Monthly Archive for: ‘April, 2013’

Blackfish — Film Review


Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite



I have never been to SeaWorld, and I’ve never had any desire to go there.  It always seemed to me like shallow entertainment which gives people the wrong impression of orcas in particular, and the relationship between humans and the animal kingdom in general.  This film starts to set things in the right relationship.

It is a documentary about SeaWorld, the whales that perform in their shows, the trainers that train them, and whether or not it makes sense to be doing this.  The impetus and center of gravity of the film is the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed on February 24, 2010, by Tillikum, a 12,000 pound male orca at SeaWorld, Orlando, Florida.  Brancheau was 40 years old and a senior trainer who knew Tillikum well and was comfortable with him.  SeaWorld blames Brancheau for the mishap, but Tillikum had killed at least two other humans prior to Brancheau, and he also had a history of maltreatment, not only at SeaWorld, but also before he came to SeaWorld from Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, Canada.  The film explores all of this material in great detail.  It is well documented and accentuated with interviews with former trainers who know Dawn Brancheau, and who provide much background and insight into the world of training orcas, the relationships of the trainers to the whales, and the conditions the whales are forced to live under at SeaWorld.  Did Dawn Brancheau make a mistake that cost her her life, or was this a ticking time bomb destined to go off sooner or later?  You decide.

The film makes the case that it is not such a good idea to be keeping these huge animals in the cramped quarters of the SeaWorld pools, separated from their natural social connections, and it is even less prudent to be letting young trainers, who don’t really have a clue what they are getting into, to swim into a tank with these powerful undomesticated animals.

How do you think a behemoth like Tillikum gets to be 12,000 pounds?  Not by eating potato chips in front of his TV.  These animals are top predators.  There are good reasons why they are called “killer” whales.  There is one dramatic sequence in the film of several whales attacking a seal that is stranded on an ice floe.  The whales work together to tip the ice floe enough that the seal is toppled into the water.  Once that happens, it is all over for the seal in seconds.  It seems to me that this is the truth that people — including children — should see about these whales.

There is a video on YouTube of a man clowning on a beach at the water’s edge.  Two orcas creep up on him right at the shoreline, knock him down, and devour him in seconds right before your very eyes.  Some people think the video is fake.  It shows you how strong is this will to believe in the benign nature of fierce predatory animals.  Perhaps it is a way of denying our own vulnerability and how quickly we can be snuffed out and disappear at the hands — or rather jaws — of natural enemies.  But this sort of thing goes on in the animal kingdom all the time every day.  An animal can be placidly going about his business, and suddenly, without warning, be beset and completely devoured within seconds.   It is a discomfiting thought which we would prefer to dispel, how sudden our lives can be snuffed out by powerful predators, who don’t really hate us, they just want to consume us.  It’s nothing personal.  Just as it is nothing personal when we raise chickens, or pigs, or cattle on factory farms in minimal conditions feeding them just enough to get their weight to a certain point in an optimal number of days at which time they will be abruptly and unceremoniously slaughtered.  You don’t stew about that when you sit down and enjoy a sumptuous steak in a fine restaurant, do you?  Predators cannot afford to be sentimental about the animals they must kill in order to survive and thrive.  The orcas did not feel sorry for that seal they toppled from the ice floe, nor for the man they probably mistook for a seal on the beach.  Rather than dwell on that unsettling thought that these animals in their natural habitat would kill us in a moment, we turn them into friendly teddy bears, companions who can communicate with us and be friends with us.  Denial is a first line defense against anxiety.

The film does not mention the parent corporation of Seaworld (which used to be Anheuser-Busch until it was sold to the Blackstone Group in 2009).  It is now called Seaworld Entertainment Inc., which is 63% owned by Blackstone.  The Blackstone Group is a multi-billion dollar private equity firm based in New York City, with offices around the world.   Just this week Blackstone held an initial public offering of Seaworld Entertainment stock.  According to the Wall Street Journal the stock went up 24% on the first day of trading (Wall Street Journal, April 22, 2013).  After this film circulates I wonder how well the stock will do?

Blackstone cares about making money, and they’re making a lot of it on Seaworld.  They don’t particularly care about the trainers at Seaworld, much less the orcas.  They refused to be interviewed for this film or make any comment about its findings.  This is an entertainment business that sells illusions.  Illusions are strongly held beliefs or viewpoints that are in contradiction to facts or conditions that should be obvious.  They reflect a human need to see things in a certain way in order to allay anxiety, to provide a consoling view of life that offers comfort or a feeling of security.

The illusion in this case is the belief that the natural world is a benign place where humans are in control and living in harmony with the other creatures in nature: that orcas, who are top predators in the wild, are actually benign, friendly, good natured companions to humans who can be domesticated to behave like entertaining pets.  However, this illusion is starting to wear a little thin and fray around the edges.  In order to maintain it, much truth has to be concealed, downplayed, and outright falsified, which the film documents very effectively.

The Seaworld trainers seem to be goodhearted, but naive, young people who have very little background in orca behavior or ethology, but are possessed of the illusion that you can get into a tank of water with a 12,000 pound captive whale that lives by killing, make him do all kinds of ridiculous things that he would never do in the wild, and be perfectly safe.  People want to believe that they can be friends with their natural enemies, that the most fearsome predators can be tamed and transformed into loving companions.  Yes, the animals have personalities, they have intelligence, they have a complex social life, they have sophisticated ways of communicating among themselves.  Some people seem surprised and charmed to discover this.  But it doesn’t mean you can be friends with them.  They cannot be a substitute for wholesome, loving human companionship.  The captive environment is very artificial and the animals understand their dependence on their human handlers in this extraordinarily unnatural situation.

The film points to a record of at least 70 incidents where killer whales have attacked their human trainers and several where the trainers have been killed.  Seaworld consistently blames the trainers, saying they made errors which led to the attacks.  In some cases this was true, but on the other hand, you don’t have a lot of margin with killer whales, and it is also true that the whales are kept under inhumane conditions and often treated badly, which, over time, probably builds up a lot of rage and resentment.  Sometimes the whales reach a point where they decide enough is enough.

The film brings to light a lot of unsavory conditions in an inherently perilous enterprise that SeaWorld would prefer to keep under wraps, and which they have done pretty successfully for many years.  This speaks to the power of this illusory phantasm of the benign natural world in the public imagination.  People want to take their kids to this grandiose spectacle and be dazzled by huge powerful animals cavorting to entertain human audiences pleased with themselves to have subdued and dominated these breathtaking creatures.  But it is insipid and barbaric.  It gives kids the wrong message about the relationship between humans and animals and it gives them a very wrong impression about killer whales.   Don’t go to Seaworld.  Watch this film instead.  Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Sundance Kabuki Cinema, April 27, 2013.


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