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“Blackfish” Doc Raises Questions about Orcas in Captivity

PHOTO: The documentary film Blackfish about Tilikum, the now infamous orca responsible for three deaths while in captivity at Sea World opened in a limited release Friday. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
PHOTO: The documentary film Blackfish about Tilikum, the now infamous orca responsible for three deaths while in captivity at Sea World opened in a limited release Friday. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
July 30, 2013

SAN DIEGO - Should killer whales be kept in captivity and made to perform tricks for humans? That's a question raised in the documentary called "Blackfish." The film opens with the death of a SeaWorld trainer killed in 2010 in Orlando by a whale named Tilikum and moves back in time to show orcas being captured as infants from their families in the wild.

According to LA resident Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film's director, as someone who once brought her kids to SeaWorld in San Diego, 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, because that's very much how I felt when I started learning the truth," the film director said. "I think that it should raise questions, and kind of encourage a debate."

As it turns out, Tilikum was responsible for two other deaths while in captivity. According to the film, there is no record of orcas killing humans in the wild, but more than 100 reported incidents of orca aggression at SeaWorld. Cowperthwaite said many attribute the aggression to whales being kept in unnatural settings.

"Learning what whales need to thrive, let alone survive, blew me away, the fact that there's really no way that we can really give them even a fraction of what they need to thrive and survive in captivity," she said, adding, "It's a bit heart-wrenching."

As seen in "Blackfish," killer whales have complex social and emotional lives. In the wild, they swim up to 100 miles per day, live together in groups called pods, and most stay with their families for life. In captivity, the average life span for an orca is from 25 to 35 years. In the wild, females can live to be over 90 and males over 50.

Cowperthwaite has no illusions about SeaWorld calling it quits, but hopes it can use its resources to educate, as opposed to using animals for entertainment. She said these highly-intelligent mammals deserve better lives and she would like to see the whales in rehab-and-release programs. Tilikum has been in captivity for 30 years and continues to perform at SeaWorld, where he has sired several offspring. SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the film or to comment for this report.

A list of theaters that are showing "Blackfish" or plan to is at tinyurl.com/qbwdyq3.

Monique Coppola, Public News Service - CA