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Film Review


It is only in the past twenty years or so that animal behaviorists have begun to understand and fully appreciate the importance of social structures in animal groups. It has long been observed that mothers of most mammals and birds become highly upset if their young are threatened, much less killed. Nearly 50 years ago, Jane Goodall's close observation of chimpanzees proved that that chimpanzee families are vital for rearing their young. They also share many other human like expressions of friendship, such as hugs, pats on the back, and grooming. Chimps and most other species of primates clearly grieve in ways strikingly similar to humans for the death of another. Elephants too are known for strong matriarchal social structures, and the death of an older female can often sunder the group. But until recently it has not been known how important social groups or extended families are for marine mammals, such as whales. Orcas, commonly known as killer whales, often live in tight knit family groups led by the older females, and the deaths or capture of family members will often cause them to emit grieving cries heard at no other time. Orcas have been studied extensively, both in the wild and in captivity, and are considered highly social and intelligent. They have a high weight to brain size ratio and have been proven to vocalize an extremely wide range of information and emotions.

On February 24, 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a senior whale trainer at Seaworld's Orlando park, was killed by Tilikum, an adult male orca that had been captured 20 years ago as a calf in British Columbia waters. Seaworld claimed that her death was caused by her pony tail being snagged in Tilikum's teeth, but that was immediately shown not to be true. Further investigation turned up the fact that Tilikum had previously killed a trainer in 1991 in Victoria, BC, and a likely third death; a man who jumped into his tank after hours. In addition, a website, orcahome.de, lists 90 incidents of trainers at various marine parks being attacked by orcas, some severely injured, and another death. Adult male orcas, such as Tilikum, are 20 feet long and weight 6 tons, are very fast, so are formidable and inherently dangerous to anyone in the water with them. Further, the stress of living in a tiny enclosure at night after the shows, and often crowded with other orcas in tanks during performances, surely can create mental problems in what is normally a highly social animal. Many whale trainers, animal behaviorists, and other close observers feel that the marine park environment is driving these animals crazy. The orcas are presented to the public as friendly and cuddly when they can be anything but that in this setting.

OSHA sued SeaWorld over unsafe working conditions for the trainers, and issued an order requiring SeaWorld to install a physical barrier between the orcas and the trainers when in the water together. OSHA also fined them $75,000, which of course was far less than one day's revenue at one of their parks. SeaWorld, owned by the Blackstone Group, has 11 marine parks, 26,000 employees and revenues in excess of a billion dollars per year. Despite the slap on the wrist fine, SeaWorld appealed and lost. Animal rights groups have long objected to the cramped living conditions and poor treatment of the orcas, and also sued SeaWorld in an attempt to free them. A PETA law suit was dismissed last year.

After Dawn Blancheau's death, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, a Los Angeles film maker who has produced a number of documentaries for ESPN and National Geographic, began work on "Blackfish", which was to look at the broader picture of using orcas for entertainment under the guise of education. Blackfish is the First Nations' word for orcas. She interviews a number of former Seaworld trainers, most articulate, and all of whom paint an unattractive picture of Seaworld's management, and several describe near escapes from whale attacks. All of them condemn SeaWorld for attempting to blame Blancheau for her own death ("trainer error"), and although most loved their jobs and the orcas, many blame themselves for being blind to the conditions in which the orcas had to live. Significantly, none of them had ever heard that Tilikum had killed two people before Blancheau. Seaworld knew of the attacks and deaths but did not inform their trainers. Archival video footage of some of these attacks, including that on Brancheau, are gripping and frightening. In one particularly moving interview, a older boat captain who helped capture orca calves describes how ashamed he is now by what he had done. He can hardly finish the interview as he describes the cries of the mother whales that still haunt him.

In addition, the film maker makes it clear that these huge animals are routinely shipped from one park to another, surely traumatic for the animal. Although the film surprisingly does not mention this, wild orcas in American waters are now protected by the Marine Mammals Protection Act, so that all orcas in captivity were either captured prior to the act or born in captivity. This act makes the captive breeding of orcas vital to these parks, and the males are routinely used for breeding. Tilikum is estimated to have sired at least 21 young, 11 of which are still living, which means that a high percentage of orcas in the parks have Tilikum's genes. Another point that Cowperthwaite makes is the shortened life span of orcas in captivity. Orcas routinely live 30 or 40 years in the wild, but in captivity the average age rarely exceeds 20. The captive orcas are more subject to infections and aggression from other orcas as well as possible poor nutrition and the effects of extreme confinement. Some of the video footage shows graphic evidence of orca wounds caused by other orcas. SeaWorld websites and commercials deny all of this, but the facts seem quite the opposite.

"Blackfish" is riveting and often sad, definitely a point of view documentary, but makes a compelling argument that orcas do not belong in captivity, especially for use as entertainment in these marine parks. Although she has a few interviews with people who support SeaWorld, the management itself refused to be interviewed, never an indication of ethical behavior. Another omission is that no mention is made of Brancheau's husband, in terms of a lawsuit. Online research turned up several articles which claimed he had hired a prominent attorney, but nothing further. One wonders why she didn't interview him. One of the animal behaviorists predicts that 50 years from now, people will not understand how we could have treated these magnificent, intelligent creatures as cruelly as we treat them now. After seeing this powerful film, all will hope it doesn't take 50 years. Despite the upsetting nature of this film, I loved it as a fine piece of film making and it moved me greatly, as evidenced by the length of this review. Well worth seeing on the big screen. Running time 83 minutes. Just opened at my least favorite theater, the San Francisco Center (Mission St), the Shattuck (Oakland), and the Regency (San Rafael).

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