The shocking must-see documentary “Blackfish” tells the tragic story of a SeaWorld trainer killed by one of its orcas, the six-ton male named Tilikum and the even more tragic tale of why we continue to keep orcas in captivity.
As “Blackfish” highlights, SeaWorld’s cash-Cetaceans come with a steep price. Injuries and casualties are frequent occurrences when working with captive orcas. Senior SeaWorld orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, killed in 2010 by an orca named Tilikum, was the inspiration for the film, and her death has fueled campaigns around the world charging SeaWorld to release captive orcas for reasons Jane Velasquez Mitchell summed up in one sentence: “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?”
Velasquez Mitchell’s bathtub reference isn’t far off: In the wild, orcas will swim about 100 miles per day; even the most spacious SeaWorld stadium pools can’t compete with the open ocean. The forced families SeaWorld creates cause intense fighting and bullying between the orcas. Numerous scenes in the film show severe cases of “raking,” a way in which the animals cut each other with their teeth. It’s also a problem far less common in the wild (so is human death—there are no reported deaths related to human contact with orcas in the wild).
To understand our fixation with SeaWorld and captive orcas, we can look to Ric O’Barry—the “Flipper” dolphin trainer-turned activist (featured in 2009’s Academy Award winning film, “The Cove”). O’Barry was instrumental in creating a cultural fascination with captive marine animals. (Dolphins have had some recent victories though, with India just declaring them “nonhuman persons” and banning all dolphin shows.) Although he has now dedicated his life to bringing awareness to the plight of captive dolphins, it’s not difficult to see the pain of regret still lingering in the lines of O’Barry’s face.
SeaWorld opened its doors in 1964, the same year “Flipper” took to the airwaves. At the top of its list of attractions were the killer whales—iconic orcas with names like Shamu and Namu—taught to perform with humans. Attracting millions of visitors to the theme parks around the country for a chance to get splashed by a killer whale, the crowds became enamored with these massive prisoners who seemed to love nothing more than jumping on cue, as long as buckets full of fishy rewards were involved. Billions of dollars in revenue have been generated by our fixation with captive orcas, and, most notably, the ability to train these giant mammals to perform. SeaWorld has distorted facts about orcas to make it appear as though captivity gives them a better, longer life. (Maybe they’re marketing team could do some PR work for Guantanamo?) Experts in the film say wild orcas live about as long as humans, but SeaWorld drops that number down to 25-35 years, which is the average lifespan of an orca in captivity.
“Blackfish” boldly details the tragic capture of orcas in the late 1960s and ’70s—a SeaWorld commissioned practice of essentially kidnapping babies from their mothers. One of the most memorable scenes from the film is an emotional confession from a former whaler who helped capture the orca babies. Orcas spend their entire lives with their families; and each group has its own language, experts in the film explain.
The orca brain is highly developed for emotional connections, too. Unlike human brains where reason and logic are enhanced, orcas (and presumably other Cetaceans) are wired for strong emotional connections. Another one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film is when former SeaWorld trainers tell the stories of separating mother and baby orcas (born in captivity). The mothers made sounds never before heard—long range sounds—in efforts that seemed clearly pointed towards reunion with their calves. They sulked and moaned for days.
The film’s strengths come from both excellent researching—the video clips and perverse SeaWorld promo videos are absolutely priceless—and, more notably, the number of former SeaWorld trainers who have since become eloquent voices for the animals. Many of the trainers worked with Tilikum, who is the largest orca in captivity. Brancheau’s death marked the third death involving Tilikum (which is the Chinook word for “friend”).
But experts and the trainers who knew him say Tilikum isn’t a ruthless killer, but rather a confused and stressed animal who has been living in captivity for more than thirty years. He’s been a valued performer for SeaWorld, but is most valuable to the company as a sperm donor. He’s sired more than 20 offspring—more than half of the orcas in captivity–according to the film.
SeaWorld made attempts to mitigate any negative press resulting from the film. The New York Times reported that the company sent “a detailed critique” of the film to some fifty movie critics. Tactics used by SeaWorld “might conceivably include informational advertising, a Web-based countercampaign or perhaps a request for some sort of access to CNN, which picked up television rights to “Blackfish” through its CNN Films unit and plans to broadcast the movie on Oct. 24.”
Like “The Cove,” “Blackfish” succeeds in capturing just how intelligent and emotional these animals are. And, more importantly, just how barbaric our treatment of them is. It can be difficult to argue about whether or not eating meat is an ethical human practice, but the discussion about ending the practice of keeping captive whales seems pretty cut an dry. Towards the end of the film, one of the trainers tearfully suggests that in 50 years we’ll hopefully look back on keeping orcas in captivity as a barbaric practice. But, hopefully, Tilikum doesn’t have to wait that long.
“Blackfish“ is currently playing in select theaters.
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Image: Scott Kinmartin