'Blackfish' another nail in the coffin of animal entertainment

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Photo: Suzanne Allee

A few years ago, I took my 17-year old daughter to Atlanta to visit my mom. While there, we decided to take a break and visit the Atlanta aquarium. We had been told it was a "state of the art" facility, with an overhead shark tank and other special exhibits. We spent a couple of hours there. The halls were packed with people of all ages, many carrying cuddly little stuffed sharks and toys, and the main event was a tank the size of several football fields filled with 3,000 species of fish. At the end of the visit, my daughter and I both agreed: We'd never go back.

It was unsettling at best, and pathetic for anyone with empathy for these creatures, to see so many fish that should be swimming in the ocean crowded into tanks for the benefit of human entertainment.

It made us think about zoos and animal shows in a different way. In fact, with interactive entertainment what it is today, I am wondering if zoos themselves have become obsolete. It seems that there is no real reason to capture animals and take them out of their natural habitat when we can create computer environments that take you to their habitat without disturbing their lives. As far as teaching our children about the wonders of nature, it seems crazy to try to simulate their habitat for our benefit, and runs counter to the lessons we are trying to teach our kids about respecting and preserving nature's communities.

Another nail in the coffin of animal entertainment is the recently-opened documentary Blackfish, about the business of packaging and training orcas, or killer whales, to entertain us. If you have children, you've probably been to Sea World in San Diego or Orlando, Florida. I guarantee that if you see this movie, you won't be going back to Sea World anytime soon. Or ever.

The film was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and made without the cooperation of Sea World but with the cooperation of several former Sea World trainers. It tells the very sad story of Tilikum, one of the most famous performing orcas that has had a checkered past in captivity. Tilikum was responsible for killing the experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 and Keltie Byrne in 1991 when Tilikum was owned by Sealand of the Pacific. Tilikum is currently housed at Sea World and used for breeding purposes only.

Tilikum began his life in captivity 30 years ago and the interview with John Crowe, a hardbitten and world weary sailor who was among the crew that helped chase down and separate a young calf from its mother and their pod in 1970, is wrenching to watch. It's obvious that Crowe has never forgotten it, or forgiven himself for his part in the hunt. In the wild, orcas remain with their family for decades and have extremely long life spans. In captivity, their lives are shorter and often much more violent — to each other as well as their trainers. There is chilling video of physical damage that orcas have inflicted on each other, and tales of stomach problems from their diet in captivity and anxiety-provoked behavior due to conditions like light deprivation and enclosures that are stimulus deprived and too small for their size.

Through interviews with former Sea World trainers and video clips of incidents with other killer whales and from public record of the Brancheau case filed against Sea World by OSHA, Tilikum's erratic and dangerous behavior in captivity, and Sea World's effort to keep the public and even its trainers from learning about episodes of his violent past, Cowperthwaite makes a strong case against life in captivity for these mammals whose brains are more complex than ours.

The interviews with trainers who saw Brancheau's death, and with two witnesses to Byrne's death, fly in the face of Sea World's explanations of what happened: that Byrne slipped and fell into the water, dying quickly of hypothermia, and that Brancheau's poor choice of hairstyle, a pony tail, gave Tilikum something to grab onto as she slipped into the water by mistake. Witnesses have said she was pulled into the water by Tilikum and was not released until the whale was put into a smaller tank and prodded with sticks to open its mouth and release her as the water began to be drained from the tank.

The level of deception and corporate-speak on the part of Sea World makes the attempts to sugar-coat these incidents egregrious. As you learn more about what life is like in captivity for these majestic creatures, and how their exploitation goes hand-in-hand with commercial success, Cowperthwaite makes a damning case against Sea World and, by extension, any program that takes these creatures out of the natural habitat and into a life in captivity.

In the end, it makes it difficult to justify keeping these majestic killer whales living in tin bathtubs so we can watch them perform. It's hard to justify a way of life for these creatures that seems barbaric at least, and certainly out of balance with nature and the life they should be living in the wild.


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