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.

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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 associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

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