In 2013, the controversial documentary film, Blackfish, premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, sending shockwaves throughout the world. The film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, provides a shockingly raw insight into killer whale entertainment, particularly at SeaWorld, and traces the controversy, events and circumstances surrounding the death of SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau by the largest orca in captivity, Tilikum, in February 2010. The film is not only an indictment of SeaWorld, but a denunciation of the institution’s animal ethics, animal husbandry and its safety practices.
Blackfish tells the tragic story of Tilikum and Brancheau; a once-world class duo whose performances at SeaWorld’s ‘Shamu Show’ captivated millions. Under Brancheau’s instructions, the magnificent Tilikum, would wave, bow, dive, jump and perform a range of other tricks in the water; enthralling audiences and raking in gargantuan profits for SeaWorld Orlando, Florida.
However, this superficial-fairy tale story ended abruptly. Once Sea World’s greatest asset, their captive killer whales, namely, Tilikum, now represent their biggest liability.
Blackfish stunned the world by revealing the true cruelty that lay behind the smiles and cheers that erupted within SeaWorld’s glorious stadium. Behind the great showrooms of the Shamu spectacle lies a dark and hidden underworld, one which has been graphically depicted for the first time by Blackfish. The film captures behind the scenes footage, and reveals the heartbreaking capture of wild orcas; the physical, social and psychological stresses that the animals endure, the separation of calves from their mothers, and the aggression that occurs between trainer and orca.
Tilikum, the notorious resident bull orca of Sea World, Orlando, formerly roamed free in Iceland before being captured by the now collapsed Canadian aquarium, Sealand of the Pacific, in 1983. Weighing in at over 12,000 pounds, Tilikum has experienced a long life of physical and psychological abuse, which was first documented in his early life at Sealand of the Pacific, where he was frequently chased and harassed by 2 other captive orcas.
Since then, Tilikum has been responsible for the deaths of 3 people, including, most famously, Dawn Brancheau. He has sired 21 calves through artificial insemination, which involves pinning the animal down and grappling with him until he produces a satisfactory quantity of semen. Captive orcas have been responsible for 5 deaths and over 30 incidents have been documented in which humans narrowly escaped with their lives.
Comparatively, wild orcas have not been responsible for one single death of a human.
The incidents involving orcas in captivity are violent, gruesome, and, until Blackfish, largely concealed. They involve scenarios where trainers have been brutally attacked, scalped, had their arms and legs severed, their penises torn off, and their faces broken and bloodied. For many years, SeaWorld has covered up these deaths by purporting that the deaths were an accident. Dawn Brancheau’s death was reported by SeaWorld as being caused by her ponytail, whereby Tilikum mistook it for a play toy and was merely having fun. They claim that accidents sometimes occur with beasts the size of Tilikum, and he was not aggressive, or distressed. However, all evidence leads to the contrary.
In the wild, orcas swim upward of 100 miles per day. At Sea World, the average Orca enclosure ranges from about 20- 40 feet deep and 50 to 150 feet long; a small wading pool for an animal ranging up to 35 feet long. Furthermore, footage released by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), reveals that these enclosures are the best case scenarios, and there have been many instances in which killer whales have been confined to metal grates, unable to move. Tilikum frequented such enclosures as the metal grate, after being harassed by other resident orcas at Sealand of the Pacific.
In the wild, orcas generally have a life span ranging 50-90 years old for females, and 50-60 for males.
Life expectancy of captive orcas is half that.
This film, and the inherent cruelty it reveals, has now entered the consciousness of millions around the world who have condemned both the use of orcas for entertainment and SeaWorld as an institution. It has transformed the way that the public views marine parks, and redefined what the public previously considered light entertainment.
Sea World has responded to claims of cruelty following the release of Blackfish with fervor; vehemently denying all claims of cruelty, though, to no avail. The aftermath of Blackfish has been colossal. Sea World’s stocks have plunged, and the park has admitted a significant drop in attendance. Celebrities, wildlife organisations, and animal welfare lobbyists have quickly and loudly voiced their opposition to Sea World, while petitions calling for the boycott of the marine park created an international furor, leading SeaWorld to promise enclosure expansions for its killer whales. Music bands and scheduled acts cancelled their gigs at Sea World (Willie Nelson, Tricia Yearwood, Heart, Cheap Trick), and major corporate sponsors dropped their partnership with the ailing organisation. Public petitions have implored companies with any affiliation to Seaworld to stop supporting the marine park, even going so far as to protest ‘Toys R Us’ selling its Sea World trainer Barbie. A bill banning the use of orcas for shows in California received over 1 million signatures in support.
The Blackfish Effect has achieved something profound. It has allowed for a heightened awareness for fellow sentient beings and revealed the public’s demand for animal ethics. Though the true test of the Blackfish Effect will be whether any appreciable impact will be had on Sea World’s business, and its approach to animal welfare. While the Blackfish Effect may not transcend the political and financial incentives of SeaWorld and institutionalized animal entertainment programs, it has created a heightened awareness of the devastating cruelty that humans inflict upon animals.
In terms of global animal rights, the Blackfish Effect is a small step in toward changing the status quo. Billions of animals are treated inhumanely every year. Though hopefully this effect will lead to significant change to the structure of animal welfare and human behaviour.
Blackfish revealed a positive trend towards thinking of animals as individual, sentient beings and provided a harsh wake-up call for many people who unknowingly fuelled an industry whose foundations were built on cruelty, captivity and violence.
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Article by Natalie Kyriacou, Director.