Revisiting ‘Jurassic Park’ in light of ‘Blackfish’

Jon Hochschartner

With next summer’s release of ‘Jurassic World,’ recently teased with a trailer starring Chris Pratt, I think it’s worthwhile to revisit the original film in the paleontological franchise in light of the 2013 SeaWorld-documentary ‘Blackfish,’ with a focus on the inherent abuse captivity represents for wild animals and the potential dangers it creates for human handlers.

While I think it’s safe to assume most readers have seen ‘Jurassic Park,’ for those not familiar with the other title, ‘Blackfish’ centers on Tilikum, an orca currently living in SeaWorld Orlando, who has been held captive for more than thirty years. During that time, he has killed three humans. The movie, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, suggests Tilikum’s aggression was the result of his imprisonment. As journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell asked, “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little irritated, aggravated, maybe a little psychotic?” Since the documentary’s release, SeaWorld has posted dramatic financial losses.

Interestingly, the inciting incidents for Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster and ‘Blackfish’ are remarkably similar. ‘Jurassic Park’ opens on an island off the coast of Costa Rica with a captive velociraptor killing an employee of InGen, the bioengineering company responsible for the titular resort. It’s this specific action that puts the entire plot of the film in motion. Paleobotanist Ellie Sattler, mathematician Ian Malcom, and paleontologist Alan Grant are invited to the island in the wake of this episode to assess the park’s safety. Correspondingly, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary begins with the brutal drowning of an experienced SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, by Tilikum. From there, the remainder of the film seeks to answer the question of why this happened.

Dismissing conservative accusations of anthropomorphism, historian Jason Hribal encourages us to see such acts of violence not as random occurrences, but as intentional rebellions against speciesist confinement. “Through my research, the resistance became ever more evident. Captive animals escaped their cages,” Hribal said. “They attacked their keepers. They demanded more food. They refused to perform. They refused to reproduce. The resistance itself could be organized.”

Obviously there are differences between real-life orcas and fictional dinosaurs. As researcher Howard Garrett states in ‘Blackfish,’ there is no record of orcas attacking humans in the wild. And given the speculative nature of ‘Jurassic Park,’ we have no idea how various ancient species would interact with humans. Existing predators, such as tigers, generally attack humans only if they can’t meet their dietary needs otherwise. But say we concede, for the sake of argument, that free-living prehistoric animals would choose to hunt and kill us, absent unique circumstances. I don’t think such predation would invalidate the view that specific non-human violence in ‘Jurassic Park’ could be interpreted, to one degree or another, as an intentional form of resistance.

Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer, says that Tilikum, an animal who should be traveling 100 miles a day, is kept in what amounts to a small, concrete swimming pool. Similarly, in ‘Jurassic Park,’ the resort’s ‘game’ warden Robert Muldoon states that, like cheetahs, velociraptors can run 50-60 miles per hour, which presumably means the species would be accustomed to free access to large swaths of land. And yet the velociraptors are kept in a ludicrously small cage, about the size of a hockey rink, which they clearly do not enjoy. “She had them all attacking the [electrified] fences when the feeders came,” Muldoon says, referring to the leader of the pride. “But they never attack the same place twice. They were testing the fences for weaknesses systematically. They remembered.”

Indeed, the desire of these animals to escape is so great the owner of the resort, John Hammond, concedes InGen has been forced to take extreme precautions to prevent this from happening. “The viewing area below us will have eight-inch tempered glass set in reinforced steel frames,” Hammond says.

One must assume that Spielberg and others involved in the creation of the box-office smash that was ‘Jurassic Park’ did not intend it to be a sci-fi parable of non-human revolt against captivity. The filmmakers’ view appears to be expressed through the voice of Dr. Malcolm, who has nothing to say regarding animal treatment or use, and sees the threat posed by the island’s dinosaurs purely as a result of scientific arrogance run amok. But I’m not sure that authorial intent matters that much. Ultimately, there’s enough evidence in the film to make credible an anti-speciesist interpretation of ‘Jurassic Park’ as a sort of fictionalized ‘Blackfish.’

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