"Blackfish" director: "Using animals for entertainment is the bottom of the ethical totem pole"

The director of the new SeaWorld exposé on how captivity harms orcas, and why it won't end any time soon

Published July 19, 2013 5:07PM (EDT)

Even before "Blackfish" came out, it had already become a lightning rod.

The new documentary calls out SeaWorld for keeping killer whales penned up and forcing them to perform for our entertainment; it hinges, as does director Gabriela Cowperthwaite's curiosity about the subject, upon killer whale Tilikum's lethal attack on one of his trainers in 2010, one that followed previous attacks by that same orca.

SeaWorld has contested the allegations made in "Blackfish" about how unsuited killer whales, by their nature loving and compassionate to one another, are to living in the pens. The theme park's statement read in part: "To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld – among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world's most respected zoological institutions."

Cowperthwaite says she expected SeaWorld's response, and that she repeatedly asked for and was denied comment for her film. She spoke to Salon about her evolving interest in orcas, what we know about their brains and capacity for pain and empathy, the ethics of animal captivity, and why SeaWorld isn't more rigorously regulated.

How'd you become interested in this?

I don't come from animal activism at all; I'm a mother who took her daughter to SeaWorld. I, in fact, remember seeing primates in certain zoos and thinking that they looked depressed. It was hard for me to watch -- I couldn't look at them. It's embarrassing for me to admit, but I thought to myself that if I had to be an animal in captivity, I'd be an animal at SeaWorld. It's clean, there's room to maneuver, they were so clearly loved and paid attention to by the trainers. I came from the opposite end of the spectrum. The portal of entry to me was the death of a top SeaWorld trainer. How would this person have come to be killed by one of the planet's most intelligent animals? I hadn't thought killer whales killed people.

SeaWorld has pushed back fairly hard in public against this film. Were you anticipating this?

First of all, I tried very hard to interview them; they declined many times. We all knew they'd have to say something at some point. It's good old-fashioned damage control. And yet it did surprise us that they would want to take on the facts. Anyone who knows anything about SeaWorld knows that this has always been a losing battle for them; the facts are indisputable. Their intention is to cast a shadow of doubt right before the film goes nationwide. We expected it. But I didn't know they would've taken this tactic. It's not one they tend to win.

Why aren't they challenged or regulated more?

The reason why, politically, SeaWorld seems to be able to get away with a lot is a whole other documentary. There's a political reason why they've been able to emerge from every conflict relatively unscathed. It all boils down to the fact that they're a $2 billion-a-year industry. I'm still coming to terms with the fact they have three parks and make $2 billion a year. Shamu Stadium is 70 percent of that profit. You come to understand this organization has an ability to make any problem go away.

Has SeaWorld done some good, though? They have made people fall in love with whales.

It's a great question and absolutely -- everyone thinks about this. Would any of us care as much about killer whales if we hadn't experienced them through SeaWorld? I don't think we would care as much without having experienced those parks. But over the course of the 40 years they've had whales in captivity, we've learned so much about them, about what they need to thrive, let alone survive. There's no way can ever even approximate giving them what they need. And in addition to that, a very important thing to note is that there is no data or studies suggesting that anybody who sees killer whales in Shamu Stadium donates to a nonprofit to help the oceans, becomes interested in conservation, eats dolphin-safe tuna... There's a direct correlation between going to SeaWorld and wanting to become a trainer. It makes people want to do tricks, swim with them, and touch them. It does a disservice to the animals in general.

In your opinion, is there any way killer whales could be kept in captivity that would be okay? 

Using animals for entertainment is the bottom of the ethical totem pole. They're performing for their food, it's a whole different ethical can of worms. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, for instance -- that place is dedicated to rehabilitation and relief. And the lines always go around the block. The profit that that place makes must be off the charts. People are interested in learning. There's a wild animal park -- not far from SeaWorld -- where animals are free roaming. You see cheetahs a few feet away from giraffes. You, the park visitor, are in a tram. And watching those animals behave the way they're supposed to be behaving is a beautiful thing to see. I don't know enough to be against all zoological facilities. But many zoos are dedicated to education and preservation. And others are decrepit.

Do you think that to some degree people explain away orca captivity by dismissing their intelligence?

You always hear animals are intelligent; you don't know what that means. Their brains aren't only big, they have everything we human beings have and an additional part we can't identify because we don't have it. This part of their brain is, we're theorizing, connected to their social and emotional brains. Potentially they form bonds we can't conceive of in terms of their pods and their families. When they echolocate, when a whale ecolocates on you, it's delivering an ultrasound, trying to figure out what you're experiencing. Maybe they're looking at your stress level, maybe they're seeing if you have a broken rib -- we have a case where a killer whale echolocated and saw a broken rib and gingerly took care of her trainer. These are capabilities that are beyond what we can imagine.

Do you think there's any possibility that SeaWorld will be more policed, or police itself? 

A $2 billion-a-year industry is not going anywhere anytime soon. They are the only one with the financial resources to evolve the world out of animals for entertainment and into facilities for rehab and release. An alternative we're proposing is a sea-pen, cordoning off a cove with a net and semi-retire whales in there, or keep whales you're trying to heal. You can't release whales into the wild ocean. They've never had to chase down live fish, and they're hopped up on antibiotics. You could place them in these pens and keep an eye on them and charge money. This could be a profit-making endeavor. People would be seeing whales the trainers could make sure they're healthy -- and you'd still be seeing whales the way they're meant to be seen.

Do you think your film will catalyze that change? 

"Blackfish" can't change SeaWorld. People watching "Blackfish" and not going through the turnstiles until SeaWorld evolves us out of animals for entertainment -- that's the only way SeaWorld will change. If we keep blindly going through those turnstiles, they have no reason to change. They haven't changed their pool size since the '80s -- and there are many more whales now. Every time they get a surge in profits, they build a new roller coaster.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Blackfish Gabriela Cowperthwaite