Not since Grizzly Man (2009) has a film so convincingly presented the case for human beings to respect the natural dividing line between themselves and wild animals. Gabriella Cowperthwaite’s compelling documentary, which premiered at Sundance this year and immediately attracted notice, tells the story of Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. who killed a trainer and continues to work there.
Work is the operative term here, as Tilikum and his counterparts, including other whales, dolphins, and sea lions, learn difficult tricks, spend years in captivity performing them, and receive punishment if the stunts are not completed properly. The film illustrates the devastating consequences that SeaWorld’s practices of confinement, abnormal living conditions, and demanding work schedules can have on its animals and the humans who work with them.
In 2010, Tilikum dragged Dawn Brancheau, an experienced SeaWorld trainer, into the pool and aggressively pursued her. Brancheau drowned, sustaining several major wounds to her body. Although Brancheau’s death received the most media attention, Tilikum, or Tilly as he is known to his trainers, was involved in two previous human deaths.
Blackfish weaves the history of Tilikum and his fellow orcas, or killer whales, at SeaWorld with footage from SeaWorld shows and interviews with former trainers. The resounding message from Brancheau’s former coworkers is that Tilikum was a ticking time bomb. It wasn’t a question of if he would attack, but when. Despite the fact that by all accounts Tilikum, the largest orca ever to be held in captivity, was beloved among the staff, their testimony reveals a long history of unethical and disturbing practices among SeaWorld’s management.
Even more disturbing are the expert accounts of SeaWorld’s history of orca poaching. The film includes eyewitness accounts of such whale hunts in the 1970s, where young whales were separated from their mothers and forcibly taken into captivity. At the conclusion of these hunts, the film shows, the captured whale’s family would refuse to leave their kin, putting themselves in harm’s way rather than abandon their youngster.
Indeed, what the film presents most forcibly is the incontrovertible fact that orcas rival humans in their capacity for intelligence and emotion. They display loyalty and affection, possess the ability to communicate with sounds (what many would call language), and demonstrate a high level of brain functioning. Their life spans also approximate humans’: orcas, in the wild, live between 50-100 or more years (in captivity, they live closer to 25-35 years). And, like humans, orcas may develop violent behavior if they suffer emotional pain, physical abuse, or feel frustration over their lack of agency. (There is, we learn in the film, not a single case of an orca attacking a human in the wild.)
Despite presenting the myriad similarities between humans and orcas, however, ultimately Blackfish convinces us that our species ought to leave theirs alone. Werner Herzog took great liberties in presenting the story of Timothy Treadwell’s ultimately fatal interactions with grizzly bears in order to prove that point, but Cowperthwaite takes a far more straightforward approach. Though the two films may have much in common, Grizzly Man portrays a troubled individual; Blackfish presents the story of an unstable corporation. In terms of the ethical issues it raises regarding our relationship with animals, that difference is vast.