes us think we can imprison a 22ft killing machine?

Be careful if you watch Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that tells the story of orcas in captivity, framed around the experiences of a 33-year-old male called Tilikum. By the end, you’ll want to stop people in the street to warn them not to visit marine amusement parks.

Idly browsing through Netflix is a dangerous business. For a start, it encourages you to wallow in old sitcoms and cult dramas you’ve watched a dozen times before instead of learning what this newfangled “Scandinavian noir” business is. But sometimes, serendipity leads you to something remarkable – which is how I ended up this weekend turning into an orca liberationist.

I don’t know how to phrase this in a way that won’t get me burned in effigy but – deep breath – here goes. I’m suspicious about animal rights as a political cause because the kind of people who care passionately about them often don’t seem to have too much time for human beings. (A political strategist once told me that he was tasked with converting website visitors who came through single-issue campaigns into full party members; he found the animal lovers the hardest to convince.)

But enough of my prejudice. Even if you’re reading this over a dinner of battery chicken or about to head out on a grouse shoot, you should watch Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that tells the story of orcas in captivity, framed around the experiences of a 33-year-old male called Tilikum. By the end, you’ll want to stop people in the street to warn them not to visit marine amusement parks. (SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for Blackfish; it later published a statement on its website taking issue with several of the film’s claims and called it “propaganda, not a documentary”.)

Tilikum measures 22 and a half feet and weighs roughly 5,400 kilograms. His distinctive dorsal fin lolls uselessly to the side: this happens to most males in captivity. He is Icelandic, which turns out to matter because orcas have highly developed brains and sophisticated ways of communicating: witness the YouTube video in which three of them collaborate like synchronised swimmers to create a wave that dislodges a seal from an ice floe. Yet, for most of his life – he was captured at the age of two – Tilikum has been kept with unrelated orcas from different areas. (It’s like a horrible killer-whale version of Big Brother, only lasting three decades.) In his first home, Sealand in British Columbia, he was trained with other whales using punishment: if he messed up a trick, they’d all have their food withheld. This annoyed the others, so they would rake him with their teeth, causing him to bleed.

Tilikum’s time at Sealand ended in 1992 after he and the other two whales killed Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old competitive swimmer who worked there as a part-time trainer. She slipped into the pool and the whales repeatedly dragged her under, letting her resurface three times to call for help. After her death, Sealand closed and Tilikum moved to SeaWorld in Florida, where in 1999 he was found one morning with a dead, naked man draped over his back. Daniel Dukes had decided to sneak into the pool at night for a magical experience with the orcas. Among many injuries, his scrotum had been torn open.

By this point, my boyfriend had been lured away from whatever task he had begun elsewhere in the flat. “Look at its eyes!” he hissed, pointing out that he is the same age as Tilikum and he would not have appreciated spending most of his life so far in a concrete pool. We agreed that Tilikum had the cold, calculating eyes of a killer – but then, the clue is in the name of his species. Killer whales don’t have any moral prohibition on murder: in the wild, they have to kill to eat. What dawns on you as you watch Blackfish is how arrogant we are to think that we can “tame” such a creature; no matter how long we make them jump for balloons, let us ride on their backs, beach themselves for the applause of a holiday crowd, they are still muscle-bound killing machines with complicated inner lives.

Once you understand that, it’s hard not to watch through your fingers every time a puny human gets in the water with them. In one agonising incident shown in the film, a SeaWorld orca drags a senior trainer repeatedly to the bottom of the pool by the foot, toying with him as it might do with a seal. Only quick thinking by co-workers prevented that from becoming another tragedy.

Dawn Brancheau wasn’t so lucky. The 40-year-old trainer was killed by Tilikum in February 2010 after being pulled into the water. He ripped off her arm at the elbow, scalped her and severed her spine; it took hours to retrieve her body.

Tilikum is still alive and still living at SeaWorld but who – knowing any of this – would want to see him perform? There is no doubt that the park’s trainers love and care for the animals in their charge, but the whole set-up is deeply nauseating. It would feel like gawking at some kind of orca Guantanamo Bay.

Animals make appealing, uncomplicated victims. The irony here is that maybe SeaWorld is right to claim that keeping orcas in captivity, where people can be charmed by them, is the only way to make us care about the dangers they face in the wild. If so, it’s just another piece of evidence of our human selfishness – saving the planet sounds like too much hassle, so let’s make a priority of the entertaining, photogenic animals. Pandas, yes; the other 2,000-odd species that WWF estimates go extinct every year? Nah.

Watching Blackfish has also made me question my holiday habit of heading for a city’s zoo: although the best are world-class research centres, I’ve seen too many where intelligent animals are eking out their days in a glorified car park. Why do I need to reassure myself regularly that giraffes really exist – that they’re not some global conspiracy perpetuated by David Attenborough?

So, no, I wouldn’t go to SeaWorld now - but more than eight million people a year do. Would they still want to if they knew what they were watching? 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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