killer whale, Blackfish

Being in the pool with killer whales during performances, as in this photograph, is now banned (photo:

The Northwest Natives call them Blackfish. Tilikum is a Chinook word meaning “friends, tribe, nation”—exactly what Tilikum, the killer whale, has been denied. Finally, last night I watched the Magnolia Pictures documentary Blackfish, aired by CNN last October and November, which tells the story of Tilikum and the three humans he has killed.

Blackfish has sparked renewed questions about the capture, confinement, and training of cetaceans—especially killer whales—for human entertainment. From 1976 to 1997, 77 whales were taken from the wild in Iceland, Japan, and Argentina for aquariums and aquatic theme parks. Some additional number died during attempts at capture. Now about 50 of these animals are on display throughout the world, and a large number of them were born in captivity.

Not surprisingly, SeaWorld Orlando, where Tilikum lives, has many objections to the documentary (and provides only half-answers to the questions it raises), but their ultimate concern boils down to money. This was apparent in comments at an April 8 hearing on California Assemblyman Richard Bloom’s proposal to make it illegal to hold killer whales in captivity and to use them for performance or entertainment. According to NPR coverage, the President of SeaWorld San Diego “reminded committee members that the park is an important part of the regional economy,” with 4.6 million visitors last year and making $14 million in lease payments to the city.

SeaWorld’s lobbyist was even more blunt, saying that “if the bill passes, SeaWorld would just move the 10 killer whales it has in San Diego to other parks.” Such a restriction would cost the park hundreds of millions of collars, and SeaWorld “would expect the state to make restitution.” In short, he said, “if you ban them, you buy them.” The Assembly committee called for further study.

SeaWorld officials label Blackfish as propaganda and unbalanced. If by that, they mean the film is powerfully made, emotionally gripping, and makes a strong point, they certainly are correct. Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, however, says she is not an animal rights activist and developed an interest in the story of Dawn Brancheau’s 2010 death by wondering, “How could our entire collective childhood memories of this delightful water park be so morbidly wrong?” Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%.

Cowperthwaite provides background about killer whales in the wild that enables viewers to appreciate why the idea of penning them in pools is inherently flawed. Subspecies of orcas establish matrilineal, multigenerational family groups that are the most stable of any animal species. Throughout their lifetimes, individuals are never away from their family group for more than a few hours. Several related family groups form pods of perhaps 20 animals. They range great distances and are found in every ocean. Each group’s preferred foods, vocalizations (dialect), hunting methods, and behavior is specific to that group and is passed from generation to generation. In other words, the groups have an identifiable culture.

Adults are big (up to 26 feet long and weighing six tons or more), mobile (often traveling 100 miles a day), and fast (swimming nearly 35 miles per hour at top speed). They have big brains, especially well developed and for analyzing their complex environment and identifying prey. In the wild, females can live to age 90, and males to age 60, but their average lifespan is 50 for females and 29 for males. In captivity, they generally live into their 20s, despite the supposed advantages in feeding and veterinary care the parks provide.

Contrast this picture with their life in captivity. Generations are separated. Whales from different groups (culture and language again) are penned together. The environment is not particularly stimulating. And, if they don’t do what their human trainers expect, food is withheld. Killer whales, an apex predator, may find this baffling and unacceptable.

Intelligent, curious, playful, problem-solving–all these positive traits have helped create the friendly, seemingly affectionate Shamu image. In truth, although there are few documented attacks on humans–and no fatalities–by the tens of thousands of killer whales in the wild, the small number of captive killer whales reportedly has made nearly two dozen attacks on humans since the 1970s, four of which have been fatal, and three of which fatalities have involve Tilikum.

Born in 1981, Tilikum is the largest orca in captivity, 22.5 feet long and weighing 12,000 pounds. He was responsible for the drowning and battery deaths of a trainer in British Columbia in 1991, a SeaWorld Orlando intruder in 1999, and SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, when he grabbed her arm and pulled her under the water. The latter death led to new safety procedures at SeaWorld, although the parks have unsuccessfully appealed OSHA safety penalties and are looking to install new technologies that would let trainers return to the orca pools.

Ironically, the sea parks that have fostered public affection for these giant creatures and cultivated interest in their welfare may also have created the environment in which concern over their captivity has again erupted, 20 years after Free Willy.

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