Sunday, August 18, 2013

Blackfish (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Blackfish," a new documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite is a breathless indictment of keeping orcas in captivity. Sadly, the Gothic trappings in its title are all too real. If only the events contained within this exposé were penned fictions  by Melville or Poe. The film specifically focuses on Sealand in British Columbia and SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida and their questionable, and outright immoral practice of keeping bull orcas in captivity, in what seems (in human equivalent terms) conditions of enslavement, or animal abuse.

Shockingly these majestic beings are harshly herded by explosives and separated by their mothers. The orcas are kept in pitch dark floating pens too small for their size (twenty feet across) and then exhausted by water tricks for our amusement.

In the film, a gruff and salty bear of a man admits that although a war veteran, the brutal capturing of orcas in the 1980s was "The worst thing ever done". He heard the mother orcas cry for their young. The experience traumatized him and still leaves him speechless today.

"Blackfish" is a psychological character study on Tilikum, an entertaining and gentle-seeming killer whale who was herded and torn from his family. Tilikum was tragically involved in three human deaths: in 1991, trainer Keltie Byrne slipped into the tank. Tilikum was one of the three orcas implicated, in 1997, when SeaWorld customer Daniel Dukes was found hanging naked and lifeless from Tilikum's back; then in 2010, while in the water, Tilikum dragged trainer Dawn Brancheau under the water as she drowned.

There have been other cases of  captive orcas killing trainers, most recently in Tenerife, Spain.

As devastating as this documentary is to watch, it ensnares like a crime thriller from Martin Scorsese. The real criminals are the SeaWorld operatives who are actively breeding a culture of oceanic psychosis. There have been no cases of orca attacks in the wild. The orca pen stands alone in its sinister geometry like a  Turkish prison as frightening as anything depicted in "Midnight Express" (1978).

SeaWorld is revealed (although no executives are interviewed)  as an ignorant and insensitive corporation, driven to uphold outdated ideas of animals subservient to the dominion of man. In documentary footage, trainers smile all too soapishly and utter Disney-like catch phrases. This is clearly an organization motivated by money and  the Hollywood delusion of the docile orca as a gentle giant with a floppy and cute dorsal fin. According to the film, however, collapsed dorsal fins are signs of serious atrophy and indicate the creature's ill health.

The former trainers interviewed clearly care for and even love Tilikum. The professional consensus is that the whale is not a born killer (far from it) but due to constant emotional anguish, he killed out of frustration. Those who like wildlife exposés will be reminded of the documentary "Project Nim" and what a fiasco that was in an attempt to humanize what is natural, wild and just as it should be.

The final blow is that Tilikum is still held at SeaWorld Orlando today and paraded as a mostly sedentary showpiece and sperm donor, thereby running a risk of unleashing whole families of aggressive orcas for decades to come.

Tilikum ( which translates  from the Chinook Jargon of the Northwest into "relations", "friends" or "tribe") now has a depressing legacy as a once wondrous siren who is now an anti-hero, both pitied and feared by no direct fault of his own. In watching "Blackfish" you may well be outraged, but you will also leave with one thought: to respect nature is to leave it alone.

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