by Rich Juzwiak / gawker.com
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite recently told the New York Times that she approached her documentary Blackfish as a journalist with an open mind. The resulting film, which is about killer whales in captivity (specifically at SeaWorld and focusing on the 32-year-old orca Tilikum, who’s killed three people), is nonetheless damning enough that it reads like animal liberation propaganda. We hear numerous testimonials from former SeaWorld trainers on the negative effects of keeping these giant, sensitive creatures penned. We see hidden-camera footage of SeaWorld guides feeding park guests incorrect information about orcas’ lifespans and fins — the dorsal fins of captive killer routinely collapse, or flop to the side, which is rare in the wild. We see footage of brutal whale-on-human attacks. We hear nothing from SeaWorld itself.
(The corporation’s general counsel told the Times that SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the film “because they doubted the material would be used in good faith.” SeaWorld also declined interviews for David Kirby’s book Death at SeaWorld, which was released last year.)
The film is not all straightforward condemnation – it highlights the irony at the heart of the anti-captivity movement. If SeaWorld hadn’t offered the general public an up-close look at these animals that were previously misunderstood as killing machines, killer whales wouldn’t have captured the sympathy of so many humans. It was largely through orca captivity that humans learned just how harmful captivity can be. The film spends a lot of time on former trainers’ accounts of bonding with these animals. Captivity may be widely denounced by scientists, and it may produce behavior that we just don’t see in the wild. For example, there have been two recorded human attacks by killer whales in the wild; in 2006 ABC reported that there had been nearly two dozen in captivity. However, the human-whale shared experience is not without joy, and Blackfish reasonably documents that.