Blackfish is a 2013 documentary movie about captive orcas (killer whales) at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. It centers on Tilikum, the infamous orca who killed three people (including two trainers) and is still at SeaWorld. The documentary, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, premiered at Sundance in Utah, and has received a lot of critical acclaim. It gets a 97% from the critics on the Rotten Tomatoes site, and Wikipedia says this:
Critical reception for the documentary has been mostly positive, with the Deseret News calling it “a gripping example of documentary filmmaking at its finest”. Twitch Film and The Hollywood Reporter both praised Blackfish, with both review sites arguing that the film gave “a persuasive case against keeping the species – and by extension any wild animal – in captivity for the purposes of human entertainment”. Film School Rejects gave the documentary a rating of B-, writing that it “never really offers anything new, but what it does feature is extremely important” and that it was “slanted in it view [sic]”.
The official site of the movie is here. It has been picked up by CNN and will be shown there on October 24.
The movie’s thesis is that orcas suffer psychological damage, debilitation, and stress in captivity, some of which could have contributed to Tilikum’s rampages. I have to admit that I’m biased in favor of that idea, though my bias comes from more than simply biophilia: I’ve seen large captive sea mammals, such as those in the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, showing signs of neurotic behavior, including repetitive swimming back and forth. Animals like seals, orcas, and beluga whales evolved to roam over hundreds of miles of open ocean, and I can’t help but feel that keeping them in captivity, even with medical care and lots of food, is an unfair imprisonment. After all (and as I’ve said before), a Martian zoologist observing humans in prison would conclude that they’re healthy and well taken care of: a human zoo, so to speak. But none of those men would opt to stay in prison over gaining their freedom with all its uncertainties. Give an orca a path to the sea from its tank, and see if it comes back!
Some aquaria will argue that keeping such animals in captivity helps us better understand their biology, enabling us to conserve them better. But orcas, seals, and belugas are not endangered, and at any rate real refereed scientific publications from large aquaria or sea-mammal emporia are thin on the ground. Let’s admit it: places like SeaWorld are in business for one reason: to make money, no matter how much they claim to be educational organizations. And yes, I’ll admit that some of the keepers and employees do love and care about their charges, but it doesn’t matter. Those charges should be swimming free in the sea.
But, as the New York Times reports, SeaWorld is fighting back, and might take legal action:
In an unusual pre-emptive strike on the documentary “Blackfish,” set for release on Friday in New York and Los Angeles by Magnolia Pictures, SeaWorld Entertainment startled the film world last weekend by sending a detailed critique of the movie to about 50 critics who were presumably about to review it. It was among the first steps in an aggressive public pushback against the film, which makes the case, sometimes with disturbing film, that orca whales in captivity suffer physical and mental distress because of confinement.
Magnolia and the film’s director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, shot back with a point-by-point rebuttal in defense of the movie.
The exchange is now promising to test just how far a business can, or should, go in trying to disrupt the powerful negative imagery that comes with the rollout of documentary exposés. That kind of dilemma has surfaced with previous documentaries like “The Queen of Versailles,” which last year portrayed the lavish lifestyle of the real estate moguls Jackie and David Siegel, and even with narrative films like “The Social Network,” which took an unflattering look at Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in 2010.
Businesses accused of wrongdoing in films often choose to lie low, hoping the issues will remain out of the public mainstream and eventually fade away without much fuss. That’s especially true of documentaries, which generally have small audiences.
SeaWorld, advised by the communications firm 42West, which is better known for promoting films than punching back at them, is taking the opposite approach. By midweek, the company was providing top executives and animal caretakers for interviews about the movie and its purported flaws.
It was also deliberating possible further moves, which might conceivably include informational advertising, a Web-based countercampaign or perhaps a request for some sort of access to CNN, which picked up television rights to “Blackfish” through its CNN Films unit and plans to broadcast the movie on Oct. 24.
Among other things, SeaWorld claims that “Blackfish,” which focuses on the orca Tilikum’s fatal 2010 attack on a trainer, Dawn Brancheau, exceeded the bounds of fair use by incorporating training film and other video shot by the company. The company also contends that Ms. Cowperthwaite positioned some scenes to create what SeaWorld executives see as a false implication of trouble or wrongdoing.
There’s nothing a corporation won’t do to protect its profits. They also make the usual lame excuses for keeping these animals in captivity:
Since 1965, SeaWorld has kept and displayed dozens of orcas in parks here, in Orlando, Fla., and elsewhere. According to Mr. Taylor [SeaWorld’s general counsel] and other executives, at least 10 million people a year view some of the 29 whales now held. SeaWorld executives say that without access to the whales — which are now bred at the parks, rather than captured wild — humans would be denied a connection to large, intelligent animals with which many feel a bond.
“We’re deeply transformed by them, the killer whale is an animal that does that,” said Dr. Christopher Dold, SeaWorld’s vice president of veterinary services, who spoke at the company’s San Diego park on Wednesday.
Dr. Dold, Mr. Taylor and others point out that only one trainer has died in a whale encounter at SeaWorld parks, though Tilikum has been associated with three deaths. One of those was at another park, and one involved a man who somehow wound up in his tank at night.
Yes, we sequester dozens of large, intelligent mammals in captivity so we can be “transformed” by them! (And the coffers of SeaWorld are also transformed in a positive direction.) Is that reason enough to imprison these creatures? Can’t we be “tranformed” by Attenborough-like documentaries that actually show these animals in their natural habitats? Isn’t that actually better than watching these mammals do tricks in large bathtubs?
As I get older and more experienced as a biologist, the less justification I see for zoos and aquaria. There are some valid reasons to have them: to breed endangered species to reintroduce into the wild, to keep the last few remaining individuals alive in species doomed to extinction (possibly to clone them one day), and the educational benefits of showing living animals to people, though I’m not sure how much this really helps conservation efforts. And, at any rate, those animals must be ones that are not traumatized by captivity, and those species are turning out to be fewer than we thought.
There is no justification for keeping orcas, beluga whales, and other sea mammals in captivity. They belong in the wild, where they would be if they had a choice, but are simply exploited as cash cows for institutions and corporations. I urge the readers to stay away from places like SeaWorld, where the animals are even asked to do tricks before a paying audience. It’s ineffably sad, and demeaning to these magnificent creatures. We are the only species that enslaves other speccies to advance our social position.
I’ll end with an excerpt from the New York Times’s positive review of the film:
Seemingly supported by chilling video and the oral testimonies of two witnesses to Tilikum’s first attack in 1991, the trainers accuse SeaWorld of cover-ups and misinformation. Much of the footage is painful to watch: bleeding whales, flanks raked by the teeth of their fellow captives; a trainer crushed between two gigantic beasts with only his wet suit holding him together; another trainer dragged repeatedly to the bottom of a pool until he manages to escape. Providing context for this alarming behavior, researchers describe highly socialized, caring creatures used to living in thousands of miles of ocean and ill suited to theme parks where they may be subjected to repeated overnight confinements in dark concrete pens.
“If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?” Jane Velez-Mitchell, a CNN anchor, wonders in a clip that’s used in the film. Other signs of mental distress, like severe tooth and stomach problems caused by the whales gnawing on their enclosures, are described. But the film’s most harrowing moment occurs not while addressing Tilikum’s 2010 mutilation and killing of a senior trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at the park in Orlando, Fla., but in a face-to-face with a former whale hunter, the diver John Crowe. Tearfully recalling his traumatic capture of whale calves four decades ago in Puget Sound while their mothers howled pitifully (“We were only after the little ones”), Mr. Crowe seems haunted to this day by the unearthly sound of the animals’ apparent grieving.
Calmly and methodically countering SeaWorld’s contention that whales benefit from captivity — the Web site “Orcas in Captivity” places the current total at 45 — Ms. Cowperthwaite questions the advisability of exploiting mammals whose brains, the neuroscientist Lori Marino suggests, may be more complex than our own.