Take a young orca from its mother, keep it isolated in a pool and make it turn tricks for fish. The end result is a killer whale.
That's the message of a gripping new documentary on orcas at SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., an aquatic park chain where orcas are trained to bounce balls and cuddle with their human trainers. "Blackfish," by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is lacerating in its indictment of SeaWorld.
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The documentary focuses on Tilikum, a 12,000-pound stud that has apparently killed three people, including trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
Tilikum was two years old when he was captured in 1983 in the North Atlantic. Early in the film, Cowperthwaite talks to a man who helped companies capture orcas in Puget Sound in 1970. The man, clearly haunted by his memories, likens his actions to kidnapping a kid away from a mother.
The theme of separation repeats in the film as SeaWorld is shown removing two other young orcas from their mothers. In one sequence, Kasatka, a female with a documented history of aggression, is separated from daughter Takara, who is sent to a theme park in Florida. Kasatka spends an entire night shaking in a corner of the enclosure and emitting high pitched cries that have not been observed before in captivity.
The separation happened in 2004. In 2006, Kasatka was involved in an incident that makes the most breathtaking sequence of the documentary. She grabs the foot of a veteran trainer and pulls him to the bottom of the pool, repeatedly. The sequence plays out as a horrific dance that could tip into death at any second. Thankfully, the man keeps calm and escapes. Others are not so lucky.
Orcas in the wild are highly social and belong to the same family as dolphins. And studies have shown that the part of the brain that experiences emotion is much larger in orcas than in humans. They seem to have complex languages, self awareness, and communities that work together altruistically in times of crisis.
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But an animal in captivity is different. Almost a quarter of captive orcas have their dorsal fins flopped over due to muscle atrophy, while only 1 percent do in the wild, the documentary states. Captive whales attack each other, and there is little room for the animals to swim away to escape aggression.
Tilikum was bullied by other whales in childhood, separated from his pod at a young age, and has been housed in isolation for most of his life.
The most aberrant behavior caused by captivity would be attacks on trainers. There have been more than 70 such incidents, according to the documentary. It accuses SeaWorld of hiding Tilikum's history of aggression from its employees.
SeaWorld has weathered negative press in the past, including media investigations and picketers. But this may be the first time it has blinked.
SeaWorld has hired a publicity firm and issued a letter to film critics calling the film "dishonest," as reported elsewhere. SeaWorld stated that it had appropriately warned trainers of Tilikum's history and only the most experienced were allowed with him. It also took issue with seven other parts of the film.
"SeaWorld is proud of its legacy of supporting marine science and environmental awareness in general and the cause of killer whales in particular," it stated in the letter.
Cowperthwaite has issued rebuttals.
Some observers have also suggested that SeaWorld is buying up domain names associated with "Blackfish," such as BlackfishTruth.com.
The company's moves suggest it may be worried. The captive orca debate reached its peak following the movie "Free Willy," when people funded an effort to return the star Keiko to the oceans. He was eventually moved to a fjord off Norway, though he always needed human care.
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A similar outcry for SeaWorld's orcas could threaten the company, which already finds its operations hampered. A court ordered the company in 2012 to ensure a barrier is always present between the trainers and the orcas. The organization is appealing the decision.
Lisa Wathne, captive wildlife specialist with The Humane Society of the United States, hopes "Blackfish" will educate the public about the lives of these animals in captivity, and people will choose to not visit these parks.
As for the captive orcas, many of whom are Tilikum's offspring at SeaWorld, they ought to be retired to a marine sanctuary, Wathne said.
"Sea World has profited tremendously from the misery of captive orcas. It can easily afford to fund their comfortable retirement to coastal sanctuaries and it is the very least that Sea World owes these animals," she said.
Photo: Tilikum in a scene from ‘Blackfish'. Photo credit: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.