Sat, Dec 21, 2013 - Page 9 News List

‘Blackfish,’ SeaWorld and the backlash against killer whale theme park shows

Willie Nelson is just one of the artists rushing to cancel gigs at SeaWorld after seeing ‘Blackfish,’ the documentary about a killer whale implicated in three trainers’ deaths

By Patrick Barkham  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: June Hsu

Heart are an unlikely bunch of revolutionaries — but the US soft rockers’ decision to cancel a concert at SeaWorld in Florida may mark a turning point in the relationship between humans and one of the most magnificent mammals of the ocean.

The band this week joined Willie Nelson and Barenaked Ladies in canceling shows at the Orlando theme park because they had watched Blackfish, a film about Tilikum, a five-tonne male orca that has been involved in the deaths of three people.

This modest yet riveting documentary has made ever-bigger ripples across the pond since its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, with an audience of 20 million recently watching it on CNN. It is now on the Oscar longlist.

Tilikum’s plight — enduring violence from other captive whales and forced to entertain crowds in return for fish ever since he was captured in the wild in 1983 — is vividly depicted by former trainers. The film’s conclusion is inescapable: We have no business keeping such large, intelligent mammals in such crippling confinement. We too might get a little psychotic, it suggests, if we were imprisoned in a bath for 30 years.

Blackfish, a Native American term for the orca or killer whale (actually a member of the dolphin family), began with an innocuous premise: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director, wanted to examine how people relate to large predators. As Cowperthwaite, who lives in California, says, she is not an animal rights activist and did not intend to make a controversial film.

“I couldn’t have been more naive about the situation in SeaWorld,” she said.

She regularly took her twin boys there as a treat.

“I’d see hundreds of children smiling and think: ‘How can something that makes people so happy be such a bad thing?’ All of us are complicit, starting with myself,” she said.

SeaWorld is the slickest of what Cowperthwaite now views as aquatic circuses.

The company owns 12 US theme parks and its shtick — orcas leaping to lights and music alongside their trainers — may make many adults cringe, particularly in Britain, where there are no dolphins in captivity. However, in the US, more than 11 million people visit a SeaWorld each year.

When Cowperthwaite read news stories about the death of Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer killed while performing with Tilikum in 2010, she was stunned by a barely reported fact: Tilikum had been involved in two earlier deaths.

“This story was hiding in plain sight. Once you learn the truth, it becomes your mission to tell it. The facts are so indisputable. This is an industry that has operated untouched for 40 years and it governs itself. There’s no true oversight of places like SeaWorld,” she said.

Blackfish has belatedly provided a window into the aquarium. The story of Tilikum’s life — and Brancheau’s death — begins with traumatic footage of orcas being captured in the wild to establish parks such as SeaWorld Orlando, founded in 1965.

Although wild capture was outlawed in the US in 1972, orcas continued to be seized in foreign waters: Tilikum was caught, aged two, off Iceland in 1983. His early life was spent in a cramped Canadian park.

When part-time trainer Keltie Byrne slipped into the pool containing Tilikum and two female orcas in 1991, she was killed. The park was closed and “Tilly” was snapped up by SeaWorld, eager to buy a new male for breeding.

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