Saturday, November 30, 2013

Why animal lovers need to watch Blackfish

"Never capture what you can't control" - Blackfish is a gripping documentary with a powerful message. (Image courtesy
SAT's weekend posts are traditionally focused on activities we can share with the non-humans in our lives...this is a bit of an extension of that. Except today its not about companion animals, but wild animals. And one movie that I think anyone who works with animals should see.

Back in February 2010 (the 24th to be precise), the death of Florida SeaWorld killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau made international headlines. When the news first broke the storyline was that the trainer had stuffed up, or been over-confident, and been somehow fatally punished by the 6.9m, 5400kg orca - in front of a crowd of distressed onlookers.

But the orca, Tilikum, had killed before. Twice in fact. 

The news stories changed. Suddenly the incident was concieved as murder, one that could have been forseen and thereby prevented. So was it an accident, or a brutal attack?

Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is the story of Tilikum, and the remarkable trainers who worked with him and other killer whales, as well as the multi-million dollar sea park industry (and, indirectly, about zoorism). Its based on an extended article published in Outside magazine (definitely worth a read, click here).

The movie traces Tilikum's life  - from his heartbreaking capture in the wild to the shocking husbandry, poor (and sometimes cruel) training and his learning history. Cowperthwaite interviewed former trainers and keepers and provides compelling first hand interviews, as well as some fairly confronting footage of near-misses in the pool.

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What happened on February 24 initially appears as a routine show, but with this background, you can understand how a missed cue and an innocent, routine response by the trainer can escalate the situation beyond control.

The trainers interviewed all admit that they had concerns about the welfare of these animals in captivity, but wanted to believe that they were doing the right thing. Nor did they seem to know much about Tilikum's background and previous incidents. Cowperthwaite builds an argument that all of these things culminated and climaxed in the death of Brancheau.

Their story is a potent reminder than even animal lovers with the best intentions can buy into practices which are ultimately cruel. The implication of their collective interviews is that the stress of captivity ultimately lead to injuries of both humans and orcas.

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There have been some negative responses to the movie, such as this, though SeaWorld, according to the filmmakers, declined repeated requests to participate in interviews. It's a shame because it would have been beneficial to hear directly from SeaWorld management.

Cowperthwaite says that she didn't approach the documentary project initially as an activist, but says she became one by default. The SeaWorld camp claims it is pure propaganda. The Blackfish Twitter account is aflutter with comments from celebs like Paris Hilton saying they are saddened to learn "the truth". 

This week the Barenaked Ladies cancelled a SeaWorld gig following a petition from fans and there is a suggestion that SeaWorld's hip pocket is hurting.

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To me the most interesting issue raised by this film is not how corporates dupe employees or skimp on work health and safely (though there is plenty of that), but how good people, who really do care, can do things they "know" are wrong. Blackfish also demonstrates how easy it is for even the most passionate animal people to forget, ignore or selectively address husbandry of animals. (The most shocking example is the footage and keeper interviews of the first marine park that Tilikum was housed in with two other females). If it can happen to them, surely it can happen to anyone?

I am not sure I am convinced that SeaWorld as an entity itself is inherently evil. I'm left a bit uneasy that all former trainers interviewed seemed to have been labouring under misapprehensions and suddenly seen the light (what stopped them from seeing it earlier? Was it all so bad? Did, as one suggested, their relationships with animals force them to let some stuff slide?). I think some of the people who came up with different explanations for Tilikum's behaviour that day really do believe what they are saying. 

There is no single, correct way to interpret and explain "aberrant" animal behaviour - and it is hard to explain the thinking of a deceased person in their final moments. 

But Blackfish raises critical questions about the welfare of orcas...and all captivity. It is a chilling reminder that when it comes to the welfare of animals, we can always do better and we can always learn more - and its dangerous to think that we know it all.

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Further reading and resources

The Human Society International published a paper on why orcas should not be kept in captivity and another from WSPA and HSI about marine mammals in captivity