Sunday, January 21, 2018

Go see Blackfish

This article has nothing to do with the allegation that the recent oil spills on the West coast have caused significant contamination of life forms in that area, resulting in dead fish being washed ashore.

That undoubtedly is a serious matter and experts will determine whether there is any relation between the two events.

Blackfish is the colloquial name given to orcas by the indigenous people of the Pacific north-west who understood and respected the nature of killer whales. 

The Blackfish being referred to is a 2013 documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite which deals with the treatment and behaviour of killer whales in SeaWorld in Florida.

It should be noted that SeaWorld Entertainment refused to take part in the production of the film and has described much of the content as “inaccurate and misleading”.

While the film focuses on Tilikum, an orca which was involved in the deaths of three SeaWorld employees, there is a much bigger issue that is being addressed — should killer whales be kept in captivity for the pleasure and amusement of human beings?

By the end of the film, anyone with an iota of compassion will answer in the negative.

It was difficult when watching the film to separate the ordeal of the killer whales swimming freely in the wild being the subject of capture and the tragedy when a human being is permanently separated from his or her loved ones.

The almost human cries of the orca as they realise that one of their own is being taken away from the family pod forever would bring tears to anyone who can make the analogy with the human experience.

The film contains graphic content with footage that would make the average viewer cringe, especially at those moments when the killer whales are at their most helpless.

Even in the sequences in which Tilikum is held responsible for the deaths of his trainers, one cannot help but feel that his actions are the result of cumulative frustration at being confined in a space as opposed to swimming in open waters and being trained to perform tricks instead of roaming freely with his family and friends in the ocean.

Until viewing Blackfish, I did not realise that the orca are punished by not being fed or placed in further confinement if they do not perform according to the script — a script which has been written entirely for the amusement and entertainment of spectators.

Unknown to the audience, if a killer whale, as happened in the case of Tilikum, does not stick to the trick for which he has been trained, then he is not rewarded with his snacks of fish and this punishment is actually meted out during the performance, obviously contributing to the frustration and aggression of the whale.

That the orca in those circumstances, has on occasion  taken matters into his own teeth, is wholly understandable although not acceptable when humans are injured or killed as a result. 

In the film, several former SeaWorld trainers recount their first experience at the water park in which they saw Shamu, the famous killer whale, performing lovingly with the trainer.

It was during those performances  that many of them realised that they wanted to work with killer whales at SeaWorld and become part of the whole human-whale bonding experience.

However, after joining SeaWorld and witnessing the treatment of the orca, these trainers realised that the life of the orca was not as glamorous as portrayed and in many instances, the mammals were not the happy troopers as proclaimed to the excited audiences at the daily shows.

As an aside, for those like me who visited SeaWorld in their younger days and were fascinated with Shamu, you should know that SeaWorld has a policy of naming each orca individually but giving them all the stage name Shamu. The original Shamu was actually retired from performing when she attacked a SeaWorld secretary during a promotional stunt with the orca. Shamu died in 1971. So the Shamu I thought was the original when I visited SeaWorld was actually a completely different killer whale. And the reason it was so easy to believe that all the Shamu were one and the same killer whale is that SeaWorld personnel told us that the female orca in captivity lives for as much as 50 years – a  claim which the film states is false.

Blackfish makes the point that all male killer whales in captivity have a curved dorsal fin compared to one per cent of male orca in the wild with a similar curvature.

There are many powerful lines in the film which drive home the point that killer whales should not be in captivity, but the most potent speaks to the way future generations will view us — as “barbaric” for having kept killer whales captive.

Despite the disclaimers by SeaWorld about the accuracy of the content of Blackfish, several international entertainers, after viewing the film, have cancelled their concerts which were carded to take place at SeaWorld, Orlando and Busch Gardens, Tampa.

And Pixar, the computer animation film studio, has altered an aspect of its upcoming film Finding Dory which depicted a marine park.

Even legislators are getting on board the bandwagon to free Blackfish, with New York Senator Greg Ball proposing legislation in New York to ban keeping orca in captivity and California Assemblyman Richard Bloom introducing the Orca Welfare and Safety Bill in California which seeks to outlaw entertainment-driven killer whale captivity and retire all current captive whales.

So what does all of this have to do with us at home?

As members of the human species we will be included in any indictment that charges us with acts of inhumanity–and that is where Blackfish fits in.

I strongly recommend that you look at the film—not a pirated copy —and share your views.

* Gillian Lucky is an attorney-at-law and presenter of the television programme Just Gill.