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Blackfish interview

Local animal rights expert discusses Blackfish, SeaWorld and the human-animal relationship

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Blackfish documentary Seaworld orca
Animal rights expert James McWilliams discusses the emotional appeal of the documentary Blackfish. Courtesy of Blackfish

This month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied SeaWorld's appeal of safety citations that were issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) after an investigation into the death of Dawn Brancheau. Brancheau, a trainer, was killed by the orca Tilikum in 2010, an incident that became the subject of the documentary Blackfish.

As a result of that investigation, OSHA fined SeaWorld and restricted trainer interactions with killer whales by physically separating the trainers from the animals during show performances. This ruling supports the Department of Labor's decision to fine SeaWorld, acknowledging that the company knew about the hazards associated with orca performances and did not adequately address those hazards.

The ruling is also consistent with public outcry that has persisted since the premiere of Blackfish at Sundance last year. Blackfish has sparked emotional conversations about how human interaction with intelligent animals. 

To get a better sense of the issue, CultureMap spoke to Austin’s own animal rights expert James McWilliams. A history professor at Texas State University, McWilliams writes about the agricultural, economic and moral implications of human-animal relationships. In an afternoon at the Whip-In, we talked about barbecue versus veganism, why Blackfish tugs at our heartstrings, and how we can rethink our relationships with the animals around us.

CultureMap: I first reached out to you because of your article on Forbes.com. You wrote critically about SeaWorld, and later that day your article was taken down.

James McWilliams: Yes, I was a contributor at Forbes, and had written about animal rights on the site before. It’s difficult, from a journalistic perspective, to write about animals. When you’re reporting on a situation, you can’t get the animal perspective, you can only get the perspective of the human who’s keeping them in captivity. When I started writing at Forbes, I made a point to not empower those who benefited from the exploitation of animals without at least providing the animal’s perspective through science or through the people who work with the animals on a daily basis.

In writing about Blackfish, I didn’t want to give more of a voice to SeaWorld than they already had. I wanted to make it clear that an orca in captivity is suffering and I wasn’t going to quote their spokesperson who claims otherwise. But editorially, that’s what they expected me to do. And when we disagreed, they took down the article and I resigned. This wasn’t anything dramatic — I contribute to a number of publications, and really, I give Forbes a lot of credit. They knew my perspective when they hired me to write for them. But I couldn’t in good conscience make the changes they were requesting.

CM: What other journalistic practices do you find difficult to adhere to on this topic?

JM: Over the last 40 years, we’ve vastly expanded our understanding of the level of animal awareness and intelligence, which at the very least should prompt us to consider their capacity to suffer, to realize that they are not objects. This goes back all the way to Darwin, to the discovery of the evolutionary link between us and the animals around us. Given the increasing prevalence of that knowledge, it is stunning to me how poorly mainstream journalism takes it into account.

The vast majority of mainstream journalism describes animals as if they were objects, as if they were automatons, which is the way Descartes described them 400 years ago. It’s an entirely antiquated perspective. Journalists are quite progressive in getting perspectives from different minority groups, gender perspectives, oppressed groups. But we haven’t extended that to animals, in fact we’ve quite clearly kept them out of this expanding circle.

CM: The response to Blackfish in the media seems to demonstrate that people are drawn to this topic, and are interested in learning about animals. Do you think that desire is also part of why people go to a park like SeaWorld in the first place?

JM: I do wonder why people go to SeaWorld. I’m deeply skeptical that they go to learn more about the lives of orcas. What do you learn about a mammal as massive as an orca being held in a tank? What do you learn about their natural behavior? The answer is nothing. What you do realize is that they are incredibly intelligent animals to be doing what they’re doing. And if anything, that heightens the paradox: look at these animals how smart they are and look at the tank that they’re in even though I’m here to learn about them. That should lead to some skepticism about the whole endeavor.

I’m not in any way persuaded that these parks are in genuinely interested in spreading knowledge. It’s commercial and it’s just entertainment, it’s like stopping to see a traffic accident. There are some scenes in Blackfish that really tug at the heart strings, when you see a hardened fisherman break down about something that happened 20 years ago. That’s very compelling. Seeing that kind of thing should make us skeptical of our behavior, and it’s why the film prompted so many people to boycott SeaWorld.

CM: What’s the connection between how we interact with animals for entertainment and as food?

JM: For a long time, I didn’t think much about the human-animal relationship beyond how most people think about it, in that it’s convenient and nice when we have companion animals and when we visit the zoo or watch animals do tricks at a circus. I never thought about this from an animal’s perspective until 10 years ago when I was writing a book on agriculture. The research for this book led me to dairy farms and feedlots. I was able to see animal agriculture close up and really at its most graphic, and I walked away from that thinking, initially, this is not sustainable. You look at the manure lagoons, at the amount of methane going into the air, at what it does to local water systems — it’s unsustainable.

At the same time, I began reading about animals from an ethical perspective too. I found certain questions posed to me, like, can you ethically justify eating animals if the end result is unimaginable suffering? And it turns out I couldn’t. I had seen animals suffering directly and I found it very difficult to keep eating them.

CM: In Austin, we have both sides of that ethical decision pretty well represented, between all the barbecue and vegan restaurants.

JM: Yes, I think Austin is a town where people want to live by their ideals. Eating meat has taken on this component of identity in Texas. But at the same time, PETA named Austin the most vegan friendly city. I’ve traveled all over talking about ethical veganism, and in Austin is where I find people who are most conversant in this idea. When you go out to eat and you want something without animal products in it, that’s possible in most restaurants. People have a heightened consciousness here, and that’s more encouraging than nothing at all.

CM: That kind of consciousness has led to some really emotional conversations about Blackfish. How do you see those conversations resulting in an actual change in how we relate to animals?

JM: It’s incredible how far we’ve come. In general, you have a hard time finding people who haven’t put some thought into our relationship with animals, and I think any conversation that addresses that in a genuine way is a sign of change. The slavery analogy is a very good one. In 1750, if you went to any community and said, what do you think about ending slavery? They would have said you’re crazy. There were some radical groups who were saying this, but they were on the fringes. A hundred years later, the abolitionist movement was very powerful and effectively was able to realize its ideals.

So if you look at that hundred year period and you ask, what tipped the balance? You can point certain events — the publishing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the daily publication of The Liberator, which was published every week for 30 years. You can look at the Dred Scott decision. There were all these people making arguments, and then there were some big events that came along, but you could never predict how they would all work together. The bottom line is that in a hundred year period, there was a radical shift. 

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