After taking my kids to pet the dolphins, kiss the sea lions and watch the killer whales at a marine mammal theme park in Florida, I was told I have to see the documentary Blackfish.
For anyone unfamiliar with the film, it follows the history of three deaths associated with a captive killer whale named Tilikum, along with the history and context of other captive killer whales. It shows sailors (with big beards and tattoos) crying over how sad it was to take the baby whales (adult whales were too large to transport) from their families in the wild and the mother whales moaning as their babies are taken away from them. There are scenes of whales that have been "raked," or scraped by other whales' teeth, attributed to the animals' aggression due to the confinement of their tanks. It tells stories of these socially advanced marine mammals being isolated from the other whales or in tiny pools.
The filmmakers interview whale trainers who describe their sadness at seeing the treatment of these creatures, and pepper in gut-wrenching facts such as how the life span of killer whales is only half or a third as long in captivity as in the wild.
Needless to say, I had a newfound dismay with our innocent trip to see these sea creatures.
But I decided to continue my explorations beyond the documentary; I believe in trying to judge everyone favorably, and I felt the least I could do was give my childhood-idealized theme parks a chance to defend themselves. I soon found major research-based responses to practically everything I found so disturbing in the documentary.
For example, killer whales have not been taken from the wild since the '70s. Raking happens in the wild too. Parks with tiny pools are no longer active and often whales are separated to protect them when being attacked by their "comrades." There is a multitude of trainers who vehemently disagree with the film's depictions, including some of the people interviewed in the film claiming their words were taken out of context. The "baby whales" were only taken from their mothers after many years fully grown with babies of their own, which were actually transferred with them. And many of the "facts" about moaning, expected lifespan, and even accusations of these creatures being traumatized to the point of becoming psychotic murderous creatures were speculations and unfounded in research or facts.
So now what do I do with all this? Well, as a rabbi, I see truth. No, I don't see any truth in how to decipher which side to believe. I don't think most of us will really know a full truth about orcas in captivity, and I have no personal claim in any direction on the topic.
However, there is an important truth that I do claim we can learn from the two sides presented here in understanding the human psyche: We are inclined to believe what we hear and see.;
When something is presented to us, especially when presented emotionally and with conviction, we are inclined to believe it. And then we become impassioned about it. We'll even start to take action based on the passions we now feel. Sadly, we often skip the integral step of asking ourselves a simple question -- "Is that really true?" Is the perception I am being fed the actual truth of what happened?
It can be slightly daunting to tell our kindled emotions to slow down for a minute as we intellectually process the validity to what is being presented. If asked, we would all claim to be truth-seekers, but in order to truly seek truth, we have to sometimes give truth-seeking credence even beyond our emotions.
Part of the prayer the Shema includes a perplexing passage that says, "Do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes as they lead you astray." One could ask, if we can't trust our hearts and our eyes, what are we supposed to do?
The answer is that we have to think. Our hearts become impassioned by what is seen long before we have contemplated validity and truth to it. The Torah teaches us time and time again the importance of thinking for ourselves. Sometimes the supremacy of using our mind has to come before our heart's first impulse and even over our eyes' first impression.
I don't know how to feel when I think about the orcas still in captivity, but I do know that I've got a new understanding of the phrase, "Think twice before you act."