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Blackfish, a film review by Elizabeth R. Miller

If you’re an animal lover, or even just mildly interested in one of nature’s most majestic creatures, you need to see the documentary Blackfish.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film explores the treatment of captive orcas, in particular the story of the 12,000-pound Tilikum, a whale living in captivity since he was three-years old.

I first heard of movie at this year’s Miami Film Festival, and I’d followed its controversy in the mainstream press, most notably SeaWorld’s rebuttable and its plea to film critics.

So when I got an e-mail Friday afternoon from the Miami Film Festival photo that it was showing in the theater near my apartment, I figured, why not. With my fiancé ensconced in Chiefs’ training camp in St. Joseph, MO, it seemed like a good way to spend the evening. (Not to mention I’d recently checked my UP band and realized I was still short of my daily goal of walking 10,000 steps and I knew a walk to the theater would help me reach my goal).

The movie uses the story of Tilikum, and his association with three deaths,
including the 2010 death of 40-year old SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, as a device to further explore the repercussions of orca whales in captivity.

But Blackfish does more than meticulously document the signs of mental and physical torment that whales experience in theme parks, although it does that very well. It also details SeaWorld’s decision to continue breeding Tilikum, the misinformation it spreads to park-goers about the expected life span of orcas in the wild, the truth about collapsed dorsal fins and more. An excerpt I found particularly harrowing was an interview with a former whale hunter, John Crowe, who remorsefully talks about his involvement in capturing whale calves off the coast of Seattle four decades ago.

You’ll also hear first-hand accounts from former SeaWorld trainers who share how the park kept incidents involving orca whales under wraps and lied or intentionally misled the public. Blackfish uses rarely seen footage it obtained through lawsuits and research as well as documents a series of lawsuits brought against the corporation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. SeaWorld, a $2.5 billion dollar company, repeatedly declined to be interviewed for the film.

Tilikum remains a performer at SeaWorld in Orlando, FL though trainers have continued a court-ordered policy forbidding them to do in-the water work with him.