Blackfish, a new documentary that chronicles the life of SeaWorld’s infamous orca Tilikum and the effects of keeping these apex predators in captivity, is getting rave reviews and making waves. Even so, SeaWorld continues to defend the practice and has lashed out over the film.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, said in an interview that the catalyst for her interest in this topic was the death of SeaWorld’s beloved trainer Dawn Brancheau in Orlando in 2010. The tragedy shocked those who believed these animals, despite the killer moniker, were lovable icons and led to a congressional hearing about whether there’s any educational benefit to keeping whales and dolphins in captivity. The incident also triggered an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Cowperthwaite admits she was one of those who was surprised by the incident involving Brancheau, telling the Reel Breakdown that she had no background in animal activism or marine biology, but was inspired after having taken her two young sons to SeaWorld. She said, “When I heard something this horrific went on in a place that you think of as being benign and happy and bucolic and safe, you start trying to figure out why.”
“What I found slowly through the research and peeling back the onion was that nothing at this park is what it seemed. I am sure there are many people much less naive than I was — people that would have gone to this subject matter with the knowledge that there was something sinister. I wasn’t that filmmaker.”
Blackfish tells Tilikum’s story, beginning with his abduction from the wild at the age of two in 1983 and follows his treatment up to the incident involving Brancheau, mixing graphic scenes with interviews with former trainers, academics and whale experts that paint a picture of an orca whose behavior appears to be caused by the physical and mental stress of confinement.
Brancheau’s autopsy report stated that her death was the “result of drowning and traumatic injuries.” She was scalped, suffered multiple abrasions, dislocations and fractures, and lost part of her arm when rescuers pried her body from Tilikum’s mouth. She was Tilikum’s third victim following a 1999 incident where the battered body of a man was found draped over his back after he accessed the pool after hours. The first incident occurred at Sealand in British Columbia where he was one of three whales involved in killing a trainer. Still, there are no reports in history of an orca killing a person in the wild.
The film also raises larger questions about the issues involved in keeping these marine mammals in captivity. Whale and dolphin advocates have been documenting issues with captive marine mammals for years and have highlighted abnormal behavior, captive breeding disasters, depression, poor dental health, aggression, effects of stress and death from diseases they would never contract in the wild as a few of the problems with confining these animals in tanks.
Originally, SeaWorld reportedly refused to grant interviews or have anything to do with the making of Blackfish; however, after the film started gaining momentum, SeaWorld’s Vice President of Communications, Fred Jacobs, issued a statement to film reviewers calling the film “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.”
Unfortunately for SeaWorld, the facts can stand alone on this subject. It also appears that SeaWorld wasn’t actually accused of anything it’s griping about (read the arguments in full here).
While SeaWorld still claims that orcas live longer in captivity, that fact that has been disproven by scientific studies of wild orcas; in fact, most captive orcas die in their teens or younger. Some die from violent incidents with other orcas — something else that hasn’t been documented in the wild — yet SeaWorld claims there is no “bullying” going on.
SeaWorld’s continued denial of the facts is something associate producer and co-writer, Tim Zimmerman, calls orca trutherism.
And while SeaWorld claims it hasn’t taken orcas from the wild in decades (only because they can’t), they now own one named Morgan who was taken from the wild in 2010 under the condition that she be released. She’s now performing tricks in Spain.
Unfortunately, marine parks like SeaWorld that stand to make a profit off of the continued exploitation of these amazing animals. They are literally banking on our ignorance and will continue to do so until the turnstiles stop and it’s no longer profitable.
Hopefully this film will help redefine the public’s view of orcas, revealing what highly intelligent and inherently social creatures they are and that they will never thrive in captivity the way they would in the wild.
To find out more about the film and show dates, visit Blackfish the Movie.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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