On July 26, the documentary Blackfish is released in UK cinemas. It is one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen. It tells the tragic tale of one specific captive killer whale, Tilikum, a 22.5 ft (6.9m) long, 12,000 pound (5,400 kg) bull who lives – if you can call it living – at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he still performs for whooping audiences. His name comes from the Chinook word for “friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people”, which is ironic when you think for longer than a few seconds about the fact that whales in swimming pools are by definition separated from their extended families. (Tilikum was captured in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, aged around three years old, and has lived in swimming pools for most of his showbiz life. While held at Sealand in British Columbia, his first “home”, he and two other orcas were herded, every night, into a “holding” pool just 20 ft (6.1m) deep and 28 ft (8.5m) in diameter.)
Blackfish was made by documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who did not start out with an agenda. She had, in fact, taken her kids to SeaWorld and bought into the whole corporate myth that these beautiful cetateans are not “forced” to perform their tricks and do so willingly out of a love for their human trainers. (The word “killer” is usually dropped in the official commentaries at these shows.) Having done the same thing myself in 1994, no matter how conflicted I felt at the time about seeing two whales doing tricks for fish at what was then Marine World Africa USA in Vallejo, California, it has haunted me ever since and hardened my anti-zoo stance. I guess I am the choir to which the film could be accused of preaching to, although it’s hard to imagine why any right-thinking person would be happy about large, social marine mammals being kept in prison when they’ve committed no crime.
The orca is an apex predator, but has never attacked a human in the wild. Incidents of whales “turning on” their trainers, however, are more common than you might idly think. The engine that drove Gabriela to make her film was the awful death on February 24, 2010, of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando, which was witnessed, unknowingly, by a whooping audience. The precise cause of death is still murky, but Brancheau seems to have been pulled by Tilikum into the water by her ponytail, possibly in a moment of confusion over fish.
The whales performing on that occasion had been unresponsive and agitated, and only get fish after successfully effecting a trick, so they were especially hungry. Eyewitness accounts differ. Brancheau’s autopsy indicated “death by drowning” and “blunt force trauma”, and noted a severed spinal cord, and “sustained fractures” to her jawbone, ribs and a cervical vertebra.
SeaWorld was fined $75,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration but insists that OSHA’s findings are “unfounded”. The implication, as ever in cases like this, is that human error led to the tragedy. This was the story instantly spun around the death at a Cumbrian safari park of zookeeper Sarah McClay, killed by a Sumatran tiger. The news media ensures that our first reaction to the story is never, “What is a tiger doing living in Cumbria?”
You will learn more about all this in the haunting film, which provides plentiful context: historical, behavioural, neurological (orcas have a section of brain that even clever old humans don’t have) and, yes, emotional. It may make you cry. I met Gabriela on Tuesday night at a private VIP screening of Blackfish laid on by distributor Dogwoof for representatives of various NGOs and activist groups (you might say a “captive audience” if the phrase wasn’t so inappropriate!) and she is a calm, logical, unhysterical advocate of basic commonsense in this area. Here she is.
In her film, she speaks to a whole parade of ex-SeaWorld trainers, who confirm that incredible bond between animal and human, but who still question the motivation behind SeaWorld’s entire business model. The marine park chain currently has 22 killer whales in captivity, which remain big box office. For them, it’s all about money and turnstiles. And why wouldn’t it be? They’re a corporation. Blackfish is as much a critique of corporate America as it is of animal cruelty. (You won’t be surprised that SeaWorld refused to put up a representative to speak on camera, although transcripts of their defence at a previous court case speak volumes.)
I refrain from urging anyone to see a film. There may be issues closer to home than Orlando that come higher up your priority list. You may simply think: well it’s obviously wrong that massive whales are kept in a zoo, I don’t need to see a film about it to have my beliefs hardened. It’s not a snuff movie – you don’t actually see any trainers die, but you do see the bloody damage distressed whales do to each other when cooped up, and you do see some unprecedented “behaviours” which rather suggest psychological damage. Poor Tilikum seems mostly to be kept as a sperm bank these days. (He’s “sired” 21 offspring in his time, 11 of which are still alive.)
Artificial insemination is a common practice in animal husbandry, on farms, at stables, in zoos and elsewhere, and it’s done for reasons of conservation as well as commerce. However, you might find the sheer scale of doing it to a killer whale rather disturbing. Maybe that’s double standards, I don’t know, but I love killer whales. When I saw one in Vallejo in 1994 and sat right up against the glass of its viewing pool while it swam past my nose, I felt privileged to have seen it. And then sick that I had seen it in that unnatural setting.
I have a recurring dream which I’ve mentioned before, in which I am close to the edge of a pool in which huge killer whales are swimming. But it’s not a nightmare. I am terrified of falling in, and in awe of the whales, but I never do fall in, and they never harm me. No need to analyse that one, Freudians.
Oh, and I urge you to see Blackfish. Damn!