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Bottlenose dolphins © Christopher Swann

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Blackfish Q&A

Last Monday, WDC-NA had the chance to take part in a screening of “Blackfish,” a soon-to-be-released documentary by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite that focuses on the story of Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity. Tilikum has become infamous in recent years due to his involvement in the deaths of three people and his aggressive tendencies. While “Blackfish” fairly portrays the dangers that come with keeping a top predator in captivity, it also shows the humanity, or “people-ness” of this huge being. Former trainers talk about his personality and intelligence, the bond they felt with him and their responsibility to take care of him – which now means release from captivity. It is through the words of those who have known Tilikum that you see him as an individual who his frustrated by his conditions, not as a captive animal “gone wild.”

                                                                                                                                                     

The screening was attended by a large and mixed crowd, ranging from WDC interns who are very familiar with the cruelty of captivity to naive viewers dragged along by friends. In the Q&A, several stated that they’d had no idea that captivity was so difficult for orcas, and the director herself discussed her innocence of the issue before starting this project. Cowperthwaite readily admits that she has taken her kids to SeaWorld, and though the image of the performing orcas didn’t sit well, she didn’t realize the extent of the captivity issue until she started making the documentary. The 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau was Cowperthwaite’s catalyst – she thought that there was more to the story than what was being reported in the news. Questions included everything from simple inquiries on footage to discussions on human nature – one attendee wondered what the film can tell us about human nature by the fact that we still keep these intelligent and social creatures in captivity for our own “entertainment” purposes.

The most moving parts of the documentary were the testimonials of the former SeaWorld trainers, who after years of working in close proximity to orcas are calling for their release from captivity. They saw firsthand the suffering of these jailed animals, and their love for each individual is evident in their stories. In the Q&A, Cowperthwaite answered questions regarding her time with the trainers. They were often emotional, and at times had trouble telling their stories. Some were ready to speak, but for some the sadness and fear of repercussion from SeaWorld was overwhelming. For most, recalled Cowperthwaite, the chance to speak for the orcas was a relief, a weight off their shoulders, perhaps an opportunity to assuage some residual guilt.

“Blackfish” is a well-presented and accurate representation of the plight of orcas in captivity. Cowperthwaite shows the cruelty of captivity and how a lifetime spent in jail can affect intelligent, social, and emotional orcas by simply presenting the facts. It is not an “activist” film or attack on SeaWorld – the facts and images speak for themselves. Any one-sidedness of the documentary comes from SeaWorld’s unwillingness to participate and present their argument, though they were certainly interested when the film premiered at Sundance in January. The documentary will premiere in the UK July 26th, and will have a limited release in the US later this year.

Watch the trailer here: http://youtu.be/w2vG_Ifu4zg

For more information on “Blackfish,” (and some cool t-shirts) visit http://blackfishmovie.com/
To learn more about captive orcas, see the Captivity Campaign section on WDC’s website: http://whales.org/en-us/node/33