The documentary Blackfish has been one of the hottest topics since it made its rounds on the film festival circuit early in 2013 — it crossed my path when it aired on CNN last week. The two hour film questions the morality of aquatic attractions like SeaWorld holding captive the orca, or killer whales as they are most well-known. Even despite the recent death of one of the SeaWorld trainers, the aquatic showcase is a beloved tourist attraction in Florida, Texas and California. The death of experienced SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was what sparked the documentary, which focuses specifically on an orca named Tilikum who has killed three humans. This fact could enrage viewers — the fact Tilikum is still performing at SeaWorld should really light a fuse that could lead back to billion dollar aquatic industry itself.
The documentary covers the history of killer whales playing the role of a “circus bear,” something that started in the 1960’s when aquatic theme parks started capturing killer whales from the wild. They quickly became huge attractions as their intelligence led to shows of sophisticated tricks and performances. Early in Blackfish, I remember myself thinking back to the time I attended a Shamu show while in San Diego a few years ago — it now seems a bit haunting after seeing this documentary. While watching I remember thinking how rewarding it looked for both parties to have these very personal relationships, man and 12,000 pound beast bonding like long-time friends. The life of these mammals, despite not being ideal, didn’t seem that bad. After Blackfish concluded, I was disgusted with myself for having these thoughts, and even more so with those who keep these majestic animals captive.
The imprisoned mammals aren’t victims of the type of mistreatment you would expect — they aren’t beaten or abused (that has been documented) by the trainers. They are more like highly intelligent animal prisoners forced to act like “show ponies” for crowds. While other captive animals are often subject to similar treatment, especially circus animals, the orca is an especially perceptive and social mammal — this type of captivity and treatment strips the livelihood of these creatures. In the wild, the killer whales band together in close-knit families and stay together swimming the vast ocean for their entire lives. When the whales are captured, the families are torn apart — then the whales from different family units are forced into a small “swimming pool” with one another, and from that, conflict arises. The bigger more dominant whales start picking on the smaller ones, physically abusing and outcasting them. All in all, captivity completely destroys the psyche of these wonderful creatures.
*It should be noted that very few killer whales have been captured in recent years, most bred by the facilities themselves.
The killer whale is no domestic pet. Brancheau is only one of the many victims of these captive killer whales — though her death was one of a few, it was one of many, many recorded attacks. Blackfish also points out there is no record of a killer whale attacking a human in the wild.
This documentary appears to have all its ducks in a row — they interview orca experts who dispute much of the misinformation put out by the SeaWorld groups. SeaWorld makes many claims caught on video that wildlife experts shoot down, like the false information about the life expectancy of the killer whale. Blackfish also spends extensive time with former orca trainers, many of them from SeaWorld. They discuss the practices of SeaWorld, the falsehoods they were fed while working there, and the relationships they formed with these very astute creatures.
Since Blackfish has be revolving in the media, SeaWorld has been battling to dilute the effect this documentary is having on the public perception of the multi-billion industry. SeaWorld claims the documentary, as well as all other books, reports, and articles, exploit Brancheau’s death for their own gain. SeaWorld claims the reports expand upon her death to sensationalize the story, not to inform — they denounce this coverage as it makes Brancheau’s untimely death even more difficult for her grieving family. But Blackfish doesn’t go into any of the gory details of her death. Blackfish shows that just after the event, SeaWorld and their reps spent considerable time spinning the details as opposed to being forthright with what really happened. SeaWorld has spent more time trampling on Brancheau than most, claiming the accident was, “her fault.”
SeaWorld goes on to dispute much of what Blackfish reveals by calling the film biased, not objective and closer to propaganda than a documentary. Blackfish doesn’t regard SeaWorld’s contributions and donations to wildlife organizations, they don’t mention how SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns so many animals to the wild — the documentary only touches on how much SeaWorld has changed its practices of interacting with the killer whales since Brancheau’s death.
SeaWorld specifically states:
“To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld — among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world’s most respected zoological institutions… Perhaps most important, the film fails to mention SeaWorld’s commitment to the safety of its team members and guests and to the care and welfare of its animals…”
But I would counter that all of this is again, an attempt to spin the information and morph perception to favorable in the public eye. SeaWorld contributing millions to scientific research and conservation and rescuing animals has little to do with what the documentary is regarding. Blackfish is meant to focus on the orca whale, specifically Tilikum, and what captivity does to their psyche. It’s meant to show how the natural environment is the only way these whales can ever truly exist, and no matter how well they are treated in captivity, they will never live the life of a free whale.
SeaWorld claims to have some of the best facilities on the planet for housing and caring for animals — but as the documentary shows, none of this matters, because captive orcas are not with their own family nucleus or swimming in the ocean. None of the above stated information actually combats what Blackfish claims — the documentary never says SeaWorld isn’t one of the most respected zoological institutions. SeaWorld is acting like the documentary isn’t credible because it doesn’t say “anything nice” about them, it doesn’t give them credit for also doing some good. SeaWorld is simply trying to protect the billions of dollars that come their way from people coming to see the killer whales perform.
All in all, Blackfish is an excellent documentary that shines a light on one of the zoological travesties in our world. Always keep in mind that documentaries are meant to persuade an audience, but this one doesn’t spend anytime with a voice over summing up details or going overboard with “the message.” Blackfish lets the interviewees tell the story and allows the audience to come to their own conclusion. It’s not heavy-handed, it’s not graphic, and Blackfish spends plenty of time building to the point — these highly intelligent mammals are not meant to be “show ponies.” Some of the stories told in Blackfish are truly tragic. One of the final quotes in the film resonates loudest, “In 50 years, we will look back and think ‘my god, what a barbaric time.'” That could be the spot-on truth — these creatures deserve to be in their natural habitats. Though this case could be made for all zoo animals, I think the orca is an example of an animal with a life drastically different in captivity compared to the wild.
There will be an encore of Blackfish on the CNN network on November 2nd (11 pm CT) — set your DVRs. If you miss that showing, the DVD release in the US is November 12th. Do yourself a favor and at least look into Blackfish — it may change your perception of SeaWorld, the orca whale and the effects captivity has on prisoners like Tilikum.
Images via: Blackfish website