'Blackfish': Stunning story of whales and humans

Tilikum, who killed his trainer in 2010, is featured in the documentary.
Tilikum, who killed his trainer in 2010, is featured in the documentary. (GABRIELA COWPERTHWAITE)
Posted: July 24, 2013

Blackfish, a stunning, heartbreaking documentary about the dismal effects of keeping killer whales in captivity, has the potential to do that most rare thing - effect real social change.

And given the headlines it began generating more than a week before its national release on Friday, it may yet fulfill that promise. (CNN also will air the film in the fall.)

Blackfish takes a long, hard look at the ethical viability of enterprises such as the water park chain SeaWorld, which uses these magnificent, intelligent creatures to do water gymnastics for the public's amusement.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite's film takes as its starting point the horrific 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, who was attacked during a show by Tilikum, a then-30-year-old 12,000-pound bull orca. Tilikum pulled Brancheau underwater, dismembered her, and partially devoured her before staff could extricate her body from his grasp.

Tilikum, it came out, had previously been involved in two other human deaths, and the incident fueled innumerable headlines and sensationalized news reports.

Blackfish avoids gruesome, gratuitous footage. Instead, it places Brancheau's death in historical context, going back 40 years to the founding of SeaWorld.

Using archival footage, interviews with former SeaWorld trainers and independent scientists, Blackfish raises important philosophical questions about our relationship to a class of animals with a sophisticated, rich social structure and an emotionally complex inner life. Research indicates that like bonobos and chimps and unlike dogs and cats, orcas are self-aware - conscious of having an individual character, feelings, and motives.

Blackfish never accuses SeaWorld of treating orcas with cruelty; rather, it questions the very idea of using them for spectacle. It suggests that keeping such animals in captivity does irreparable damage to their psyches, not to mention drastically reducing their life expectancy. Orcas swim miles every day in the wild. In captivity, they live in small, shallow pools. Their families are broken up. And they are not able to resolve conflicts through nonviolent action (by swimming away).

Given these conditions, it seems inevitable that Tilikum, who was taken away from his family at age 2, would develop a mercurial temperament.

SeaWorld representatives refused Cowperthwaite's request for on-camera interviews "because they doubted the material would be used in good faith," SeaWorld's general counsel told the New York Times. That changed last week when the $2.5 billion company sent a statement to 50 movie critics calling the film "inaccurate and misleading." The statement challenges eight - relatively minor - points made in Blackfish. It avoids addressing the film's larger critique of the industry. It has been posted with responses from the filmmakers on the Blackfish website ( http://blackfishmovie.com).

SeaWorld's spin on events seems incredible. Despite the horrific 2010 incident, the company asserts that "Tilikum did not attack Dawn." Instead, the orca "became interested in the novelty of Dawn's ponytail . . . grabbed it and pulled her into the water." (Filmmakers maintain that SeaWorld orcas were accustomed to female trainers in ponytails.)

Cowperthwaite said she had no agenda when she began the project. "I don't come from animal activism. I'm a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld," she said during a recent chat at Hotel Monaco in Center City. She was accompanied by former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove, who is featured in the film.

"I had heard . . . that a top SeaWorld trainer was killed by a killer whale, and I just didn't understand how that could happen," said the filmmaker. "I thought killer whales were gentle . . . sentient animals."

They are, Hargrove chimed in.

He said whales form affectionate, reciprocal bonds with their trainers. "We love these whales, and the relationships we develop are very strong," said Hargrove. "Yet . . . you never forget what kind of animal you are dealing with. This is not a cat, it's an apex [top] predator."

Then why did Tilikum attack? Cowperthwaite said that while we can bond with orcas, there is a line beyond which they remain inscrutable. They are "intelligent and sentient creatures," she said. "Yet there also is a side that's not convenient for us to talk about. They are major predators built to hunt."

That said, the director pointed out that incidents of orcas attacking humans in the wild are so few, they're statistically insignificant.

This is equally true of orca-on-orca violence, which exists in captivity, but is rarer in the wild.

Blackfish is sure to make some people upset. "After all, [going to SeaWorld] is on every family's bucket list," said Cowperthwaite.

Will it change public opinion?

"All I can do is arm them with the truth," she said. "And from the reaction to the film so far, I think people are ready to hear it."

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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