News

‘Blackfish’ documentary dives into killer whale captivity

‘Blackfish’ documentary dives into killer whale captivity

Tillikum, a killer whale at SeaWorld amusement park, performs during the show "Believe" in Orlando in this September 3, 2009 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Mathieu Belanger/Files

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Gabriela Cowperthwaite was a mom who took her kids to SeaWorld when the death of a killer whale trainer at one of the marine parks sparked her latest filmmaking project.

The documentary “Blackfish” was originally conceived without a point of view as Cowperthwaite set out to answer the question of why a top trainer at SeaWorld became the victim of the killer whale with which she worked and performed.

The resulting film that opens in movie theaters on Friday, however, turned out to be a critical look at the consequences of keeping killer whales in captivity.

SeaWorld has launched its own campaign to challenge the criticism of “Blackfish,” which has drawn comparisons to the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove” about the killing of dolphins in Japan, a film embraced by animal activists.

In a statement released this week, SeaWorld accused the film of painting “a distorted picture” of its facility, calling it “inaccurate and misleading,” as well as exploiting “a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau’s family, friends and colleagues.”

Brancheau was killed in 2010 by the great orca, Tilikum, at SeaWorld in Orlando. Although reports differ as to how exactly she was pulled under the water, the autopsy report revealed she died of drowning and blunt force trauma.

“Blackfish” traces the life of Tilikum, who has been performing for 30 years since he was captured in 1983 around the age of 2.

“The Hollywood Reporter” described “Blackfish” as “emotionally powerful,” “harrowing” and “a damning indictment of the SeaWorld theme park franchise.”

That was not what Cowperthwaite had in mind.

“I don’t come from animal activism – I am a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld,” said Cowperthwaite, 42. “I thought (the Brancheau) incident was a one-off. In my mind, I was going to make a larger philosophical film about human beings and our relationships with our animal counterparts.”

Things took a turn when, during Cowperthwaite’s two-year project, she discovered that Brancheau’s death was not an isolated incident, and that Tilikum was involved in two other deaths since 1991.

SEAWORLD QUESTIONS ‘GOOD FAITH’

By interviewing Tilikum’s former trainers, along with academics and whale experts, the documentary paints a portrait of a captive orca whose behavior appears to come from the stress of the circumstances he was unwittingly placed in after his capture three decades ago.

Cowperthwaite said she exchanged emails with SeaWorld over the course of six months in an attempt to get its side of the story. She provided a list of questions she wanted to discuss, but in the end, the answer she got was “no.”

“I wonder whether it was because the truth is in some ways very complicated, very dark,” she said. “How could they address those incidents without being defensive or sounding negligent?”

“Or maybe because I’m not a famous filmmaker, they thought this movie will go away and fall by the wayside.”

When contacted by Reuters, SeaWorld’s vice president of communications, Fred Jacobs, said in a statement that SeaWorld is “much more likely to cooperate with authors or filmmakers when we feel they are approaching the topic in good faith, with a true commitment to balance, fairness, and accuracy. That did not appear to be the case with this project.”

Former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg, 45, who worked with Tilikum when she was in her 20s and is featured in “Blackfish,” told Reuters it’s not about being “anti-SeaWorld” but “anti the way things have been done up to this point.”

“I’m rooting for SeaWorld to change its business model, retire the whales and stop the breeding program,” Berg said. “Given what we now know, there is a moral responsibility for us to do the right thing.”

Cowperthwaite hopes that “Blackfish” will inspire others to take action and not be “passive consumers” like she once was.

“I hope future generations will become more agile in seeing past veneers,” she said.

Recent Headlines

in Sports

Wisconsin heads to Final Four after win over Arizona

Fresh
Wisconsin Badgers Head Coach Bo Ryan works with the team during the first round of the NCAA Midwest Regional basketball game in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Badgers (35-3) denied the Wildcats (34-4) a Final Four berth for the second straight year, having beaten them by one point in overtime in Anaheim a year ago when their seeds were reversed.

in Sports

AP sources: Texas fires coach Barnes after 17 years

Fresh
The NCAA logo is on the court as work continues at The Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, March 18, 2015, for the NCAA college basketball second and third round game. Second round games start on Thursday.

Texas has fired coach Rick Barnes after 17 seasons, people with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press.

in Local Sports

WWU bounces back with victories over UC San Diego and San Francisco State

Fresh
WWU Softball coaches

The Vikings bounced back with a pair of 5-4 wins over UC San Diego and San Francisco State in second-day action Saturday at the Cal State Stanislaus Tournament of Champions.

in Local Sports

Donigian runs nation’s fastest NCAA II 100 at Texas Relays

wwu western washington university congrats vikes vikings from kpug

Western Washington University men's sprinter Alex Donigian ran the fastest 100 meters nationally in NCAA Division II this season with a 10.27 clocking in at the Texas Relays