*The opinions in this review are my own and not those of my employer. I do not speak for all zookeepers, only myself. I updated this review on 7/18.*
As someone who works with captive animals in a zoo setting, I and my fellow zookeepers are able to pick out what is wrong, depicted in a untruthful light, or is just a propaganda piece when it comes to films, documentaries, and shows about animals in captivity. I have been working full-time as a zookeeper for over seven and half years. There are many organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and In Defense of Animals (IDA) who constantly attack zoos for their supposed mistreatment of animals. It is easy for us to ignore them, but for much of the public, they take what they hear as fact, not investigating claims on their own. It is easy to do in this internet and social media age. Zoos as a whole are good, but there are always some bad apples in the bunch. Some would say I have a jaded look as the zoo industry, but everyone who works with animals in this setting is probably the same. What you see on the outside in the public area is not the whole story. There are a lot of positive things going on behind the scenes. We love our animals, and we are most definitely not doing this for the money. Trust me; there is no money in working with animals.
When I first saw the trailer for Blackfish, I was shocked by what I saw. I have never worked with marine mammals, put on entertainment shows using animals, or worked for a for-profit organization that exhibits animals. I cannot put my limited expertise to use because I have never put myself in that situation. Like a lot of the “zoos are bad” documentaries, I was very skeptical at first of its motives, but then I watched it.
The film focuses on orcas who are also referred to as blackfish. The majority of the film is spent examining their lives in captivity, which means that it also focuses on SeaWorld. The trigger to this documentary is the SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau who was killed by an orca named Tilikum at the park in Orlando. The news of her death was national news. Blackfish brings to light the management practices of SeaWorld in regards to their acquisition of orcas, their training program and shows, and how they manage and inform their employees. Because of Dawn’s death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) brought a lawsuit against SeaWorld for unsafe working conditions.
The documentary attempts to provide a well-rounded discussion of orcas. A few researchers and experts are interviewed about their behavior in the wild, how social they are, and how their brain is different from ours and other animals. What is most surprising is that orcas have a portion of their brain that we do not have. It makes them more emotional than us. This also means they can develop strong bonds to one another, which is why they travel in pods or groups. The documentary goes back to these experts several times to validate what is being discussed.
The one thing that makes me believe the accounts and stories told in Blackfish is the many veteran former SeaWorld trainers that are interviewed. This is not just two or three or trainers who only worked for a year or two before leaving, but professional, experienced former trainers who appear to be quite honest in their accounts of working for SeaWorld. If there were no trainers included in this, I would dismiss it. Their accounts validate what is being told, and they mostly narrate this film using their interviews.
Every effort should be made to not capture wild animals and bring them into captivity. It is still done, and hopefully is not the first method of acquiring specimens for research, conservation, and display. There are instances where an animal is so endangered that individuals are pulled to create a pool to expand numbers. However, when orcas were initially taken from the wild over thirty years ago, it was for use in parks only. In one instance, SeaWorld’s capture group killed enough of the orcas while trying to capture them that they were banned from ever doing so again in Washington State. They just went elsewhere.
What kind of space requirement would you need to have to exhibit an orca in a humane, enriching way? I don’t know the answer to that, but there is an analogy to them being kept in a bathtub relative to what their range is in the wild. Blackfish also discusses the social restrictions that orcas experience. This, however, is unavoidable. There is not enough space at facilities for pods to form and be able to remain together forever. The same thing happens in zoos with other animal species.
The most shocking thing to me about Blackfish is SeaWorld’s lack of care for their employees. They spin injuries and deaths to make it seem like it was trainer error. According to the film, over seventy incidents of injury or death have happened at SeaWorld in relation to trainers working with orcas. This demonstrates a lack of concern for trainers and their safety. What if a zoo sent its keepers in with lions on a daily basis and kept doing so even after deaths and major injuries? It is basically the same thing. This demonstrates to me that SeaWorld is all about the mighty dollar and that their trainers are replaceable commodities. There is even evidence that SeaWorld did not tell their employees about major incidents that occurred, not even those that work with animals at the same or other parks. Once a major injury occurs in most zoos, protocols are changed almost immediately to make them safer. This never happened at SeaWorld.
The film goes through several incidents of death at the hands of orcas. There is also stunning video of several close calls. I should note that the film does not just focus on SeaWorld, as injuries have happened at other places that exhibit orcas, and they are included as well. One incident involves Tilikum killing an employee at Sealand, his former home.
The death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010 while she was working with Tilikum is a central focus, but the details and some video of the incident do not appear until towards the end of the film. By all accounts, Dawn was a great trainer and a major proponent of safety in her workplace. She also had a spotter while working this whale on the day she died. With incidents like these, it is NEVER the animal’s fault. You would be hard pressed to find an animal caretaker who thinks an animal should be put down just because it attacks someone. The animal may be exhibiting natural behavior, be “off” for that day, or is just an aggressive animal whether it always was or something in his environment created that aggression. In this case, it seems that Tilikum is being punished for his aggressive behavior. He is now just used two or three times a day for the big bow at the Shamu show. Otherwise, he is by himself, left to his own devices in a small pool. This is the really sad ending.
Because of the OSHA investigation and lawsuit, SeaWorld can no longer have trainers in the pool with the orcas. Trainers must always be behind a barrier. SeaWorld is appealing. In my opinion, OSHA is correct. SeaWorld continued to put trainers in harm’s way no matter what. Even with death, they did not change their policy voluntarily. Many may argue that Blackfish is not a well-rounded documentary, but SeaWorld was invited to participate and they turned the opportunity down several times. Whether you believe what you see in Blackfish or not, it will hopefully cause you to pause before going to one of their parks again. Blackfish is not a propaganda piece, but a well-made documentary with compelling and supposedly factual evidence. It is not a sob-fest, and that is one reason why I will not watch The Cove. I will admit to tearing up a little, but I was more astounded at what is presented in the film. I would encourage everyone to watch this important documentary. Thank you, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, for making this film and bringing Blackfish to the masses.
I give Blackfish 5 out of 5.
by Sarah Ksiazek