Thursday, February 20, 2014

Killing SeaWorld: Blackfish

Movie Review: Blackfish

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Reviewed: 24 January 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2



The new documentary Blackfish has stuck with me for approximately a month since I have seen it.  I usually do not let a film sit for that long before writing about it, and there was no intention behind this delay.  However, after a month, I still find myself riveted by the footage compiled by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.  I don't think I'll ever consider going to SeaWorld after viewing this film.

Blackfish aims straight for its audience, throwing us into a shadowy world of SeaWorld corporate greed, mistreatment of whales, bitter former staff, and an assemblage of violent mishaps within their pools.  Should we keep whales in captivity?  Are we upsetting nature by traumatically separating whale calves from their mothers?  Should whales only exist in the ocean?  Some of the film suffers by never having a mouthpiece from the opposing side. But, much like some of Michael Moore's documentary work, the bringing of the case against a giant corporation is a titanic feat, and I found myself riveted.

Cowperthwaite focuses on orca whale named Tilikum's captivity and the whale's connection to three different fatalities including a renowned whale trainer. Some of the footage is cobbled together from security cameras at SeaWorld; other footage is taken from audience members at shows where whale behavior becomes erratic.  It is unsettling to see some of the behavior: shocking, surprising, and very scary. When juxtaposed against the company's commercials of floating whales and smiles, the aggressive behavior and bloody scrapes become even more upsetting.

The film raises troubling questions, but the closest it ever gets to a target are some SeaWorld executives walking out of court.  One scientist posits that the whale brain has an even bigger emotional core than the human brain, and that emotional connectivity makes captivity and separation from family even more traumatic. It is impossible not to be sympathetic to the whales, scraped and confined in small cages, starved to perform in daily shows for audiences, and the film shows the folded over fin as a symbol of a captive whale (something that never happens in the wild).  It is impossible not to be sympathetic for former trainers, ashamed of their past behaviors, riddled with guilt for mistreatment of these magnificent creatures. It is impossible not to fully believe that a corporation consumed with profit would neglect its whales and its trainers.  What takes Blackfish to the next level for me is a decision later in the film to show how Tilikum's sperm has been used to impregnate many other captive whales, possibly spreading the reach of this emotionally damaged animal.  And SeaWorld at the same time has that same capability: their training has led to incidents in less well-known locations and facilities. There are questions of responsibility and ownership haunting this film, and the ending seems to posit that the only way to enjoy a whale should be from a boat in the ocean.  Is Blackfish the logical extension of what happens when for-profit corporations own a piece of the natural world?

I love visiting the Houston Zoo, a zoo that I believe has a good track record of care with its animals.  The cages seem clean, the outdoor facilities spacious, and I have enjoyed taking my son there.  Where is the line between appreciation for nature and exploitation of it?  Both SeaWorld and the Houston Zoo charge for admission.  Is the difference that SeaWorld trains its whales to perform unnatural tricks for the benefits of a human audience?  The Zoo isn't having trainers ride on the backs of its animals.  In a digital age where documentaries and websites can take us as close as can be to animals in the wild, what is the benefit from being splashed by a whale, seeing a giraffe up close, or watching an elephant be fed?  There is something breathtaking about that transaction: seeing an animal up close.  Should there be different expectations for keeping land animals captive versus marine life?  I find myself asking way more questions in this review than I normally do.  I don't have the answers.  I appreciate Blackfish for pushing my thinking and provoking me, but I also do not know if its ideas regarding 2014 solutions to this problem go deep enough.  Their notion of ending whale captivity and shutting down SeaWorld might seem as shallow as one of the pools they lambaste in their film.


33 comments:

  1. After seeing this film I can honestly say that we as humans should stop forcing animals to do work for our entertainment.

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  2. To what extent do you believe zoos keep good track record of care with its animals? Would you say it is morally right to keep animals trapped in cages, as they walk around in circles because of stress? Is it morally right for animals to feel defenseless as weird creatures stare into their little box-cages? Is it overall morally right to use nature as an entertainment? Let's put big windows in clinics so we can all enjoy seeing sick people. Let's make it public to go check out people in jail. Let's make orphaned kids do tricks so we can be entertained.

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    1. You raise some very valid points. Do we as a society treat animals at an equal level as people? And what are the ramifications if we decide to do this? I think what Blackfish begins to explore is the dynamic between corporate profit and sheer reckless exploitation of these marine creatures. Sure, the Houston Zoo may not have the largest cages and most wide-array of natural habitats, but they are also chartered in part to educate and to respect their animals, not just to increase profit at any cost. I have a former student who is now working at the Houston Zoo, and I will ask her what she thinks about this issue. Thanks for writing.

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  3. I do not think that is morally right for an animal to be trap in the zoo or force to do tricks in the aquarium. I feel by keeping them in a small section make them be more violent and that why they hurt the trainer. I fell if they where in bigger cages or a larger tank they won't be as aggressive!

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  4. I did not fully comprehend the level of risk that SeaWorld trainers had to take. I believe that the danger of SeaWorld trainers is not as dangerous as a zookeeper. Based on this documentary, I can see that SeaWorld is not very considerate of their workers and what they do. I don't think you can compare SeaWorld orca whale situations to human, real life situations- honeslty, I doubt going back to SeaWorld ever again.

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  5. I also felt these emotions and many questions after watching the documentary Blackfish. If anything, I am against going to water parks such as SeaWorld because of what they do to these innocent animals. Humans, being the dominating species, are responsible to talk care of other living things, not separate them from their family and forcefully make them do tricks for the entertainment of others.

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  6. After whatching this documentary, I never want to go to Sea World.I do not think it is right for animal to be captive.Animals are suppost to live in their enviroments and us as humans don't respect that.Animals don't have a say but they do have feelings and emotions.

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  7. I agree that after seeing this documentary, it pushes some emotional envelopes. I too am angry that SeaWorld contuniues to not acknowledge that these "accidents" that are happening are not accidencts, but violent acts of the animals due to captivity. SeaWorld wants to protect their name and thier company which is why they refuse to show in court or walk out. The fact that they do this is also upsetting because they choose to be ignorant of thier wrongs instead of caring for their animals like they claim to be doing. After so many "accidents" you would think SeaWorld would change thier system.

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  8. I had never thought of something like this. Having theses animals in captivity does have an effect on them. Just like us human when we are just surrounded in one area for hours we get tired and frustrated and want to leave go somewhere else, now imagine theses animals that are in the same place and same environment they get tied too. I honestly feel really sympathetic for theses creatures because they are used for our entertainment instead of enjoying there lives in the wild how it should be.

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  9. SAVE THE ORCAS!

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  10. I believe that Sea World is not a great place to visit. It puts me into deep shock that after various attacks of these orcas, the trainers still dare to get in the pool with them. It is common sense to know the background of a place you are going to work at and pure stupidity for someone to say that they did not know the animals were capable of harming them. Of course you are going to be in danger. I do believe that Sea World and the Houston Zoo are different, but if the lion at the zoo attacked or the tiger, then would people consider it the same. I feel that animals are not meant to be in capacity since we do not know what they are capable of. These accidents only happen as outliers, but they are definitely avoidable.

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  11. I do agree that the film was missing something because it did not have the other side of the story, but I also think that if SeaWorld was in the film, all they would do would be making up excuses for their mistakes. No one wants to own up to something they did or have been doing wrong. But I kind of have a differing view about the Houston zoo. Sure, they might not abuse their animals or make them do tricks, but they are still trapped in cages. When we went to visit them, all of the animals that are supposed to be majestic (such as the lion or cheetah, etc.) were just laying down in their confined area very lazily. They don't have space to run around; birds don't have anywhere to fly. Animals don't belonged in confined spaces, and I don't know what is people's obsession with seeing animals up close. Go on a safari or something.

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    1. Monica, you do raise some excellent points. Today, the technology enables us to watch a web-cam of life in a jungle or on a savannah; the series Earth probably shows more animals than a visit to ten zoos would show. A sea change would have to occur culturally to think about our relationship with animals differently. Zoos educate and inspire and protect, but I share your sympathy. A cage is a cage, no matter what. Unfortunately, not everyone can go on safari, or do as the trainers at the end of Blackfish do, rent a boat and see whales in their natural habitat. But, what is the cost of seeing these animals in such confined quarters? Great post.

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  12. I agree with everything that was said in this post. I think that humans should stop using animals for entertainment. Most people would agree that putting a human in a cage to do tricks for other people's entertainment is unusual and wrong so why do we do that to animals? One does not even need to be an animal lover to realize that taking animals out of their natural environments and sticking them in cages and tanks for our own entertainment is sick. Also, about what you said about the Houston Zoo, what if they treat animals bad and we do not know? There is not a documentary about it that exposes any wrong behavior, but it could be going on. If people want to see animals, go out and view them in their natural habitats. We do not need to keep them in captivity at all, whether it is at SeaWorld, the zoo, or anywhere else.

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  13. Having seen this film twice i have a better understanding of what the film was trying to push into the public, but at the same time i think that poeple want to experiance the "Thrill" of seeing these gaint sea animals. To help make the public happy and also having a constant money influx Sea World should try to merge with a open range orca showing off the coast or in a large cove to give the whales some freedom after the shows. After the whales are too large they could then send the whales in the wild they have been adjusted to their whole life.

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  14. A lot of questions raised in my head when watching the film as well. I felt very conflicted because I felt bad for the whales. They were being mistreated, and they belong in the ocean. However, it angered me that they would act so violently towards the trainers.

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  15. When I saw this film, I felt as though I should never visit Seaworld again. But going back to this past summer, I remember visiting Seaworld for the first time in my life and I was amazed when I went to the Shamu show. It was fascinating seeing the whales do tricks and it was amazing to see how well they were able to understand what they were meant to do for the show. I did not know about any of the orca incidents before visiting Seaworld for the first time, and while I was there, I did not even think about the behind the scenes stuff; I only focused on the show, the whale, and I remained fascinated by it all. Getting rid of Seaworld, in my opinion, sounds like a good idea, considering that we are keeping animals in captivity and it is not right, but at the same time, it is really cool to see these animals do things that they otherwise would not do. I know I went online after watching Blackfish, trying to see if there was any more information that maybe the film did not touch on, but I was intrigued by the videos and I kept watching them over and over, thinking of how they could allow these things to happen and pretend like it is not their responsibilty. I am sure Seaworld can have the same reputation as the Houston Zoo in given time, but they first need to own up to their resposibilites and take better care of the orca's and any other marine animals that they have, get them a much larger place to swim, rather than tiny pools.

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    1. Mariana, I agree. There is a way to be a responsible steward of nature, and the Seaworld corporation would need to steer its profits and energies in that direction. The film indicates that they don't seem interested, but it was very one-sided. Your amazement at seeing these animals as a young person is not rare; the majesty and other-ness of that moment is unforgettable, I'm sure. Blackfish is the beginning of the conversation, but there's so much more to learn. Great post.

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  16. You see the thing is we have two things to think about, us and them- them being the whales of course- and they cannot talk to me. This may seem harsh to you, but if I was Sea World I would have to think long term and corporation wide. Money and profit is how we keep this company going, is it ethical? Maybe not, but what I can say is all the people, and all the kids that see this show leave with smiles because that is the mission, charge people such a high price for a show, that they must enjoy the show no questions asked. People don’t care about the story behind it, they do not care about what whale killed whom, but what they do care about is having a wonderful and cheerful experience with a wild animal called “SHAMU”. This corporation is not just for today, it is for the future, and procreation from Tilikum must take place in order to keep the “generations” going. Hate me if you will, but I justify Sea World’s utilitarian approach, they want to keep the people or better yet consumers happy, screwing over whoever they must, so in all, Blackfish is a great documentary, but Sea World has a mission to make kids “BELIEVE” and that is what they intend to do, ethical or not ethical, due to all the millions of dollars on the line.

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    1. They are clearly good at what they do--profitable. Or else, they wouldn't be in business. They do have customers and a national cultural following. The questions raised by the documentary have the potential to force them to change in the most capitalistic of ways: people not visiting or boycotting means fewer dollars for CEO's and shareholders. If what you're selling isn't selling, the utilitarian will adjust to find a way to meet their consumers. I wonder if the sea change is starting to occur or if Blackfish is merely a drop of water in the ocean.

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  17. "The arrogance of man is thinking nature is under our control, and not the other way around"-Ken Wantanabe
    I personally believe animals don't belong in captivity, But we are all guilty of this, like keeping pets of our own, and training them, the only difference is, is that people don't have to fear things that are typically smaller and doesn't pose much of a threat.

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  18. In the film Blackfish there are many parts of the film that have been taken off and only have left the negativity of orca whales being mistreated and suffered over time, although I believe that this is animal cruelty and orca whales as well as animals in the zoo should be in the wild where they belong. Yes, they are beautiful and amazing creatures but they have suffered enough with the separation of their families from the information that I read was that a "whale brain has an even bigger emotional core." Answering your question about, "Should we keep whales in captivity?" I believe that we shouldn't whatsoever keep animals in captivity even if we have no place to keep them in. It's cruel and inconsiderate of us to think about money and entertainment when we take them away from where they belong.

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  19. It never occured to me that the whales where being starved and taken from their home in the wild. The fact that the whales incentive to perform well is to not starve is shocking. People should not exploit any animal in such a way. A small 3 inch Petstore Goldfish was made for captivity. It took many years to derive Carp into Goldfish, but we know how to keep them healthy. But a Killer whale that spends its entire life migrating across the ocean, eating seals and penguins should not be kept in a pool and fed some cheap fish. It's like keeping a lion as a house cat!

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    1. Great point. Seaworld could build huge tanks at huge expense to allow these animals a more natural habitat. But that costs money. And they are in the business of making money.

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  20. Eduardo CabreraMay 1, 2014 at 2:00 PM

    When I first started watching the film I had no idea what it was about, do when I realised it was centered around sea world and and more specifically the whales I thought it was going to have a happy mood throughout the whole thing. I have been to seaworld before to the "Shamoo", though I now know they name all the whales Shamoo while they are doing their shows, and I only had positive memories. Like Mr, Sheridan said in his blog post, I was shocked to see the process in which the animals were takin out of the ocean and into captivity, furthermore I was farly impressed by the manuvers which they took to try to avoid being captured. Through what I saw it is safe to say that shales show intelligence levels that exceed even some humans. So I am on the side which believes that they should not be shamed into performing for the entertainment of families and for profit. Ripping families apart is a crime no matter what species, and expecialy for those who value their younge so dearly. However knowing the limit is also a difficult question to consider. It was a good point to bring up the zoo points because in a way they are similar to what Sea World does though not entirely. It is a very difficult thing to consider, and I cant make my mind up at this moment.

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    1. Eddie, there's so much to think about. The connections to zoos and circuses is there as well. We have to ponder our connection to nature and our responsibility to serve as stewards. How far is too far? Blackfish seems too far.

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  21. Kevin RodriguezMay 1, 2014 at 2:00 PM

    I had previously written a more thoughtful response, but for some reason the computer made me reset what I had typed. Therefore I will merely summarize what I had said: The Houston Zoo appears clean and spacious for the animals, but so did sea world. Sea World pulled the veil over our eyes, so just because the Houston Zoo appears good how do we know this to be true?

    As stated in Blackfish, Orca's have a larger emotional part of the brain than humans. Does that mean they deserve more rights than other animals who differ? People go around advocating for animal rights, but I do not see anyone advocating for the freedom of reptiles who are kept inside 3x3 foot glass cases. That is surely mistreatment. Is it because they are not as intelligent that people seem to forget about them?

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    1. Wow. This point is fascinating. Is there a hierarchy of animals in terms of their intelligence or our perception of their intelligence?

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  22. Britney PalomaresMay 1, 2014 at 2:12 PM

    I've actually gone to Sea World when I was little, and after watching the documentary, I feel ashamed. I would most likely not go to Sea World ever again and motivate my friends and family not to go there. Towards the end of the film, they stated that Sea World did not want to be part of the documentary; this goes to show that they are guilty for their actions for mistreating the orcas. It is incredible of how far entertaining programs go to entertain people and to get their money. The government should enforce laws to save the animals being mistreated. People do not take into consideration of how animals have feelings too, and if they are being neglected by humans, then they might get back at humans for their malicious actions.

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  23. I would understand how having an animal near you could be the most amazing feeling because I was fortunate to go swimming with dolphins. Unfortunately after I watched this movie I felt like a very cruel person. Buisnesses like the zoo, aquarium, and vacation spots, earn a profit because they know that the audience would love the experience. What right do we humans have that let us take a mother from their child? What right do we have to take them out of their natural habitat? We have none. Just like us these animals are smart, they have feelings, and they have every right to their own life. How is it moral for us to take them out of their homes and stick them into a small tank? Even after being in captivity letting them back into the wild would put them into an even greater danger. Tili was part of seaworld ever since he was a child, letting him go as an adult would be murder. He grew up in a tank, eating food from trainers, of course he would not know how to look for food.

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  24. Blackfish has truly opened my eyes, I never would have thought that keeping an animal from it's natural habitat could have such an traumatic effect on the animal. It was unsettling to see what truly goes on at Sea World behind closed doors. One of Blackfish's shortcomings would have to be the fact that it is completly biased, I would have liked to hear Sea World's justifications as to why they continue to false advertise to the public.

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  25. I believe the line between appreciation of natue and the exploitation it involves forcing animals to preform unnatrural tricks. In zoos, animals are not really forced to do anything other than go where they are directed in order to be fed or bathed. The Orca wale may be too intelligent to be kept in such a confined space. Some animals can be easily domesticated while others just aren't meant to live in captivity. There are easily visible signs that distinguish the difference between these two like the scratch marks on the whale and the acts of aggression towards the trainers. People should take into consideration these signs when they feel they should open up a park for animal entertainment.

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  26. When I think of training whales, I think of dogs. We domesticated dogs to be man’s best friend from a long line of breeding wolves. Wolves are not naturally inclined to do what we want them to do, but the outcome, dogs, are much more likely to do so, but now people are careless about dogs and they roam the streets looking for food, shelter, water, even companionship in large numbers. We manipulate nature to do as we please, and we assume ourselves as the master of it. Is it right for us to take the thrown without the thought as to what might happen to an entire species if we humans interfere with nature and morph the nature into something irregular, unintended by nature? Orcas are intelligent beings, and therefore should be treated as such. When is it ever okay to physically abuse, starve, or emotionally scar a being that understands love for the purpose of entertainment?

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