April Moments

Maybe, just maybe, telling the story is just as important as the story itself

The whale in the tank

I am amid a generation of parents who question everything and make educated choices to reject a great deal of mainstream parenting. Many moms and dads today are forgoing cribs in favor of co-sleeping, trading in disposable diapers for cloth ones and swapping out public education for homeschooling.

I am not writing this post to applaud or criticize any of these very personal decisions. I think it is wonderful parents today are researching and questioning traditional methods. Whether or not we end up “going against the grain,” isn’t it nice to be active, conscious decision makers?

But what about making educated choices when planning a family vacation? A new documentary is prompting some parents, including me, to challenge the notion that SeaWorld and other marine parks are acceptable outings for our children. If you’re interested in being an educated consumer, you can start by seeing “Blackfish.”

orcas in wild

A scene from “Blackfish,” showing orcas in the wild, where they belong. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Christopher Towey.

The film explores the dichotomy of the mighty black-and-white killer whales – majestic, friendly giants, seemingly eager to obey trainers, yet shockingly and unpredictably able to turn on them at a moment’s notice. It unravels the story of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound, captive male orca who has been associated with the death of three human beings. The film begins with the 911 calls on Feb. 24, 2010 – the day Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau in front of a stunned audience at SeaWorld Orlando, where she was a senior trainer at Shamu Stadium.

“Blackfish” masterfully intertwines whale expert and former trainer interviews and news clips with footage from SeaWorld shows and commercials. Some of the most stirring archival footage reveals capture teams chasing down orca calves and taking them from the ocean and their mothers. Autopsy notes and court records are interspersed throughout the film.

SeaWorld hat

Sitting with my dad during my first trip to SeaWorld at 21 months of age. I was instantly “hooked,” but I know better now!

“Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite took her twin boys to SeaWorld. And just a few short years ago, I told my husband Mike that I wanted to take our son Elliot, our only child at the time, to SeaWorld in Orlando. I would mention it occasionally, always reminiscing about my trips to the former SeaWorld in Aurora, Ohio.

Then, in 2010, I watched “The Cove” and vowed – to anyone who’d listen and publicly in a blog post – to never patronize or allow my children to visit any marine

SeaWorld fountain

Posing with my brother at the now closed SeaWorld in Aurora, Ohio.

park, aquarium or zoo that profited from captive dolphins or whales. My family knows this about me and sometimes teases me by suggesting that we take a big, happy family vacation to SeaWorld.

“The Cove” focuses on the brutal dolphin slaughters in Taiji, Japan, and contains some horrific footage. While “Blackfish” does show orcas – Tilikum and others – being aggressive toward each other and humans, the film is much less graphic than “The Cove.”

It is easy to stand in awe of orcas. Much like former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove recalls in “Blackfish,” I also was instantly “hooked” when I visited SeaWorld as a very young child.

During the film, other trainers and experts describe killer whales as breathtaking, inspiring, amazing and regal. Former SeaWorld trainer John Jett says, “It’s shocking to see how large they are and how beautiful they are. When you look into their eyes, you know somebody’s home. Somebody’s looking back.”

Neuroscientist Lori Marino also appears in “Blackfish” and backs up Jett’s statement, explaining the complexities of the orca brain, which she examined with an MRI scanner.

“What we found was just astounding,” she notes. “They’ve got a part of the brain that humans don’t have. A part of their brain has extended out, right adjacent to their limbic system. The system processes emotions. The safest inference would be these are animals that have highly elaborated emotional lives. It’s becoming clear that dolphins and whales have a sense of self, a sense of social bonding that they’ve taken to another level – much stronger, much more complex than in other mammals.”

All of this begs the question: are highly intelligent and sentient animals like dolphins and whales suitable for captivity, where they are forced to perform circus-like tricks for food? Marino’s answer is no. “All whales in captivity have a bad life. They’re all emotionally destroyed. They’re all psychologically traumatized, so they are ticking time bombs. It’s not just Tilikum.”

Following Brancheau’s death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited SeaWorld, saying in a press release that the company “recognized the inherent risk of allowing trainers to interact with potentially dangerous animals,” yet still “required its employees to work within the pool walls, on ledges and on shelves where they were subject to dangerous behavior by animals.”

In June 2012, a judge upheld OSHA’s recommendations, thus requiring SeaWorld trainers to remain behind physical barriers or a safe distance away from the water when interacting with killer whales during performances. SeaWorld has appealed.

It seems to me that the whale in the tank was the proverbial elephant in the room for a long time. It wasn’t until Brancheau’s tragic death that mainstream culture began to question orcas in captivity. Jett, along with former trainers Samantha Berg, Carol Ray and Jeff Ventre, started speaking out on national television, calling for SeaWorld to stop the circus tricks and use its billions of dollars to release animals into sea pens, cordoned areas that still allow animals to experience the ocean’s natural rhythms and sounds.

“Blackfish” does not include interviews with current SeaWorld officials, but the film clearly states that the company denied Cowperthwaite’s repeated requests. Some of the comments from former trainer Mark Simmons help to balance “Blackfish.”

“Recognize that those who say this is a crazed animal that acted out and grabbed Dawn maliciously, they want to prove the theorem that captivity makes animals crazy. And that is just false,” Simmons says. “We have to separate what happened to Dawn – and as tragic as it is, no one ever wants to see it happen again. Can SeaWorld create an environment where it never happens again? Yes, I absolutely believe they can.”

Simmons goes on to make an excellent point, one that Cowperthwaite reinforces in the film’s production notes. The director says, “There’s always the question, ‘What if there were no SeaWorlds – would we even care about killer whales?’ Probably not. But given what we now know about the effect of this experiment, maybe it’s time to evolve.”

Although I decided almost three years ago after watching “The Cove” to never patronize marine parks, seeing “Blackfish” has re-affirmed that commitment. As a parent, I want my children to know they will never visit any such park on my dime.

Jett adds, “I’m not at all interested in having my daughter, who is three and a half, grow up thinking that it’s normalized to have these intelligent and highly evolved animals in concrete pools. I think it’s atrocious.”

Here is the takeaway for parents: seeing “Blackfish” will help them decide whether a visit to a park like SeaWorld is the best way to experience whales.

“A lone whale taken from its pod, from its family, living in the wild and placed in a marine park, is in a lot of ways, not a real whale – you’re just not seeing what a true killer whale is supposed to look like and act like,” Cowperthwaite says in the production notes. “I’m not an activist or a marine biologist. But, as a filmmaker, I can gather information and present it in a concise and truthful way, so that people armed with this information will make the best decision for themselves and their families.”

If you decide to say no to SeaWorld, there are many opportunities to see orcas in the wild. The Whale Trail is one that the “Blackfish” Facebook page recommends. Whale researcher David Duffus, who appears in the film, has been studying wild orcas for many years. “Even after seeing them thousands of times, you see them and you still wake up,” he says, gasping.

“Blackfish” is now playing in select theaters. CNN Films has purchased the television rights, and the network will air the documentary Thursday, Oct. 24.

Originally published on ovparent.com.

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