This documentary may be one of the most powerful I have ever seen.
It was first shown at Sundance in January 2013, then was picked up by Magnolia Pictures for wider distribution. The director, Gabriella Cowperthwaite, was inspired to do this film after the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, who was killed by Tilikum, a 12,000 pound Orca whale, the largest in captivity. SeaWorld blamed Brancheau – she slipped, she didn’t follow rules, she wore a ponytail that distracted the whale, she… well, you get the idea.
When Cowperthwaiste discovered that the whale had killed several other people at various water theme parks, it changed her vision of the movie. And her vision is simple. In the wild, there isn’t a single instance of a killer whale having killed a human; it’s captivity that turns them into killers. Orcas- and by extension all wild animals – shouldnot be kept in captivity and they certainly shouldn’t be kept for entertainment by a corporation like SeaWorld that makes billions on these whale performances/shows.
The documentary traces Tilikum’s long and arduous journey from his capture on November 9, 1983, when he was just three and taken away from his mother; to a brief stint at Sealand in British Columbia; to his final home at SeaWorld, where he arrived on January 9, 1992. The director not only provides footage of his initial capture, but interviews an elderly seaman who was involved in the capture. His testimony is heartbreaking. In fact, there are so many heartbreaking scenes in the movie that you walk out of the theater in stunned shock that these theme parks still exist.
During Tilikum’s life in captivity, he has been bullied by other whales, deprived of food when he didn’t do what a trainer wanted him to do, kept in a completely dark, 20-foot-long pod at night, and basically lives in what amounts to a large swimming pool. Some of the most damning evidence about how Tilikum is treated comes from the ex-SeaWorld trainers who are interviewed in the film. Listening to these people, it’s clear that Tilikum has endured things that any of us would qualify as torture.
SeaWorld’s official line is that in the wild, orcas live only for 25-35 years and live longer in captivity. But Cowperthwaite interviews animals experts and neuroscientists who contend that orcas in the wild live as long as humans and have distinct family structures. Mother and children are so closely bonded that even when a whale reaches adulthood, it doesn’t leave its mother’s side. In one particularly wrenching scene, a mother whale mourns for days and nights after her calf is taken from her. That sound hadn’t been heard in the thirty years she had been in captivity. As one ex-trainer noted, When you hear that sound, you know that what has been done is morally wrong.
SeaWorld, who declined to be interviewed for the film, is now in full throttle damage control. A week before the film opened, they hired a Manhattan PR firm, 42West , to help them discredit the film. After all, Tilikum is their zillion dollar baby; his sperm has sired a number of whales for the theme park.
SeaWorld is apparently running so scared it has hired Eugene Scalia, the son of supreme court justice Anthony Scalia, to represent them in the next round of appeals against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – OSHA. From whales.org: “After the “willful” violation that OSHA cited them for in 2010 (after Brancheau’s death) SeaWorld appealed, first to an administrative law court, and then to a Labor Department commission, finally to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which ordered the company to enter mediation with OSHA to establish a guideline for interactions between killer whales and trainers. This latest appeal will again be heard before the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.”
Rob and I talked about the spiritual side of this whole thing, that perhaps on some deep level these wild animals agree to captivity for some reason. As one neuroscientist points out in the film, the part of the brain that governs emotions is highly developed in Orcas, suggesting the capacity for profound emotional connections. Does that make them more like us? Or does it suggest an intelligence that far supersedes that of man?
In one riveting and revolting scene, Tilikum is milked of semen by his human handlers; this scene bears eerie parallels to the descriptions by abductees who have endured medical experiments in which aliens harvested their sperm and ovum.
Here’s the trailer. This movie is worth 83-minutes of your time. I hope it wins an Oscar and becomes the game changer it should be.