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We think of them as lovable, cute, even huggable. We laugh, applaud and even record on our smartphones their every antic as they juggle balls and humans alike or perform back flips on their swimming pools. But when one of these huge aquatic mammals live up to their name of “killer whales” by maiming or even killing their trainers or a bystander, we act as if this was an aberration. We forget that these creatures belong in the wild and not confined to a gigantic bathtub. We don’t realize that maybe, just maybe, all those years in captivity, away from their environment, subjected to repetitious acts for our amusement will eventually drive them, to use a human term, insane.

On February 2010, experienced SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed and mutilated by a 12,000 pound Orca called Tilikum during one of the marine park’s regular performances. At first, SeaWorld Orlando claimed that Brancheau had slipped and fallen, then that Tilikum grabbed her by her improperly tied ponytail and dragged her downwards. This “blame the human” spin to the incident caught documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s attention. Cowperthwaite frequently took her children to SeaWorld and wanted to use this tragic incident to explore the bonds that tie creatures and trainers and what can go wrong. But when she found out that Tilikun was also responsible for the death of two more humans, including a trainer in the now shuttered Sealand park in Victoria, Canada, she knew she had stumbled onto a larger story.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Tilikum performing one of his most popular tricks at SeaWorld Orlando. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

“Blackfish” is not only an indictment of SeaWorld’s practices but also of the conditions animals like Tilikum face while in captivity. Representatives from SeaWorld refused to participate in the documentary but have wasted no time in criticizing the documentary’s findings (you can read their point-by-point arguments as well as the filmmaker’s and a marine biologist’s rebuttals here). I don’t think SeaWorld’s presence in the documentary would have helped them anyway given that the evidence presented by former trainers, animals behaviorists, the relatives of individuals killed by these attacks and even footage acquired by Cowperthwaite from the trainers, the public and through the Freedom of Information Act is quite damning.

I recently spoke to Cowperthwaite about our relationship to these and other creatures held in captivity and how making the documentary changed her perception of SeaWorld:

The term “killer whale” has become part of our lexicon. How much has that term affected the way we look at these creatures?
They are actually called killer whales because they originally were whale killers. They are actually very large dolphins. It’s odd because, even though we call them that, at SeaWorld most of the people don’t think of them as killers. Most people think of them as the huggable, trainable animals that love us as much as we love them, who do beautiful tricks and are highly intelligent and, you know, it’s almost like the Shamu doll, we think of them as cuddly. Over the years, over the decades, the killer part has been worked out of our system. We don’t think of them as animals that will endanger us ever.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of "Blackfish." Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of “Blackfish.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

What it comes down to is perception. We are so used to seeing them in captivity that we forget what these creatures can be capable of.
That’s the tricky part. They are animals that bond with us. They can look for bonds in human beings as well. And being capable of great love: the way that they care for their pod, the way that sons swim with their mothers for their entire lives. We imagine them to be these loving, impossible animals and that side we like. And then there’s the other side. This is a top predator. They take down great white sharks. And they eat dolphins. This is something that none of us like to know because we love dolphins…That side of the killer whales is not going to sell Shamu dolls.

Can you describe the nature of your research?
Most of the research, when I first began, was really the media sources. I read an article called “Killer in the Pool” by Tim Zimmerman for Outside Magazine and that one was really comprehensive. Then I would contact people: everyone from animal activists to neural scientists to whale researchers to trainers. In my mind, one of the most powerful voices if not the most powerful voices in the film, would be that of the ex-trainers. I call them my apostles. They are delivering the message from the other side. And I knew that if you are going to sit there and talk about SeaWorld, you can’t do it from this armchair perspective where you are looking and judging on what happened. You really have to know what it was really like to be there.

Given that there have been hundreds of trainers who have worked and are working at SeaWorld, how did you land the ones that appear in the documentary?
They were the first ones to come out and speak against the party line. And so I reached out to them. It’s hard. You have to earn their trust. You have to convince them that what I was trying to do here was a feature documentary, it wasn’t a quick little story and that I did not want it to be sensationalistic, I just wanted to hear the truth. That was their prerequisite for participating and that’s how I wanted to do the film anyway so it was symbiotic.

As you watch the film, you see how these trainers embraced this job with a sense of idealism that was later weighed down by this realization that this is not right.
They all love their animals. That’s across the board and I think you’ll find that now with the trainers who are still at SeaWorld. They develop individual relationships with certain animals, whether it was a dolphin or a killer whale. They had their whale and to this day it is hard for them to hear stories about their whale because it’s like they left their kid in a terrible orphanage. Hearing about how their kid is doing is so painful to them. I came to understand that it was these bonds that they have with these animals that keep them working at these high-risk jobs for not a lot of money.

You used to take your kids to SeaWorld prior to this documentary. How has your perception of SeaWorld or any other recreational park changed?
When I see footage now of SeaWorld shows I remember what it was like to be there with my kids. These are happy memories. I would look around at the crowd and everyone would be smiling. [But] something about what was going on would make me uncomfortable and would make me cringe but I could never quite put my finger on it. I thought in general that these were well-kept animals. But now when I see footage of those shows, it speaks of mastery, it speaks “because we can control them we should”. It’s so uncomfortable to watch when you know what you know…That said, there are some zoos that are conserving species, that are truly there for education purposes, those animals are not performing for food. There are some zoos that do it terribly and some who do it well. It’s a question of degrees and I feel that animals for entertainment are the lowest rung on the totem pole.

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