Swimming in controversy

Swimming in controversy

‘Blackfish’ furthers the debate on the treatment of animals in captivity

By Jana J. Monji 07/25/2013

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The documentary “Blackfish” doesn’t attempt to be objective in taking on one of the best-known entertainment institutions of Southern California: SeaWorld.

The film, opening Friday at Pasadena’s Laemmle Playhouse 7 theater, tells us why killer whales should not be performing anywhere, including SeaWorld, and how the treatment of one orca led to the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
This is not a happy film, with content not suitable for children. Its official rating is PG-13, but be forewarned: If it involved humans being treated the same way, the production might have received an R or an X rating.
The documentary, a Grand Jury Prize nominee at the Sundance Film Festival, focuses mostly on Tilikum, currently the largest orca in captivity. Tilikum, who is responsible for three deaths, isn’t one of the animals kept at the San Diego SeaWorld, a chain of marine mammal entertainment parks with other operations in Orlando, which opening in 1973, and San Antonio, opening in 1988.

Obviously, Shamu, perhaps the world’s best-known orca, can’t be at each of these parks. The original Shamu, which died in 1971, was a female orca captured in Puget Sound that was eventually bought by San Diego SeaWorld. When that animal displayed dangerous behavior, she was retired, but her name has become the stage name for several other orcas following in her path. San Diego currently has 10 orcas, Orlando has seven and San Antonio has five.

The documentary, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, tells us how traumatic live-capture is for killer whales, illustrated by the case of Tilikum, captured in 1983 as a 2- or 3-year-old and placed at the British Columbia Sealand of the Pacific entertainment park. There he spent his nights in cramped quarters with two older females. The confinement led to his continued physical abuse, and in 1991 a trainer was killed by the orcas. Although Tilikum wasn’t the instigator of the attack, he did participate. The park closed shortly after this incident and SeaWorld Orlando acquired Tilikum. In 1999, a man evaded security and was able to spend a night in SeaWorld Orlando only to die in Tilikum’s enclosure. Brancheau’s death came almost a decade later, with SeaWorld be fined for safety violations.

Using interviews with former orca trainers at SeaWorld and Sealand, Cowperthwaite builds a damning case against sea parks for their cavalier attitude toward trainer safety, as well as their decision to use Tilikum as a sire via artificial insemination.

One of the San Diego orcas, Kasatka, was involved in a 2008 attack on her trainer, John Hargrove, who was able to escape, but not without injury. Brancheau’s death is not depicted, but archival film footage of orca hunts and a gut-wrenching eyewitness account of the illegal captures of live juvenile orcas, along with the footage of the incident involving Hargrove, are the most harrowing scenes of this documentary.

Having been born and raised in San Diego, I grew up with Shamu and SeaWorld. Yet, in visits there last year and the year before, I noticed how the whole atmosphere had changed. In comparison with my childhood memories, the direction SeaWorld has taken puts less attention on the welfare of the animals in its care and more emphasis on entertainment, food and fun. While I remain a supporter of the San Diego Zoo and its Safari Park, I can barely stand SeaWorld.

Cowperthwaite, who didn’t set out to make an anti-SeaWorld documentary, builds a strong case against this entertainment organization, enough so that the SeaWorld has filed an official statement in its defense.

“‘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,” Rolling Stone recently reported on SeaWorld’s statement, which was first reported by Variety. “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.”

In response, Cowperthwaite told Canada.com, “I think SeaWorld is just looking to sow a seed of doubt because they have to. There were so many things I didn’t include because they took us away from Tilikum, but they were very disturbing and could have easily loaded the film and turned it into a piece of activism — which was never my intent … I never started out thinking I wanted to shut SeaWorld down. I’m not an activist. I am a storyteller. And to me, this was a classic narrative with a 12,000-pound protagonist swimming right at the center.”

If you love animals or if you’ve ever been to SeaWorld, “Blackfish” is an important documentary, well worth seeing because it will doubtlessly be a reference point in the ongoing debate about our relationship with animals in general and orcas in particular in this post-“Free Willy” world. 

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