Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
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.
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ignorant and insensitive corporation, driven to uphold outdated ideas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.
Write Ian at email@example.com