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Blackfish – Viewpoint screens debated documentary

    By Malin Meyer. April 25, 2014 - 1:48 am


HPU’s Viewpoint series screened the much-discussed documentary “Blackfish” earlier this month. Released in 2013 during the Sundance Film Festival, “Blackfish” is the story about Tilikum, the 12,000 pound bull Orca that has been one of the main attractions at SeaWorld Orlando since the 1990s and who’s responsible for the deaths of three people – including SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. More than that, “Blackfish” is a look into the ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity and the potential lack of safety measurements at SeaWorld.

Since premiering in 2013, “Blackfish” has stirred up public opinion on captive killer whales and the safety practices in place at SeaWorld. Many people have advocated against keeping orcas in captivity and have encouraged others to boycott SeaWorld. Others, including SeaWorld, have claimed that the documentary is biased and contains inaccurate information. The film features interviews with several of SeaWorld’s former Orca trainers, people involved with capturing Tilikum and other SeaWorld orcas as calves during the 1970s and 80s, as well as Dr. Dave Duffus – who’s researched killer whales in the wild and served as an expert witness for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the trial between SeaWorld and OSHA concerning Brancheau’s brutal death.

For a person who’s never been to SeaWorld and has a hard time visiting marine theme parks and zoos without feeling conflicted, I was shocked by some of the footage and stories presented in “Blackfish”. John Crowe, one of the whale hunters involved with capturing Orca calves in Puget Sound, Washington, in the 1970s, described his actions as horrifying. “It’s like kidnapping a little kid from its mother”, Crowe said of his memories of separating and capturing the Orca calves from the mature whales on behalf of SeaWorld. In his interview, Crowe also explains that following one particular Orca hunt, three killer whales died and Crowe and his colleagues were told to cut them open, fill the whales up with rocks and sink them.

As for Tilikum, he was captured in the North Atlantic in 1983 and brought to Sealand of the Pacific, an aquarium in Canada. According to the documentary it was here, at Sealand, that Tilikum’s problems began; he was continuously attacked by the two other killer whales – especially at night when he and the other orcas were stored in a steel box 20-feet across and 30-feet deep that left no room for mobility. Steve Huxter, former director of Sealand, told “Blackfish” interviewers that “it didn’t feel good, it just didn’t” to stow the orcas in such poor living conditions. Ken Balcomb, director at the Centre for Whale Research, believes the treatment Tilikum received at Sealand led to a psychosis and ultimately contributed to the Orca becoming a killer.


 In 1991 Tilikum and the two female killer whales at Sealand drowned trainer Keltie Byrne. The film does not necessarily portray Byrne’s death as a vicious attack. In fact, some have claimed that the three orcas merely intended to play with Byrne and could not understand the fact that she was unable to hold her breath long enough or withstand the whales’ force. Others have pointed out the bad relationship between Tilikum and the female killer whales as a cause for aggression. Following the death of its trainer Sealand sold the killer whales to SeaWorld. Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld Orlando and arrived in 1992. Interviews with former SeaWorld trainers reveals that Tilikum got along poorly with the female killer whales in Orlando as well, having to spend long hours in isolation in order to be protected from attacks.

The degree to which Tilikum’s treatment at Sealand and his relationship with the female killer whales at Sealand and SeaWorld Orlando has contributed to his aggressive behavior is one of the aspects of “Blackfish” that has been heavily debated. As critics have pointed out, all animals exhibit aggressive behavior to some extent and for killer whales in the wild the family structure is very much based on a system of matriarchal hierarchy ruled by dominant whales; the “bullying” that Tilikum was exposed to at Sealand and SeaWorld would have taken place in the wild as well, so there’s little reason to assume that attacks and isolation has caused his violent behavior. The film points out, however, that a major difference between killer whales in captivity and the wild is that in the wild the Orca can swim away from attacks and threatening situations. For captive animals like Tilikum, he is confined to the facility’s pool with no means of escaping the situation.

“Blackfish” also addresses the decision by SeaWorld to remove Orca calves from its mothers and relocate them to other parks. Katina, a female killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando, gave birth to her daughter Katina in the mid-1980s. At around four years of age, Kalina was sold to another SeaWorld facility and taken away from Katina. In the documentary, it’s explained that Katina seemed devastated from losing her calf – spending hours alone in the pool ‘howling’ and appearing heartbroken. As former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove put it: “How can anyone look at that and think that that is morally acceptable?” There’s also the matter of SeaWorld capturing killer whales from different geographical areas and placing them together in a facility; a killer whale captured in the North Atlantic does not share the same characteristics and culture as a killer whale captured off the U.S. west coast.

Orcas from different families have been captured and placed together in SeaWorld pools with little consideration for the differences between them. Critics of SeaWorld have argued that not only is this traumatizing to the whales because they’re taken away from their family, but they also lack a family structure at SeaWorld facilities and thus spend their lives being very much alone. Erin Hanahoe, stranding coordinator for HPU’s marine mammal stranding program, has experience working with and training different animals, including killer whales, and disagrees with the claim that killer whales in captivity have no sense of family and form no bonds with each other. I too have a hard time imagining this latter statement to be true, and it should be noted that SeaWorld no longer captures wild killer whales for captivity. Instead, SeaWorld has devoted ample resources to the development of its own breeding program – a program Tilikum plays a major role in. He is one of SeaWorld’s primary breeding whales and has fathered dozens of orcas throughout the years since his arrival in Orlando in 1992.

As much as I acknowledge the importance of SeaWorld no longer capturing wild orcas, as a supporter of animal rights I do not see how this is in any way benefiting the killer whales in captivity. People in favor of keeping animals in captivity point to, among other, the scientific benefits humans can derive from research on animals in a controlled environment. I can certainly see how this is important and I recognize that science has benefited greatly from animals in captivity and captive breeding programs. However, there are those who would argue that ethics and ethical behavior should come before all else. To me, this is one of the most important element that “Blackfish” addresses– the debate between science and ethics. While the debate is pretty straightforward to me, it’s always been a discussion that has raised tensions in society.

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