In the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell devoted his life to bears. Not from a scientific viewpoint; rather, his approach was to just love them, safety begone. "He was treating them like people in bear costumes. He got what he deserved." So says the helicopter pilot that had to fetch the remains of Treadwell when one of the bears finally retaliated.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish tells a similar story but in a much bigger playing field. At the middle is SeaWorld, the biggest water park in the world. From an early age we’re taught the big fish in captivity are treated humanely, the staff themselves going as far as to declare their lives are being extended by living within these walls. Unfortunately, via Blackfish we’re informed the sad truth this is all far from reality.
The star in this is Tilikum, the orca who killed a trainer at SeaWorld, Orlando in 2010. Unlike the bear in Grizzly Man, Tilikum was not later unnecessarily shot and killed for doing what they know. Instead, Tilikum remains in captivity, performing with trainers, as his sperm is immensely valuable for breeders.
This is important to note as this is not a case of easy forgiveness. (‘Easy,’ as the financial gain of his sperm must be a ready convincing point for his owners.) Tilikum is not a first-time offender—caught in the 1970’s, his offending file lists over 70 occasions since of harming and, at times, killing people.
Cowperthwaite’s reasons for exposing this are simple. She is encouraging a greater understanding of killer whales as what we know, and what SeaWorld tells us, is a mixture of lies and incredibly limited understanding. The very reason SeaWorld even have Tilikum is that SeaLand (the original captors) wanted to offload her over 30 years ago after he killed a trainer there. Not that it matters: sperm equals profit, it seems. The limited knowledge we do have is that killer whales are part of the dolphin family and their brain capacity puts them in the same league as humans.
Through another lens this documentary serves as a warning to the dangers of capitalism, but this is a moot point. We’ve got a plethora of works already heavily discussing that subject and if there’s a lesson to be learned from that it’s that the powers that be aren’t listening. Sperm; profit.
Perhaps a not so ridiculous idea would be screening this in a double with Django Unchained. (Django would then offer Tilikum and other captured orcas like him a liberalised ending.) On Tuesday 12th November, Dateline ran a report with the release of the film, discussing another orca named Lolita living in restricted circumstances. It is an all-too-common thread and by the end you may be inspired to sign that supermarket petition after all.
Perhaps the final line comes courtesy of Douglas H. Chadwick. In the February 1986 issue of National Geographic, he asked, “are we willing to accept nature as it is, or only as it suits us?” Cowperthwaite is repeating the same words here again. In a perfect world such a business would be stopped but in the for-profit universe that SeaWorld operates, one fears her words will endlessly revolve in an echo chamber instead.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire