Free Willy, for real: SeaWorld has got to go

Can the movie "Blackfish," and the gruesome death of a SeaWorld trainer, end the imprisonment of killer whales?

Topics: Movies, Documentaries, Whales, killer whales, blackfish, SeaWorld, Our Picks, Our Picks: Movies, Editor's Picks, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, ,

Free Willy, for real: SeaWorld has got to go

No spokesperson for SeaWorld, the venerable American chain of oceanariums and marine mammal parks that owns almost half of the world’s captive orcas, or killer whales, ever appears on camera in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s devastating documentary “Blackfish.” SeaWorld is quite right to view “Blackfish” as an existential threat, since the film attacks not just the parks’ wholesome public image but also the basic morality of their business model. In a time-honored but dubious maneuver, SeaWorld declined to cooperate with Cowperthwaite (who spoke to Salon’s Daniel D’Addario this week) in any way during the making of the film but then launched a vigorous P.R. counteroffensive before the movie had even reached theaters. Most of the disputed issues in the film are relatively minor, and on the semiotic level, the meaning of all this is clear: This is what big companies do when they have something to hide and a lot to lose.

“Blackfish” is a highly compelling film that’s already being touted as a likely Oscar contender. It uses the gruesome 2010 death of a SeaWorld trainer named Dawn Brancheau, and the troubled life history of a six-ton bull orca named Tilikum – who drowned and partly ate Brancheau, and has apparently killed two other people – as the starting points for a disturbing and much larger story. Through extensive interviews with former SeaWorld trainers, scientists and marine-mammal experts, Cowperthwaite builds a portrait of an intelligent but profoundly traumatized animal who was taken from his family in the North Atlantic as an infant, and has been driven to anger, resentment and perhaps psychosis after spending his life in a series of concrete swimming pools.



At least in Cowperthwaite’s telling, Tilikum is just a symbol of the numerous problems involved with keeping these large and intensely social predators in artificial groups and artificial environments, where they’re trained to perform a variety of unnatural stunts. (In the email sent to film critics by SeaWorld’s P.R. firm, we are assured that the actions seen in a killer whale show – jumping out of the water to touch a ball, giving a wetsuit-clad trainer a ride on its back, and so on — are within the animal’s “natural range of behaviors,” whatever that means.) There are only believed to be 46 orcas living in captivity – 22 of them in SeaWorld’s parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego – but even beyond Tilikum, there have been numerous incidents of whales attacking and injuring trainers and visitors at marine parks. (You’ll see some hair-raising home video scenes in “Blackfish,” but none depicting actual death.) Despite the species’ name, there are no documented cases of a killer whale ever killing or seriously injuring a human being in the wild.

Orcas in captivity have also attacked, gouged, raked and sometimes killed each other with distressing frequency. In SeaWorld’s response, this is described as natural and perhaps unavoidable behavior, the establishment of dominance hierarchies. Hierarchy enforcement definitely occurs in the wild, but in that context a whale who loses a fight can always retreat into the endless ocean instead of being subjected to repeated injury, as Tilikum apparently was by the female whales who arrayed themselves against him. According to Cowperthwaite, no whale expert has ever seen or reported evidence of one orca killing or seriously injuring another in the wild, either when observing living animals or examining dead ones.

As for the film’s assertion that orcas in captivity lead much shorter lives than in the wild, and demonstrate obvious physical disabilities – like crumpled or collapsed dorsal fins – that are almost never seen in wild whales, it’s abundantly clear, from the video segments seen in the film, that SeaWorld has misled its visitors about these issues for years. SeaWorld’s response finesses the lifespan question by noting that the oldest orca in their collection is in her 40s and they can’t possibly know how long she and others will live. That’s fair enough, but the larger point is that wild orcas are known to live human-scale lives of 50 to 90 years or even longer, while very few animals in captivity make it to 30.

No doubt pursuing the dictates of SeaWorld’s lawyers, the P.R. response focuses considerable attention on the details of what happened between Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau on that February day in 2010. “Tilikum did not attack Dawn,” the letter states. I don’t know what other verb to use to describe an episode in which a whale submerged, dismembered and partly devoured someone – don’t worry, this does not happen on screen – but SeaWorld contends that Tilikum “became interested in the novelty of Dawn’s ponytail in his environment” and used it to pull her into the water.

First of all, this appears to contradict all the available evidence and eyewitness testimony, along with the fact that nearly all the female trainers at SeaWorld wore their hair in ponytails. Much more important, this is an obvious effort to deflect the question of whether Tilikum had become unbalanced or homicidal from the long-term stress of captivity. One issue may be that while captive animals who kill or injure humans are routinely euthanized, SeaWorld wants to avoid that for many reasons. As a bull orca and established breeding partner (many of SeaWorld’s younger whales are his offspring), Tilikum is a rare and immensely valuable commodity. SeaWorld management is also eager to reverse an OSHA ruling that followed Brancheau’s death, which currently requires trainers to avoid all direct physical contact with killer whales.

While “Blackfish” largely focuses on the tragic story of SeaWorld, Brancheau and Tilikum, the philosophical issues it raises along the way are much broader. As the experts in the film make clear, the more we learn about killer whales, the more we come to understand them as self-aware creatures possessed with high-level cognitive abilities, complex family and social structures, and distinctive forms of communication. While the word “language” remains contentious when applied to whales and dolphins – having been used too promiscuously by New Agers in the ‘70s — in recent years leading scientists have begun to talk about cetaceans possessing “culture,” as well as the psychological and emotional inner lives characteristic of “personhood.” In the film, evolutionary neurobiologist Lori Marino suggests that orca brains demonstrate a limbic system – the apparent seat of emotional life – more complicated than that found in humans.

As our awareness of the complexity of the animal world continues to evolve, and as the expanding human population puts the planet’s other inhabitants in greater danger, certain questions become irresistible. If we come to believe that orcas and other large marine mammals are conscious beings, individuals not unlike ourselves, then by what right do we arbitrarily abduct and imprison them for our entertainment? Or even, as SeaWorld would have it, for our education, for the advancement of science and for the furtherance of conservation efforts? One could argue that when Africans or Native Americans were kidnapped from their homelands and put on display in the great cities of Europe, it ultimately served to broaden human understanding. That doesn’t mean anyone would defend that practice today.

In the wake of “Blackfish” and the 2009 Oscar winner “The Cove,” which depicted the horrific annual slaughter of dolphins in Japan that accompanies the collection of animals for SeaWorld and other parks, the decades-old movement to ban the capture of wild cetaceans and close the existing marine parks has a renewed popular momentum. There have been no such parks in Britain, with its highly organized animal-rights movement, since the early ‘90s, and the entire European Union may follow suit within a few years. Two or three generations from now, people may look back at the practice of keeping orcas in pools as performing animals with the same incomprehension we feel toward bear-baiting, a favorite spectator sport of Elizabethan England.

But of course the philosophical questions about our treatment of captive animals don’t begin or end with marine mammals just because we believe them to be unusually intelligent. Can we justify training big cats and elephants as circus animals, or exhibiting them in zoos and wildlife parks? Is it still scientifically necessary (presuming it ever was) to use chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives, as research animals? That too seems to be a practice that’s winding down, in historical terms. What about sea lions in outdoor pools, sideshow capybaras, pet pythons or the European harvest mice my daughter adores so much at the Bronx Zoo? Once we decide that SeaWorld and places like it have had their day, and that it’s not acceptable to keep orcas confined in swimming pools for years on end just because it’s cool to see them jump, does the slippery slope lead all the way to PETA, Peter Singer, absolute animal rights and universal mandatory veganism?

It’s not an entirely facetious question, and while I’d argue the answer is no, it’s more like no with an asterisk, or no for now. To cite a parallel example, most Americans have evidently reached the view that they’re OK with two men or two women getting married. But despite the tirades of reactionaries, there is no sentiment toward legalizing polygamous or polyamorous marriages, or for allowing people to marry their cats. Human mores evolve and change; they aren’t scientifically defined and always rest on a Potter Stewart-style “I know it when I see it” imprecision. Bear-baiting used to be fun, and sodomy punishable by death. These days, zoos are pretty much required to express an environmental or scientific mission, and to make some effort to emulate a natural setting. (If you ever visited the barren and depressing Central Park Zoo of the early ‘80s, with its cement-floored cages and infamous OCD lion, you probably still bear the scars.) We are recalibrating our relationship to captive animals on many levels and in many ways, and it’s only natural that we pay attention to the largest and most intelligent mammals.

Marine biologist and conservation pioneer Victor B. Scheffer, who was the first chairman of the federal Marine Mammal Commission in the 1970s (and who died in 2011 at the impressive age of 104), supplied an ethical framework for thinking about these issues that I find extremely useful. Scheffer was an early exponent of the idea that all animal life, our own species included, is “caught up together in a sort of spiritual biomass.” We had a right and a responsibility to insist that our fellow animals not suffer unnecessary suffering, he wrote, and also “that they be used in ways acceptable to large numbers of thoughtful men and women.”

That standard is a moving target, always subject to change. For better or worse, most people are still OK with raising domestic animals for meat, milk, eggs, wool and so on. They’re OK with pet gerbils, turtles and Schnauzers. They don’t have a problem, at least for now, with at least some kinds of animals being kept in zoos, probably including my daughter’s beloved harvest mice. Those animals are still judged to be useful where they are. But when it came to whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, Scheffer believed, the view of usefulness had shifted: “I myself believe that what men and women are saying today about them is, ‘Let them be.’ A useful marine mammal, they say, is one out there somewhere in the wild – free, alive, hidden, breathing, perpetuating its ancient bloodline.”

“Blackfish” is now playing at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and Sunshine Cinema in New York, the ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark in Los Angeles and the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. It opens July 26 in Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and Washington; Aug. 2 in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boca Raton, Fla., Detroit, Hartford, Conn., Houston, Miami, Portland, Ore., St. Louis, Seattle and Austin, Texas; and Aug. 9 in Albuquerque, N.M., Boulder, Colo., Denver, Las Vegas, Madison, Wis., Omaha, Neb., Phoenix, San Antonio, Santa Fe, N.M., Sarasota, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio, with more cities to follow.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...