No fun for orcas

Documentary sheds light on dangers of keeping killer whales in captivity

A whale of a dolphin.

A whale of a dolphin.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Pageant Theatre. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

Some hold killer whales as being of a more advanced sentience than humankind. There’s no debate that they’re clever, and that they communicate. They hold familial bonds more powerful than a lot of humans. They grieve. But they’re just whales, right? (Well, no. They’re dolphins.)

A killer whale would never clock into a cubicle for five days a week for 40 years until retiring to watch TV until that final clock-out. Orcas just frolic around the ocean all day, having a killer time eating and singing and just enjoying the hell out of life. Which sounds smarter?

In fact, though this may sound stupid to anyone looking at the world through a smartphone, orcas are vastly more intelligent creatures than dogs or cats. Our favorite pets are kind of thick and that’s why we love them. They don’t challenge our dominance in the food chain. (Just because they love you doesn’t mean they’re smart.) Still, as dumb as they are, would you keep Boots and Rex in cages 24/7 for their entire lives? Without even a walk? You’d get lynched if you tried it.

And that’s the crux of Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s impassioned documentary on a 12,000-pound bipolar bull orca called Tilikum who gained some notoriety after contributing to the deaths of three people (a couple of handlers and an apparently crazy hippie), two at SeaWorld Orlando and one at the since-closed Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia.

Why is Tilikum a killer? Well, it has nothing to do with being a killer whale. That’s just a silly name since there’s been no documented case of a human death-by-orca in the wild; orcas actually seem like pretty laid-back creatures if you’re not trying to harass them. It’s because SeaWorld holds the orca for no good reason other than the tourist dollar. They snatched Tilikum as a calf from his mother’s side and freighted him off to a giant swimming pool where the orca spends his life doing cute tricks for tourists and gets milked for sperm. It doesn’t look fun. Humans kill other humans for less grief.

Blackfish picks up with the testimony of ex-water-park trainers on the gruesome death of one of their colleagues and the subterfuge SeaWorld uses to avoid negative publicity. Using archival footage, Blackfish explores the confinement Tilikum and the other whales endure in between show times and the ensuing psychological meltdown that leads damaged creatures to lash out—and by implication, a culture that rewards these casual cruelties. Cowperthwaite weaves a compelling narrative sans hyperbole and lets the footage and testimony of remorseful former handlers keep the proceedings on message.

And the message of Blackfish is ultimately about our purpose as thinking creatures in our own right. These are intelligent creatures we cage simply as a way to sell plush toys. And by extension, Blackfish is about humanity’s compulsion to confine and abuse other creatures for amusement.