‘Blackfish’ relates conditions that turn killer whales into killers

Milwaukee Journal SentinelAugust 23, 2013 

“Blackfish” is a documentary that explores the consequences of the showbiz lifestyle on the killer whale Tilikum.

PHOTO PROVIDED

There’s no “nature vs. nurture” debate in “Blackfish,” a documentary about killer whales in captivity — and one in particular — that have attacked humans.

It’s nurture — or a lack of nurturing — that has helped this majestic, seemingly friendly creature live up to its name.

“Blackfish” starts with trainers sharing the wonderment that drew them to work with killer whales, especially at SeaWorld, the big leagues of aquatic animal shows. “When you look into their eyes,” one says of the creatures, “you know somebody is home.”

But what few of these trainers knew before they got into the business was the danger involved.

Especially when it involved a male killer whale named Tilikum. Captured in 1983, Tilikum was first taken to a British Columbia park that kept him in a metal pool without lights for 16 hours a day (the park owners were afraid someone would set him free). One trainer speculates that that treatment fostered psychosis for the giant creature.

In 1991, Tilikum attacked and killed a trainer during a live show. Sold for breeding purposes soon after to SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum was put into shows, especially to provide the “big splash” that douses the crowd at the end. Almost 20 years later, Tilikum killed again, taking the life of one of SeaWorld’s most experienced trainers.

Tilikum, who still lives at SeaWorld but rarely performs, isn’t the only dangerous catch in “Blackfish.” The movie recounts — often with horrifying video — several instances in which trainers are mauled, chomped and otherwise clobbered by killer whales. Over the years, SeaWorld alone has had more than 70 trainer “accidents,” numbers never shared with new trainers joining the park.

SeaWorld comes across as a classic corporate villain. “Blackfish” shows park officials routinely blaming the trainers; star trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death in 2010 was blamed on, of all things, her ponytail. SeaWorld also regularly spews out misinformation to justify its actions, like that a collapsed dorsal fin is common in the species (the movie says it happens in less than 1 percent of those in the wild, but 100 percent of males in captivity).

SeaWorld, which is appealing a major workplace safety case it lost after Brancheau’s death, declined to be interviewed for the movie, although it later responded to some of its charges (the responses are on the movie’s website).

But the stark, frank testimony in “Blackfish” from former trainers is going to be harder to overturn. The movie ends with several of them on a boat at sea, watching a family of killer whales swimming freely — their dorsal fins all standing tall.

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