Liberation BC screened Blackfish on May 29th at the Vancouver Public Library. Tilikum, an orca captured as a two-year-old off the coast of Iceland in 1983, is the controversial star of the documentary film, Blackfish. Tilikum is one of many whales kept in captivity in parks like SeaWorld around the world. Blackfish explores the effect of captivity on whales, making the case that captive whales endure mental and physical distress, and pose risks to their keepers. After all, Tilikum is associated with the death of three people.
Blackfish is the first film since Grizzly Man to show how nature can get revenge on man when pushed to its limits. From the Blackfish film description.
The first and traumatic contact that captive whales have with humans is of course during their initial capture. SeaWorld once captured whales in Washington State. Diver John Crowe, who SeaWorld hired to assist with the capture, described a capture in Puget Sound as “just like kidnapping a little kid from his mother.” Howard Garrett, a researcher with the Orca Network, described how adults in the pod of whales split the pod in two as a diversionary tactic. Unfortunately, for the whales, the capture team had a plane spotter follow them to ensure none of the whales could escape and SeaWorld was able to capture a baby. Washington State has since banned SeaWorld from the state, and the company now captures whales in other countries, or in the case of Tilikum, purchases whales from other marine animal parks.
‘I was in awe,’ and ‘I could not believe how huge they were.’ Trainers interviewed in the film recalled their initial impressions of whales as beginning trainers.
Tilikum started his marine park life at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, BC. His trainer, Keltie Byrne, died after she slipped into the pool. According to witnesses, the whales prevented her from escaping, and two people identified Tilikum as the culprit. The film examines how Sealand treated Tilikum and other killer whales. Trainers denied whales fish to help control behaviour, scraped the whales’ skin with rakes as punishment, and kept the whales in a small, dark enclosure overnight because Sealand feared that someone would cut the net and allow the whales to escape. After Byrne’s death, public outcry ensured that Sealand closed. Sealand sold Tilikum to SeaWorld, apparently with the understanding that he would not perform but only be used for breeding.
Instead, Tilikum continued to perform and in 1999, a SeaWorld visitor remained after hours and evaded security to enter Tilikum’s tank. Staff found him dead the next day. In 2010, experienced trainer, Dawn Brancheau, died when Tilikum pulled her into the water following a show.
A whale’s life in captivity is dramatically different from their natural habitat. According to Lori Marino of Emory University’s Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program, who is interviewed in the film, whales have highly developed emotional lives and even have a part of the brain, the paralimbic region, dedicated to emotion that humans do not. Researchers at Dalhousie note that killer whales possess complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures.
Research on whales in the wild shows that family ties are strong, and separating whales from their pods is detrimental. When the park took baby Shamu from his mother, trainers recalled the obvious distress that his mother exhibited and the attention that other female whales gave her, evidently in effort to comfort her.
Living in captivity forces whales to live in unnatural circumstances. SeaWorld eventually separated Tilikum from female whales because they were attacking him, so Tilikum spent much of his life in isolation. In the wild, males normally live at the fringe of the pod, unlike in parks where whales live in close confinement with each other and with whales who are not part of their family or cultural groups. Blackfish makes the case that the distress of life in captivity was behind the aggression that Tilkum tragically showed against people.
While Blackfish paints a compelling picture of why whales are completely unsuitable to living in captivity, SeaWorld pushes back with critique of the film and a website dedicated to disputing the Blackfish documentary.
Excellent expose of human brutality to these majestic creatures. Let’s all work to stop this cruelty. Viewer at the Liberation BC screening.
Liberation BC likes to find out a little bit about our film screening audience to see who we are reaching with messages about animal rights. Of the 70 people who turned out for the screening on May 29, 30 responded to our questionnaire about their diet. Seventeen people said they are omnivores, while five said they were vegetarian, seven said they were vegan, and one person indicated ‘other’. Viewers commented that the film is “heartbreaking,” “enlightening and moving,” and one person wrote that “no wild animals should be kept in zoos or tanks.”
Watch for demonstrations at the Night at the Aquarium on June 10th.
Watch the Blackfish trailer.
You may view the trailer or purchase Blackfish on DVD on their website.
Keep an eye out for future film screenings and other events on the Liberation BC Events page.