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Killer Whales in Captivity? “Blackfish” Documentary Makes Splash

PHOTO: The documentary film Blackfish about Tilikum, the now infamous orca responsible for three deaths while in captivity opens in a limited release today (Friday) - with a showing in Cambridge. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
PHOTO: The documentary film Blackfish about Tilikum, the now infamous orca responsible for three deaths while in captivity opens in a limited release today (Friday) - with a showing in Cambridge. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
July 26, 2013

PHILADELPHIA – Should killer whales be kept in captivity and made to perform tricks for humans?

That's a question raised in the documentary "Blackfish," opening in Pennsylvania today.

The film opens with the tragic death of a SeaWorld trainer in 2010 in Orlando, killed by the whale, Tilikum.

The film then moves back in time to show orcas being captured as babies in the wild.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film's director, says as someone who once brought her children to SeaWorld, her investigation into orcas in captivity was a real eye opener.

"I feel that it would be a good thing if people come out a bit shocked and angered,” she explains, “because that's very much how I felt when I started learning the truth. I think that it should raise questions, and kind of encourage a debate."

“Blackfish” opens today in Philadelphia at the Park V theater. SeaWorld sent out letters disputing the film's accuracy to 40 film critics, and declined to be interviewed for the film.

Repeated attempts for comment for this story went unanswered by SeaWorld.

As it turns out, Tilikum was responsible for two other deaths, which came as a surprise to Cowperthwaite and to some SeaWorld trainers.

According to the film, there is no record of orcas killing humans in the wild, but over 100 reported incidents of orca aggression at SeaWorld.

Cowperthwaite says many attribute this to whales being kept in unnatural settings.

"Learning what whales need to thrive, let alone survive, blew me away,” she adds. “The fact that there's just really no way that we can really give them even a fraction of what they need to thrive and survive in captivity – it's a bit heart wrenching."

Cowperthwaite says SeaWorld is a multi-billion dollar industry and hopes it will use its resources to evolve past using animals for entertainment and place these highly intelligent mammals into rehab and release facilities or at the very least sea pens.

Tilikum has been in captivity for 30 years and has sired several offspring. He continues to perform at SeaWorld.

Tom Joseph, Public News Service - PA