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September 24, 2013

‘I Always Thought SeaWorld Was a Happy Place’

If we accept the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words,” I’d like to propose it’s axiomatic that “A moving picture is worth several thousand words”—and that a compelling case in point is the documentary film Blackfish.

Released this summer to a gradually widening number of theaters in the U.S. and the U.K., Blackfish examines the perils of keeping killer whales in captivity, with a focus on SeaWorld and Tilikum, the 12,000-pound bull Orca responsible for the death of three people—most famously killing SeaWorld Orlando head trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite: 'The facts are facts.'

Gabriela Cowperthwaite: ‘The facts are the facts.’

This may sound vaguely familiar to Deep Roots readers, given that in a 2011 Talking Animals column, we profiled David Kirby, author of Death At SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity.

A towering journalistic achievement of reporting, research and writing, Death At SeaWorld drew a raft of accolades and a nice handful of media appearances, and was nothing short of illuminating.

Stellar as it is, though, the 500-page Death At SeaWorld never managed to generate near the eye-opening impact that the 80-minute Blackfish did even just in the first couple weeks of its release. A moving picture is worth several thousand words, indeed.

Sure, we can point to the several thousand words, literally, that Blackfish generated in reviews, and this flick drew a leviathan stack of raves—New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NPR, insert here name of additional publications, blogs, or other media outlets. And if there was a pan anywhere, I didn’t see it, or hear it.

Its score on Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates and assigns a numerical score to reflect all reviews of a film nationwide, was a whopping 98 percent. Still, some reviewers did employ an unusually even-handed approach—or at least, even-handed passage or two—more in keeping with its brethren on the news desk than what you typically see in film criticism.

Which brings us to an altogether different flurry of thousands of words: Just before Blackfish opened in theaters and before many of those reviews were written, SeaWorld hired PR firm 42 West to torpedo the movie. They launched this assault by e-mailing 50 of the nation’s top film critics, calling Blackfish “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate,” denouncing the documentary both generally and by way of eight specific assertions.

When I spoke with Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite in a Talking Animals interview mere days after this attack leveled at Cowperthwaite’s film, her reaction was a bemused suggestion that SeaWorld doth protest too much.

“I’m told it’s good old-fashioned damage control—[SeaWorld] went after the facts, which is not usually a great area for them,” she noted, wryly.

“We reviewed every single fact. The facts are indisputable. Anyone can look online, anyone can do their own research—the facts are the facts.”

Sure enough, once the Blackfish team responded to this attack, rebutting with surgical precision SeaWorld’s attempt to refute some of the film’s assertions (including assertions the documentary did not make, to which the producers’ responses included the wonderfully sober phrase “It is not transparent to us whether SeaWorld has watched the film carefully,” which some would translate to “What you talkin’ about, Willis?”), SeaWorld didn’t really further pursue this gambit.

That’s probably wise.

Official trailer for Blackfish

Cowperthwaite explained in our interview that in terms of horror stories from former SeaWorld trainers, veterinarians and others, “Blackfish is just the tip of the iceberg.”

She added that she had fashioned a structure for the film, including a fairly lean storyline that essentially related the Tilikum saga, and elected not to deviate from this storytelling construct, but there were plenty of other tales and revelations “I could have shoehorned in to make the film more incendiary.”

This relates to another reason SeaWorld was thwarted in its effort to discredit Blackfish and Cowperthwaite: It was never an option to lob an ad hominem grenade at her, insinuating the movie was merely the cinematic ravings of an animal rights nut. She approached this project as an accomplished filmmaker, and as a parent.

“I didn’t come from animal activism,” Cowperthwaite explained. “I always thought SeaWorld was actually a happy place, and that if I had to be an animal in captivity, I would probably choose to be a killer whale at Shamu Stadium.” [I interrupt her explanation ever so briefly to interject: That was then, this is now.]

“Why did I think that? I kind of look back and revisit what I was seeing there. There certainly was a cringe factor when I watched these shows with my kids. Some things seemed kind of undignified and sad, or that’s a really goofy trick.

An in-depth interview with Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of Blackfish, posted at YouTube by DP/30

“But I would sense the love that the trainers have for the whales, and think that’s sort of palpable, and they’re getting hugged and they seem to be getting reinforced with these huge buckets of fish. That must make them happy. They must get along and have their own little families there.

“And so I did not know what laid beneath. In fact I backed into the whole whale issue—I was coming at this as a documentary filmmaker, looking at the trainer deaths. And only slowly started peeling back the onion on what’s happening not just to Tilikum, but to all the whales.

“It took me two years to work on this film, and I’m giving the audience just 80 minutes, which is kind of unfair, and why it might feel so shocking. But, yeah, I didn’t think this was the film I was going to make and until I learned the truth, didn’t really know what film I was going to make. I guess I’d put it this way: When you see it, you can’t unsee it. Once you learn what it is that goes on there, you feel compelled to tell everybody.”

Here are some things she “tells everybody” onscreen: that Orcas are highly intelligent, complex, friendly, social creatures who do not attack—much less kill—each other in the wild…

…that captive Orcas often do not get along, frequently attacking each other, “raking” their teeth over the skin of fellow whales…

…that whales who are related—sometimes including mothers and their babies (calves)—are routinely separated and redistributed among SeaWorld’s three parks…

…that trainers were not informed about Tilikum’s deadly past or generally privy to the parks’ incident and injury reports, which detail problematic behavior or incidents with the animals and, where applicable, injuries sustained by the trainers. In an almost poetic instance of cinematic minimalism, Cowperthwaite displays those reports unfurling onscreen—the pages just keep coming and coming—virtually without comment…

…that there is no documented instance of an Orca killing a human in the wild…

…that being ripped from family members, getting raked, being underfed (to foster better performance for the rewards of fish), being confined to glorified swimming pools and other conditions endemic to SeaWorld slowly cultivates in the Orcas unpredictable behavior to flat-out psychosis…

Little wonder that watching Blackfish is not for sissies. To be sure, it’s emotionally challenging on both sides of the screen.


In Blackfish, an Orca entertains the crowd at SeaWorld

For instance, I was struck by the profound sadness pouring out of so many people interviewed in the film, from John Crowe, a whale hunter of sorts who helped round up orca calves some 40 years ago in Puget Sound at SeaWorld’s behest—and who seems absolutely haunted by the experience—to the squadron of former SeaWorld trainers, who, to a person, seem emotionally hobbled in the aftermath of their stints there.

“Yes,“ Cowperthwaite quickly agreed about the pervasive sadness, “ it was absolutely a very powerful theme that runs through sort of all the interviews.

“And the way I came to understand it, especially in terms of the former SeaWorld trainers, they left SeaWorld, they’ve been away from there—some just a year, some many years, and in each of these cases, they all felt compelled, almost driven, to talk about this, because they need to speak for the animals they feel they left behind.

“So, it’s very difficult. Once you’re in that park, you develop these tremendous bonds with these animals. And you’re afraid, often times, to leave your job, to quit or to be fired because you’re never sure if anyone will ever take care of your animals as well as you did. And in that way, some of the trainers see SeaWorld as being able to use love as leverage.

“Because then they can actually say, ‘Well, if you’re an upstart or you challenge authority, we’ll take you off working with your whales, and put your with sea lions and otters. We’ll essentially demote you. Or fire you, and you’ll never see your whale again.’

So that was completely shocking to me. I never would’ve have imagined that. So, yes, it is very palpable, their sadness. And I think this was in some ways giving them closure.”

Anyone intent on staying out of the quicksand of cliché has to use the word “dysfunctional” advisedly, but it’s hard not to view that description by Cowperthwaite as evidence that SeaWorld, as an entity, is dysfunctional, and the relationship with its trainers (and perhaps others) is classically dysfunctional, which the corporation appeared to use to great effect.

“That’s right,” she said. There is a level of very strong dysfunction that—look, it’s a $2.7 billion dollar a year industry. In their minds, this business model continues to work. And it’s something that has begun sustaining itself. Really, no one can challenge them.

“They can take all the information, that they’ve all known—they’ve all been able to take all that information and just shove it under the rug for 40 years. They were even able to do that with a trainer death, sort of cast it aside, ‘trainer error,’ ‘this was a terrible accident, but we’ve moved past it and now we know how to fix the problem, so we’re going to move on.’ They have a history of being able to move the business model forward, and not change.”

Notable that Blackfish may be responsible for changing that, for fracturing the SeaWorld status quo.

As yet another underlining of our A moving picture is worth several thousand words notion, in the wake of the film’s release–and particularly, perhaps, the overlapping hardball denouncing by SeaWorld and the string of rave reviews—the media landscape absorbed a gigantic splash of various folks talking about Blackfish, talking about SeaWorld, talking about how it might be time to rethink the very idea of Orcas being held in captivity and being forced to sing for their supper.

An ABC Nightline report on the issues raised in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary, Blackfish

This took the form of Cowperthwaite (whose second feature-length documentary Blackfish is, although she’s made TV documentaries for 12 years) and/or former SeaWorld trainers and/or scientists with expertise about Orcas (including Dr. Naomi Rose, a central figure in David Kirby’s book) turning up across all kinds of television, from network morning shows, syndicated magazine programs, to evening cable outings. Too, there was a raft of think pieces in publications and blogs, most of which were musing, to various degrees, that Blackfish makes a compelling case for ending the decades-long Shamu era.

Representative of these essays, The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial saying SeaWorld and similar marine parks are “high-profit water circuses, Cirque du Soleils in which the highly trained performers are intelligent ocean predators that have been forced into unnatural lives,” closing the commentary with “it’s time for the circus to end.”

As yet another measure of the cultural sea change Cowperthwaite’s flick triggered: Pixar, the fabulously successful animation studio, is in the midst of creating Finding Dory, a follow-up to the 2003 smash hit Finding Nemo—after seeing Blackfish, Pixar executives decided to make substantial changes to the Dory script.

Unfortunately, it’s too late to make substantial changes to the Tilikum script. I have long felt a profound melancholy for that humongous Orca, a feeling that only intensified after seeing Blackfish, especially after hearing comments from the trainers at SeaLand, his first marine park. They remembered that Tilikum was the one Orca they loved to work with, that he was always “well behaved” and “eager to please.”

You don’t have to know much about killer whales, or about animal behavior, or about almost anything, really, to recognize that an orca whose earliest days were described so positively and affectionately clearly became psychologically damaged amidst the years of sensory deprivation and small pools and withheld food and abuse from fellow whales and all the other glorious aspects of being a captive, performing killer whale.

The show goes on: in 2006 an Orca attacked its SeaWorld trainer

Worse, in a way, he’s now isolated in a back pool at SeaWorld Orlando, floating by himself, occasionally allowed into the performance area at the very end of a show, to make a big splash on the front-row spectators.

Tilikum is, in effect, the star of Cowperthwaite’s film, and she delivers a rich, textured portrait of him—his is a complicated story, in no small measure because he is a complicated animal. Towards the end of our Talking Animals conversation, I ask for her personal take on Tilikum.

“Oh, it’s amazing,” she answered.  “I actually have to confess that I started out being terrified of him. When I first came to this story, I obviously came at it through the portal of the Dawn Brancheau incident. And so I had to read the autopsy report and to hear the witness testimony, it was just so tragic—and he just terrified me. A 12,000-pound apex predator.

“And it scared me, he scared me. So I had to go back for a year, to essentially do a psychological profile on him. Not only because I wanted that to be the spine of the film, but because I myself needed to understand this animal. And needed to understand how this graceful, majestic animal—who doesn’t do things like this in the wild, who doesn’t kill people in the wild—could have come to this moment, and what could’ve been driven him to make this decision.

“And so I feel a tremendous amount of empathy and sadness, when I see him just surface resting, or relegated to a back pool. It’s sad…I came full circle….I think it’s our doing that drove him to this.”

Blackfish will air on CNN on October 24 at 9 p.m.

Click here to go to the Talking Animals show featuring Gabriela Cowperthwaite

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