Exposing a SeaWorld of Hurt
Gabriela Cowperthwaite ignited a firestorm of controversy with Blackfish, her documentary about the troubled lives of the theme parks’ majestic killer whales.
By Samantha Bonar 02/07/2014
Some of the best investigative journalists start with a simple question. In the case of Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who made the controversial documentary Blackfish, the question was: Why would a killer whale brutally attack and kill its trainer at SeaWorld Orlando? After all, for 50 years SeaWorld has been telling the public that killer whales are docile creatures perfectly happy to live in captivity and perform tricks for delighted audiences. “I’d always thought if I had to be an animal in captivity, I’d probably choose to be a Shamu [SeaWorld’s name for its orca stars], getting hugs and fish,” says the Los Angeles–based documentary filmmaker. “I was really ignorant about that world.”
The Occidental College grad had been making documentaries for Animal Planet, National Geographic, Discovery, the History Channel and other television outlets for 12 years when she learned that Dawn Brancheau, a top trainer at SeaWorld, had been killed by a six-ton orca in 2010. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she continues. “I couldn’t understand why an intelligent, sentient animal would bite the hand that feeds it. I mean you hear about dog maulings, but you rarely hear that a dog mauls its owner. This was a strange story and I couldn’t shake it. When I began developing the documentary, I was shocked by what I learned.”
She says it’s been quite a “journey of shock and discovery” for someone who never even considered herself an animal activist (although the Denver native loves her two mixed-breed dogs, Nessie and Chucho, and Siamese cat, Marley). “I would go to zoos every once in a while and the primates, their expressions seemed sad to me, but I never really thought that about SeaWorld, beyond the ‘cringe effect,’” says Cowperthwaite, who had taken her 7-year-old twin boys Max and Diego to SeaWorld San Diego twice. “I think we all had the cringe factor, which is the way a lot of us feel when we go there. We think it’s pretty cheesy. It’s really expensive, and you’re bombarded with products the moment you walk through the gate. Then you see trainers standing on the noses of killer whales, and it feels so undignified, for the animal and for the trainer. I would think to myself that something’s wrong, but you’re kind of anesthetized — there’s thumping music, there’s bright colors, everyone around you is smiling. So you think to yourself, how can something that’s so bad make people so happy? So you just shrug and sit through it and ignore those initial instincts.”
Until Brancheau’s grisly death planted a question in Cowperthwaite’s mind: Why?
Interviewing animal behavior experts and former SeaWorld trainers, Cowperthwaite — who was pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at USC when she was bit by the filmmaking bug — quickly found out that Tilikum, the aggressive bull orca who killed Brancheau, was also responsible for at least two other human deaths. Tilikum had been captured by SeaWorld as a calf off of Iceland and went on to live in captivity for 30 years. Some of the most disturbing footage in Blackfish shows calves being separated from their mothers during capture. Cowperthwaite was also able, through persistence and the Freedom of Information Act, to include chilling footage of actual killer whale attacks on trainers, as well as of the whales’ apparent misery in captivity. Her film’s central question is whether aggressiveness like Tilikum’s is innate to the species or a result of confinement and living conditions. There have been zero orca attacks on humans in the wild, the film points out. In the ocean, orcas swim up to 100 miles a day. Their SeaWorld space is the equivalent of a bathtub. In addition, since 1986, 26 orcas have died in captivity at SeaWorld facilities — their typical lifespan in the wild is 50 to 80 years
The controversy the film ignited led to protests at last month’s Rose Parade and helped make it one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time, bringing in $2.1 million since its July 19 release. “I can’t say this was an easy film to make,” Cowperthwaite says. “For two years we were bombarded with terrifying facts, autopsy reports, sobbing interviewees and unhappy animals — [Sea World is] a place diametrically opposite to its carefully refined image. But as I moved forward, I knew that we had a chance to fix some things that had come unraveled along the way. And that all I had to do was tell the truth.”
Blackfish premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. “It’s impossible to explain what it means to get into Sundance,” Cowperthwaite says. “Most of us documentarians don’t think anyone’s ever going to see our films on purpose. We don’t make them because we think we’re going to clean up at the box office, because that almost never happens. You make these films because you’re compelled to tell a truthful story, almost in spite of yourself. So when I saw a line wrapped around the building for our Sundance premiere, I hunched down in the car seat and started crying.”
Blackfish has since been shown at film festivals around the world, including Sundance London; Hot Docs in Toronto; the Green Film Festival in Seoul, South Korea; Cinemambiente in Turin, Italy; the Moscow Film Festival; the Melbourne International Film Festival; Filmfest Hamburg; and the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival. It was released theatrically in the U.S. by Magnolia Pictures in July 2013.
Critics immediately lauded the film. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times selected it as a “Critics’ Pick.” Variety called Blackfish “a mesmerizing psychological thriller.” “You have rarely seen footage this tense,” said the Village Voice. The film received a huge boost — and 20 million new viewers — when CNN showed it several times over a weekend in November.
But despite making waves — including being shortlisted for an Oscar — Blackfish was snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Directors and Producers guilds and most other major awards organizations. It was nominated for best documentary in the Critics’ Choice and British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards, but it lost the former to 20 Feet from Stardom — Morgan Neville’s feature about backup singers; BAFTA winners will be announced on Feb. 16.
Ellen Killoran of the New York–based International Business Times speculated that Cowperthwaite’s Oscar snub was part of “Hollywood’s persistent exclusion of female filmmakers from… awards season buzz,” adding that Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 best director trophy for The Hurt Locker was a “historic win [that] has not translated to an increase in recognition for women behind the camera.”
Killoran went on to write, “the Blackfish snub also raises questions of corporate influence.” SeaWorld Entertainment stock has dropped 26 percent over the past 6 months, she noted, but last month it bounced back by 5.6 percent, a recovery some analysts attribute to the Oscar shutout.
SeaWorld’s initial reaction to the film was to send a detailed critique to about 50 movie critics before it even hit theaters in what The New York Times called “an unusual preemptive strike.” The statement read: “Blackfish is billed as a documentary, but instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau’s family friends and colleagues. 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, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research.”
The move backfired.
“From a marketing perspective Sea World did completely [mess] up,” says Tor Myhren, Cowperthwaite’s close college friend and Worldwide CCO of Grey Advertising in New York. “When the film was about to launch, it really did not have a lot of momentum at all. It had done well at Sundance, and then it kind of went quiet. Two days before the film hit the theaters, SeaWorld for some idiotic reason sent out that email. The next day, of course, everyone who received it sent it to the press, and it just exploded. Within 48 hours the movie went from not being known at all to being the most talked-about documentary of the year. It was a classic PR mistake by SeaWorld and I’m very glad they made it.”
SeaWorld, which attracts about 10 million visitors a year to its theme parks in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio, quickly realized the error and went radio silent. Now, “they don’t even mention the film by name,” Cowperthwaite says.
But the media flocked to the story, and the censorious headlines followed: “Should Killer Whales Be Tourist Attractions?” (ABC News); “Keeping Whales in Captivity Is Insane. Here’s Why.” (io9); “Did a Killer Whale Doc Just Kill an Industry?” (The New Statesman); “Cruelty of the Aquarium Exposed in Killer Whale Documentary ‘Blackfish,’”’ (The Independent); “Free Willy, For Real: SeaWorld Has Got to Go,” (Salon).
SeaWorld claims the film’s depiction of orcas’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion-dollar sea-park industry have not affected its ticket sales at all, but “the actual numbers prove them to be lying,” Myhren says. Cowperthwaite claims SeaWorld’s ticket sales declined 13 percent after the theatrical release, and that in an aggressive marketing move, SeaWorld began giving away tickets to make their numbers look better.
Celebrities have jumped on board the killer whale cause, and one top music act after another has pulled out of upcoming gigs at SeaWorld Orlando, including Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson, Heart, Cheap Trick, Trisha Yearwood, REO Speedwagon, Martina McBride and 38 Special. Joan Jett wrote to SeaWorld asking them to stop using her songs after the singer saw the film, as did Savage Garden’s Darren Hayes. In its upcoming Finding Nemo sequel, Pixar nixed a storyline involving a killer whale that included a water park.
“Her films are catalysts for change. They start movements,” says Tim Case of Supply & Demand, a company for which Cowperthwaite produces commercial advertising.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) activists protested SeaWorld’s float in the 2014 Rose Parade, lining Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena wearing orca costumes and holding signs that read, “Boycott SeaWorld,” “SeaWorld: Let Orcas Out of Prison” and “Get Orca Abuse Out of the Rose Parade.”
“In this day and age, especially since the documentary Blackfish came out, people know that SeaWorld is synonymous with animal abuse,” Lisa Lange, a PETA vice president, told the Pasadena Weekly. She added that SeaWorld “is a corporation that rips apart orca and dolphin families, and when you look at the Rose Parade, it is a family-oriented event. It is a real embarrassment, because while the world is waking up to the fact that SeaWorld means animal abuse, the [Tournament of Roses] is putting them in such a revered parade and ignoring how the public feels.”
Cowperthwaite also criticized SeaWorld’s inclusion in the Pasadena parade. “They’ve done the Macy’s parade for a long time,” she said. “This is what they’ve been doing for 40 years – they market to children. They pretend this apex predator is a huggable pet. That has parade written all over it. They are heavily involved in any kind of marketing that hits families and kids. That’s their favorite m.o. It’s also in step with their whole glossy, over-the-top, loud-music philosophy to anesthetize us so we buy it hook, line and sinker and turn off our critical thinking and just smile and not give the issue any real thought.”
Tournament of Roses spokesman David Gordon has defended SeaWorld’s inclusion in the parade. “This year’s float is designed to illustrate the wonder of sea life in a manner that can inspire millions to learn more about our oceans, which is consistent with SeaWorld’s ongoing mission,” he told the Pasadena Weekly in December.
Cowperthwaite also challenges SeaWorld’s claims to loftier goals. “SeaWorld is not an institution that is dedicated to education or rehabilitation or release,” she says. “Their main directive is profit through entertainment. That’s it. It’s not educational. You can sit through entire Shamu shows and never even hear the words ‘killer whale.’ They are a $2 billion–a-year corporation and out of that .6 percent goes to conservation.”
The filmmaker would like to see the end of orcas in captivity, starting with the demise of their breeding programs. Currently housed orcas would not survive in the open ocean, but they could be relocated to enclosed sea pens, she says — even Tilikum, the guy who puts the “killer” in killer whale. “He’s a tough one, right?” she says. “His teeth are all broken from biting on steel gates. He’s hopped up on antibiotics. He’s old. He floats lifelessly on the surface of the water. So in some ways he’s the worst candidate for any kind of release.” But “the Icelandic government would like him to be retired in a sea pen in Icelandic waters so he can live out his life with a little bit of dignity.
“It’s tough, because you’re not sure if he would survive for very long. But my theory is, could his life be any worse? For a bull orca to be floating on the surface for hours and hours on end, with no other whales to interact with since now everybody has to stay away from him — you couldn’t have a worse life.”
Looking back on her trips to SeaWorld with her kids, she muses: “You think back to how much fun they might have had there, and then you realize everyone could say that, and say we all went there and had some fond memories — but if we had known the cost, I bet most of us wouldn’t have made the decision to go. You’re looking at an animal that’s miserable — takes the blush off the place pretty fast.”
As for her next project, Cowperthwaite says her ideas are “percolating,” but her friends and supporters have high expectations. “She is fearless,” says Myhren. “She will tackle any challenge. She will put herself in any situation, which makes her an amazing documentary filmmaker. I’ve never seen a director who’s able to get more honest emotions and more authentic feeling from her subjects. It’s so awesome to see her taking that talent and putting it into films that matter in the world.”
And watch out, world, because, according to ad man Case, who’s worked on projects with her: “She is just warming up.”