Thoughts on the documentary Blackfish

blackfish-posterA while back, I wrote about the controversy surrounding the keeping of orcas in marine parks such as Seaworld and Marienland.  (Since then, Ikiaka has been returned to Seaworld.)

Last week a documentary about the plight of captive orcas opened.  The film is called Blackfish, after a first Nations name for orca whales.  Blackfish tells the tragic story of Tilikum, the orca at Seaworld who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau.

Back in 1970, Tilly was captured illegally in Washington State, for the  amusement park trade.  (3 whales allegedly died during the raid and were illegally sunk.)  Tilly was then sent to a now closed roadside zoo in Victoria, B.C. called Sealand.  Here, the whales were starved and put in tiny pens if they didn’t co-operate.  Sealand finally closed when Tilly and two other whales killed one of their trainers.  The whales were sold to Seaworld, which was then considered “the best place for whales.”

At Seaworld, Tilly was bullied constantly by the female whales.  (In the wild, orca whales don’t fight, because the ocean is big enough for them to take a breather.)

While Tilly’s trainers were kind, captivity had already taken its toll.  Tilly wound up killing two other people, including Seaworld head trainer Dawn Brancheau.  As a result, American trainers may no longer interact with orcas without a barrier.

Tilly’s aggressive behaviour may be indicative of a mental disorder.  Orca whales in the wild have never attacked humans or other orcas.  Captivity turns orcas, who live with they mothers all they life, into psychotic wrecks.  A CBC Quirks and Quarks interview with orca expert Dr. Darren Croft (Sept. 15th, 2012), explains that male orcas spend all their life with their moms, and may die within a year of their mom’s death.  (Females also stay with mom, but they are involved in calf rearing.)  The males only leave their mother briefly to mate.

Mother orcas also suffer when their calved (child or adult) are removed.  One whale at Seaworld cried for hours after her daughter was loaned out for breeding.

Captivity also shortens a whale’s lifespan considerably.  Orcas can live up to 100 years in the wild, but only about 25-30 years in captivity, due to extreme stress.  Many of Seaworld’s trainers were allegedly forced to lie to the public and tell visitors that wild orcas only live to 25!

One issue that was brought up in Blackfish was the alleged lack of prior knowledge of cetaceans required for employees handling the orcas.  Only highly trained staff should work with large predatory animals.

Tilly”s story is not over.  He continues to live at Seaworld, his head drooped in sadness and his dorsal fin flopped over.  (Only 1% of wild orcas have drooped dorsal fins: it occurs mainly in captive males.)  After the death of Dawn Brancheau, activists began a Free Tilly campaign named after the famous Free Willy movies.  While Tilikum is probably too psychologically damaged to survive in the wild, liberation of captive whales is still the idea option.  One option proposed by an activist interviewed is to releasee all healthy whales, and send all physically and/or psychologically disabled whales to a wildlife rehabilitation centre.  This is seems like a reasonable response, and is one that should be implemented.

On a related note, the Toronto Zoo’s elephants will finally go to PAWS, hopefully in October.  In light of this, protests have broken out at Bowmanwille Zoo, asking that their lone Asian elephant Limba be sent to a sanctuary.

– Nicole Corrado