'Blackfish' and its Backlash

The hard-hitting documentary 'Blackfish' focuses on the captive orca Tillikum at SeaWorld Orlando.

Let me start out by saying, I know "Blackfish" is a documentary. And sometimes the trouble with documentaries is that they-tend to be a bit one-sided. This is why I usually take docs with a grain of salt. But after sitting back and experiencing the raw emotion and investigative reporting done by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and fellow producer Manuel V. Oteyza, I have to say it will be almost impossible to ever look at this particular tourist attraction the same. 

By now you know that "Blackfish" follows the story of Tilikum, a six ton killer whale (or as I prefer to say, orca), who has been in various forms of captivity for the majority of his life and how this has played a role in the unfortunate deaths of three individuals. I like most, didn't really know a whole lot about these beautiful creatures going in.

Hell, as a kid, I thought the large white patches on each side of their heads were their eyes. (They aren't, right?) Soon after, the next tidbit of information about orcas came from the 1993 feature film "Free Willy." You know, the one with that famous Michael Jackson song. If you haven't seen the movie and you're in your mid 20's or early 30's, I feel for your childhood.

Regardless, this coupled with years of cheesy SeaWorld commercials, stuffed Shamu dolls, and one trip to the park at the age of 3, was the basis of my know-all about these intelligent, loyal and graceful creatures. 

The release of this film is poignant for me, as in July I attended, the theme park around my birthday for the first time in 27 years. Why hadn't I been back sooner? Good question. I've lived in Florida off and on for the better part of my life. And while I've been a loyal customer of the mouse, I've never found myself rushing to visit a park solely involving marine life.

Not because I don't find sea creatures amazing, I do. But deep down, I've always possessed this feeling of uneasiness watching trained wildlife do rehearsed stunts for treats, then when the show is complete, being locked up until the next round of visitors arrive. My feelings of trepidation aren't solely focused on aquatic parks alone.

I've held the same beliefs while visiting the San Diego ZooThe Bronx Zoo, and even Disney's Animal Kingdom. It just boggles my mind that these majestic, regal creatures are taken out of their natural environment, forced to live and play in a diorama of sorts, to never again experience life as a free being. I do think places like Disney's Animal Kingdom do a marvelous job of recreating the natural habitats such as the African wilderness. Have you been on the Kilimanjaro Safaris?

It's a 20-minute ride in the sweltering heat through an amazingly lush and authentic jungle like setting that allows its inhabitants to roam free (within certain designated areas). The carnivores however, have been segregated from the rest of the pack as for the simple fact that a lion attack on a gazelle would traumatize more than a few children on the back of that giant GMC truck.

My original belief was that the animals were left outside at night much like they would be in actual African-lands. On my last trip to the park, while taking the train to Rafiki's Planet Watch, my girlfriend and I noticed dozens and dozens of large metal cages and housing facilities backstage. After getting a little more info while on the train ride from a cast member, we came to find out that the animals are led to the cages at night with the promise of food. I was disheartened to say the least. 

Zoo's and aquatic centers is where I really see the big issue though. Yes, these places are wonderful for studying animals, fish, mammals, etc. And where else could children, both young and old get the opportunity to see polar bears, elephants, or manatee's up close and in a safe environment! Sure it's educational; about as educational as keeping a human being in a psych-ward after they've been cleared of any medical issues.

Harsh? I'm not so sure. I had always believed (maybe it was hoped) that most animals in zoo's and theme parks were there because they were rescued; albeit from injury, illness, climate change or rejection from it's herd. And that once said animals were capable to fend for themselves, would be released back into the wild to live out the rest of their days the way god intended.

But the truth is, for the majority of animals who are present, because of abnormality who are nursed back to full strength, are then deemed too unfit to return to their natural habitat because they no longer have the ability to fend for themselves. It's the age-old tale of the spoiled child. If you feed them, bathe them, clothe them and provide all that is ever needed without the teaching methods, why or how would they ever do for themselves?

Sure animals are a bit different. To an extent it becomes survival of the fittest. This is nature! We cannot stop its progression; all we can do it stunt it. And stunt it we are.

The folks at SeaWorld claim that the animals currently at the park were bred and born there (pay attention to the graph shown in the film, as to how many calves have been born via the semen extracted from Tilikum; the number nears 40).

Sure, because in 1983 a young calf by the name of Tiikum was taken from his mother and the rest of his community off the waters of Iceland. SeaWorld says they had nothing to do with that, and it was the people behind the now long defunct Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, B.C.

OK, so did Tilikum swim to Orlando, FL after the closure of the park and ask for a job? I think not. He was purchased, for what I can only assume was at least a number well over 6 figures. This is even after "Tilly" as he is referred to in the film, is involved in the death of a young female trainer. Yes, he may not have been the main culprit, as two other female orcas were also in the tank at the time. But as the film depicts, night after night, Tilly and his counterparts were placed in a large metal box with a pool that was only 20x30 feet in diameter.

Now imagine yourself as a 6,000-pound colossal mammal in something about the size of an Olympic swimming pool, night after night, in complete darkness, with two other behemoths. Yeah, you'd start to lose it too.

A 2013 Sundance Film Festival selection, "Blackfish" is beginning to pick up steam in the world of public opinion. Actress Kim Basinger has recently joined PETA in the fight to stop SeaWorld from capturing (yes, capture… not rescue) Russian beluga whales to restock their parks. Pixar has recently decided to alter the ending to the upcoming 2015 release of "Finding Dory," the highly anticipated sequel to "Finding Nemo."

At the end of the film, according to early drafts of the script, the aquatic animals were to have ended their journey at a marine park. Now it is said, that revised edition allow the fish and mammals to leave the park if they so desire. Jeez! If only this were real.

Of course SeaWorld is going to say that the film "Blackfish" is misleading, and inaccurate. And that the filmmakers are using slander to benefit their project. And that the ex-trainers that were interviewed are just bitter former employees. But when presented with some of these facts, it's hard to take the side of big business (via the Blackfish official website):

SeaWorld says: They haven't collected a killer whale from the wild in more than 35 years; more than 80% of the killer whales at SeaWorld were born there or in other zoological facilities.
Blackfish says: Many of those captive-born calves are Tilikum's offspring, the whale who has a proven track record of killing 3 people. That said, there is a whale called Morgan at a marine park in Spain which houses SeaWorld-owned whales. Morgan was caught in the wild and was placed in Loro Parque where she will be bred and perform alongside the other SeaWorld whales.
SeaWorld says: We don’t know what their lifespans might be—though we do know that SeaWorld currently has one killer whale in her late 40s and a number of others in their late 30s.   
Blackfish says: In the wild, average lifespan is 30 for males, 50 for females. Their estimated maximum life span is 60-70 years for males and 80-90 years for females. In captivity, most orcas die in their teens and 20s and only a handful have made it past 35. The annual mortality or death rate for orcas is 2.5 times higher in captivity than it is in the wild. These are not controversial data. In the film, we depict what seems to be a deliberate attempt by SeaWorld to misrepresent these well-documented data to their visitors.
SeaWorld says: Whales live in a social setting with a dominance hierarchy, both at SeaWorld and in the wild. They express dominance in a variety of ways, including using their teeth to “rake” other whales, in the open ocean as well as in parks.         
Blackfish says: The film asserts that in the wild, whales can also flee conflict. Whales at SeaWorld cannot escape from a negative social interaction and are therefore confronted with conflicts that have proven to be injurious and even fatal. Furthermore, in the wild, these hierarchies are among family groups and are maintained with minimal aggression. In the wild, no orca has ever been known to seriously injure or kill another orca, inside or outside of their social group, in any interaction.
SeaWorld says: They move killer whales only when doing so in the interest of their long-term health and welfare. The only time it separates unweaned killer whale calves from their mothers is when the mothers have rejected them.
Blackfish says: In the wild, females generally have their first calf around 13-16 years of age. Because SeaWorld has bred their females as early as 5-6 years of age, these females have not learned proper social behavior, they have not learned how to mother a calf, and may ultimately reject and injure their calves.
SeaWorld says: The behaviors it reinforces are always within the killer whale’s natural range of behaviors.
Blackfish says: Wild killer whales are never observed performing front flips or vertical jumps to touch objects, neither have they been observed to spin 360 degrees on land. A killer whale supporting a human who rides, "surfs", or leaps from the animal's rostrum does not fall within a wild killer whale’s repertoire either.
SeaWorld says: From the time Tilikum first arrived at SeaWorld, all trainers were warned—both as part of their training and in writing—which they were not allowed in the water with him.
Blackfish says: The film asserts that trainers were not told the details of what happened to Keltie Byrne when Tilikum arrived at SeaWorld and not told the details of what happened to Daniel Dukes at the time of his death.
SeaWorld says: Tilikum did not attack Dawn. All evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn’s ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water.
Blackfish says: Although eye-witness accounts and a video of events just prior to the take-down seem to strongly contradict the notion that Dawn was pulled in by her ponytail, it is most important to note that according to SeaWorld’s own Management during courtroom testimony, Tilikum was desensed to ponytails and therefore did not find them a novelty. The brutal nature of the prolonged, aggressive attack and the facts in the autopsy strongly suggest that Tilikum’s behavior was anything but novel curiosity.

I for one feel it is quite insensitive and backhanded that SeaWorld continues to fight OSHA on the charge that they do not feel trainers in the water alongside these enormous fish creates an unsafe work environment. Why, because it makes for a more spectacular show? Because they needed to capitalize on the already 24 million guests a year that visit their parks?

Regardless of how SeaWorld feels their business will be affected from this film, the record states that 3 people have lost their lives, and per "Blackfish," over 70+ trainers have suffered life-threatening injuries since the early 1980's.

Let's face it, there is no minor accident when an orca whale is involved. Even if they are indeed gentile and honorable creatures, we don't know what completely goes on inside their brains. The same can be said for all animals, as well as human beings. What makes one human want to kill another? We as a people, have a hard enough time controlling our own actions, let alone a wild animal/mammal taken out of it's natural habitat.

And you have to look at it subjectively. No matter how well you think you know something, you never really know it well enough. Now factor all this into a creature weighing thousands of pounds that lives its life a certain way because it is forced to, day after day, with no end in sight, and tell me you don't have a ticking time bomb on your hands. 

So, as I sat back with my friends to watch the new Shamu show, and saw the trainers, now out of the water, running around the tank to cue tricks, I thought to myself, this is a really unique experience. One that I honestly wish I wasn't able to partake in, had these poor mammals not been subjected to hours of training for performance.

And as I glanced around the crowded arena, I wondered if anyone else felt the way I did. Parents and their children, did they know what they were witnessing was actual cruelty in full effect? Perhaps after seeing the film Blackfish and reading this article they will be enlightened to the fact. 

So after 27 years away from the park, I can wholeheartedly say I will never be back. I've seen the spectacle, and it saddens me beyond belief to watch the unfortunate lives these Blackfish live. I have a whole new appreciation now that I know a little bit more about orcas. And this article is my first step in making a difference. Won't you do the same?