Bringing black fish out of darkness


















THE public performance of an enormous wild sea mammal involves exploitation of both the animal itself and the trainers. It appears the only benefit goes to the owners of parks such as SeaWorld.

These people make the decisions while employees and whales alike deal with the consequences.

Blackfish is an American documentary about cruelty and exploitation within the marine park industry. It highlights heart-breaking cruelty towards captive killer whales  and the people employed to train them, some of  whom have lost their lives through gross corporate negligence.

Killer whale Tilikum has caused the deaths of three people since he’s been in captivity. He is still performing at SeaWorld. Now apparently depressed and anesthetised by the lack of stimulation and freedom, we learn he spends hours at a time in his enclosure not moving.

For an animal that would naturally swim up to 150 kilometres a day, this is both disgusting and distressing. But after years living in a ‘giant bath tub’ (as one reporter put it) without his family, and with female orcas who customarily rejected and attacked him, Tilikum seems to have moved beyond aggressive frustration to numbed resignation.

The fight in him – and instinct to survive – which resulted in the tragic deaths of three people now seems gone.

Is that what we, a society of supposed animal-lovers, want to see; killer whales imprisoned and depressed, attacking (even killing) each other and lashing out at humans?

There is no record of an orca killing a human in the wild, according to one of the film’s interviewees.

Yet, for the sake of our entertainment, and the park’s desire to turn a profit, we ignore the barbarism – or we simply don’t notice. Which makes films like Blackfish so important.

Orcas are highly intelligent, evolved creatures with complex emotions and familial networks. They have long memories, communicate in complex ways, bond, play and grieve like we do.

What we are doing to these animals in the name of entertainment is wrong – and there are consequences for it.

The story which prompted the making of this film is that of Dawn Brancheau, an experienced and beloved trainer at SeaWorld Orlando who was killed by Tilikum on February 24, 2010. The documentary makes clear SeaWorld, which has cameras positioned around where the incident took place, blatantly lied about the circumstances surrounding Ms Brancheau’s death. The organisation went so far as to attempt to blame the trainer by claiming that Tilikum grabbed her ponytail which she wrongfully left loose.

Only when witnesses came forward with a different story did SeaWorld change its official line. In truth, Ms Brancheau was performing a routine exercise with Tilikum when he, out of the blue, grabbed her by the arm and pulled her underwater.

SeaWorld did not see the tragic loss of human life – and potential for more in the future – as the important issue at hand. The organisation saw a public relations nightmare and the impact on its bottom line.

One of my favourite movies as a child was Free Willy, the story of a friendship between a performing killer whale and a young boy. In the film the audience gets the Hollywood ending of seeing Willy released into the wild.

But in reality Keiko, the whale who plays Willy, was kept captive for nearly the entirety of his life. Keiko was exploited to create a film that manipulates our emotional reactions to animal suffering for commercial purposes.

In recent times, the exploitation of animals has received increasing media focus in Australia. Newspaper articles revealing disturbing practices within the live exports industry are regularly forthcoming, particularly since the airing of ABC1’s Four Corners exposé of the same industry in 2011.

The vitally important questions raised by Blackfish are just as relevant for Australian society as they are for the US. In her ‘Quarterly Essay’ Us and Them, Australian author Anna Krien neatly surmises this line of questioning: “How can we maintain that animals are things but also beings?”

As Blackfish chillingly demonstrates, the questions are matched with a desperate need to examine the consequences of doing so.

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