USA (83 mi) 2013 d: Gabriela Cowperthwaite Official site
It’s funny how mistreatment of animals often stirs up greater outrage than atrocities committed against human beings, where the cute and cuddly aspect of unprotected pets abandoned by fleeing families during the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina left many in such an uproar that they were willing to send money to save the animals, but wouldn’t lift a finger to help the homeless and displaced humans involved. And there is no question that animals in captivity, whether in zoos or SeaWorld, have limited space and spend much of their lives in cages or small areas of confinement, and even animals in the wild are facing the intrusion of human population encroaching into their dwindling territories, so they are more and more confined to restricted space, often reduced to areas where they are literally co-existing with humans. There’s even a short film called LOSING NEMO Losing Nemo on Vimeo (7:00), interestingly produced by The Black Fish (The Black Fish - A Growing Movement for the Oceans), that suggests if current fishing practices are not altered, oceans will be depleted of nearly all fish by the year 2048. So like any other problem of international scope, this is more complicated than it seems, finding a balance between corporate options and an ecological reality, as how the world looks in the future, from global warming, nuclear power, fossil fuel emissions, rain forests, to the growing extinction of plant and animal species, may be defined by actions that we make today. So ultimately it’s a question of business working in cooperation with science, with a challenge to the world community to find ways to co-exist with other species on the planet. With that in mind, the film’s opening is a harrowing sequence of how an orca killer whale is captured in Puget Sound, where a collection of boats drop bombs into the water, clanging iron, making as much noise as possible to literally herd them like horses and corral them into an isolated area from which they have no escape, targeting only the babies, separating them from their mothers and families, where we witness the mother literally crying in despair, which is a heartbreaking moment that introduces the theme of the film, whether or not these animals in captivity, who are then programmed to perform in front of adoring audiences, are traumatized by the condition of their capture and their limited, claustrophobic space at SeaWorlds that never allows them to “swim” again, as they’re stuck in a constricted pen for the rest of their lives.
What’s also immediately apparent is the magnificent grandeur these animals inspire, as they’re simply gorgeous creatures. And at 8,000 or 12,000 pounds, it’s simply awe inspiring to see them fly out of the water or do flips in midair. Even in mistreatment, assuming they are, allowing humans such close proximity to these amazing creatures can only enhance one’s interest in their general welfare, much like seeing cuddly koala bears or panda bears at a zoo, whose cuteness factor is off the charts, making them among the most popular attractions. Zoos and aquariums do serve a public interest, as children are routinely brought on educational excursions, but the question is at what price? Killer whales have been used for popular entertainment in water parks since the 1960’s, when it was realized they were highly intelligent and trainable, capable of performing tricks, which combined with their enormous size would attract literally millions of visitors. We learn Puget Sound banned SeaWorld from collecting whales in their vicinity, so they moved to the waters off Iceland, which is where Tilikum was captured when he was just two years old. The film follows the behavior patterns of several whales kept in captivity, and we hear the views of many of the SeaWorld trainers who felt it was a privilege to work with these animals. Nearly all of them claim they were young and naïve, having little training or qualifications in the first place, so they spewed the company line about how these animals “loved” to perform in front of audiences, hopping into the pool with them where trainers were bareback riding killer whales while waving to the audience, while others were jettisoned into the air by soaring whales, performing spectacular high dives. The shows are highly entertaining spectacles, but again the question is raised at what price? Cowperthwaite’s tireless research reveals Tilikum, for instance, now a 12,000 pound orca, the largest in captivity, was kept in a tiny covered pool for two years after his capture before being sold to a marine park in Canada, which shut down their business after he drowned a trainer. He was then sold to SeaWorld, supposedly for breeding purposes, where none of the trainers who worked there were ever told of Tilikum’s history. Of note, Tilikum is kept in a pen with two female orcas, a breed that is matriarchal dominated, so they have a history of continually attacking him during the night in the close quarters, raking his skin with their teeth, where unlike the wild, he can’t swim away. In this manner, another captive male in another park was literally killed in this fashion by bleeding to death.
SeaWorld features plenty of human interaction with the giant-sized orcas in water activities, where Cowperthwaite’s focus shifts to the human casualties that have resulted from trainer contact with killer whales, which often turn on their trainers and lunge at them in the water, where an orca is seen literally flying out of the water and landing directly on the trainer, who somehow survived this body slam, but not without broken bones and extensive internal injuries. To date Tilikum has killed three people, including a random stranger who illegally broke into the enclosure and crawled into the water with a killer whale, with portions of his body found on the whale the following morning. The most recent incident involved SeaWorld’s most experienced trainer, Dawn Brancheau on February 24, 2010, who was drowned after a “Dine with Shamu” show. To this date, the official company position is “Tilikum did not attack Dawn. All evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn's ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water." While filmed evidence of the incident shows the whale grabbed her arm, not her hair, and plenty of earlier footage throughout her career showed her working in the water with a ponytail without incident, the gruesome footage was not shown, but the details reveal she was pulled into the water where she was quite literally maimed and eaten. This catastrophe has caused the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take SeaWorld to court, claiming the conditions of employment violate extreme health and safety hazards, banning trainers from being in the water with killer whales, an order that remains under appeal by SeaWorld, where Tilikum continues to perform every day. Perhaps the most horrifying non-fatal footage shown is a San Diego whale named Kasatka grabbing the feet of their most experienced trainer, Ken Peters, where the whale continually pulls him under and holds him at the bottom of the tank, sometimes for over a minute before surfacing, allowing Peters to grab his breath, then repeating this behavior, at times grabbing the other foot. This went on for fifteen minutes, where the calm demeanor of Peters, who is also an expert scuba diver, seen practicing heavy breathing techniques at each surfacing, literally saved his life, as eventually the whale let him go and Peters was able to swim away to safety. These repeated occurrences certainly point out the dangers involved with these enormous animals, who obviously feel the effects of trauma and/or stress from their restricted confinement. Without making any attempt to be impartial, the filmmaker paints a very one-sided portrait of corporate greed, where SeaWorld protects their own interests by denying culpability and hiding these incidents from both the public and its own employees, reminiscent of an earlier Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott film THE CORPORATION (2003), which spells out in minute detail how corporations historically elevate their own self-interests above the interests of all others, including the public, which is how they survive in a Darwinian dog-eat-dog capitalist culture. While this may be an unpleasant fact of life, it is one every society must contend with, as it remains an open question whether humans will exclusively further their own self interests, even at other’s peril, or have the foresight to globally co-exist.