Thursday, January 09, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Blackfish (2013) ***

PG-13, 83 min.
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Writers: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli B. Depres
Featuring: Tilikum, Suzanne Allee, Kim Ashdown, Samantha Berg, Dawn Brancheau, Daine Brancheau, Kelly Clark, Dave Duffus, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove, Nadine Kallen, Lori Marino, Ken Peters, Estefania Rodriguez, Mark Simmons, Jeffrey Venture

My children will probably never experience the joy of a SeaWorld show. I went to a couple as a kid and even one in San Diego as an adult. My wife and I have discussed taking a trip to the closest SeaWorld for the kids. However, for a long time now, I’ve been aware of the questionable practices of these animal habitat places like SeaWorld that specialize more in depriving the animals of their natural habitat rather than preserving them in it. After watching the new documentary “Blackfish”, I think the final nail has been hammered into that coffin.

The filmmakers have interviewed several former animal trainers from SeaWorld and their consensus is pretty unanimous, the treatment of the animals in the SeaWorld facilities is deplorable. Most claim to have joined the SeaWorld staff at young ages, not realizing that the people they were working for didn’t really know how to care for these marine animals. They just assumed the people who ran the show knew what they were talking about. After it became clear to these former employees that there wasn’t much concern for the animals at a corporate level, most stayed on to give the only care the animals really received.

Staying in the employ of SeaWorld as an animal trainer, however, is a pretty risky endeavor.  Several deaths and countless injuries have occurred in SeaWorld parks over the last thirty years, almost always it’s one of the trainers. One of the most highly publicized of these deaths was that of Dawn Branchaeu, a veteran trainer who knew very well what she was doing with the whale that killed her in 2010. A male killer whale named Tilikum, the largest Orca in captivity who had been involved with two previous deaths, killed her. At the time of her death SeaWorld downplayed much of her injuries and subtly placed the blame on the trainer, claiming the whale grabbed her pony tale and accidentally dragger her in. This was not the case.

“Blackfish” concentrates on many different aspects of killer whales and SeaWorld’s history with them, from the early hunting of killer whale babies to the brutal nature with which the whales treat each other in captivity. Pointing out several different incidents throughout SeaWorld’s history, the filmmakers concentrate primarily on their history with Tilikum specifically. Tilikum was responsible for the death of a trainer before SeaWorld bought the whale from the small outfit Sealand of the Pacific in South Oak Bay, British Columbia. They ignored eyewitness accounts of the incident and put Tilikum on display in their Orlando park.

The movie points out that their relationship with Tilikum supports the notion that their practices are more about the corporate bottom line than the safety of the animals or their trainers. Through archival footage the filmmakers display an abundance of visual proof that his fellow whale performers frequently abused Tilikum. They also point out that Tilikum was the foundation of the company’s breeding program, having produced over twenty offspring in their whale stock.

The fact is creatures as intelligent as the killer whale could never possibly live a good life in captivity. Killer whales show a great deal of devotion to the family unit and require large spaces to life freely. These are conditions impossible for a contained facility to provide. While I very much enjoyed watching these majestic creatures perform earlier in my life, I don’t know if I could enjoy it with the knowledge of what their lives are really like were I to witness a show now. Yeah, this movie’s really a downer, but it’s presents some cold truths the consuming public should know. What we do to have these creatures entertain us is wrong.

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