In 2013, “Blackfish” changed the way SeaWorld was perceived around the world. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary about the mistreatment of killer whales in the theme park focuses on the circumstances that led Tilikum, an orca responsible for the death of three people over the course of more than 30 years in captivity. (One of them, trainer Dawn Brancheau, was drowned in full view of a crowd.)
Last week, SeaWorld announced that the 36-year-old whale had died of a bacterial infection, news that brought “Blackfish” and its critique of the park back to the headlines.
In the years since the film’s release, Cowperthwaite has continued to spread its message nationwide, and has kept busy as a filmmaker. She recently directed a narrative feature “Megan Leavey,” about the real-life efforts of a marine who bonds with her combat dog. However, her movie’s alarming depiction of whales struggling under the boundaries of captivity continues to be a central part of her life. She spoke to IndieWire about Tilikum’s death, the ongoing resonance of “Blackfish” and how Tilikum’s story could have had a happier ending.
How has your relationship to this situation changed over the years?
I always feel like in 10 years, I’ll be able to look back and really track and say something sensible about how this all happened, but when you’re mired in it, it’s hard to contemplate. Because of the backlash to the film, SeaWorld continues to duck and weave and put forth what they say are new kinds of shows or some sort of shift in how they’re doing business — all as a desperate attempt to try and get people to come back. I think we’ve all become smarter than their 50-year-old PR machine.
How do you explain SeaWorld’s version of all this?
What they’ve said is that they’re stopping the theatrical performances. They think of themselves as masters of spin. They’re not stopping the shows at all; they’re repackaging them. Instead of the obnoxious jumping shows, there’s more tasteful, less over-the-top music — probably birds chirping where you used to hear really loud techno music. It’s designed to make people feel better about sitting through a show. But the killer whales are still performing acts; they’re not as egregious, but they’re performing little tricks, and they’re still swimming around in concrete tanks. SeaWorld claims the show will be geared towards education, but let’s be honest, the most educational thing they can say in their shows is that this animal is wholly unsuitable for captivity. When you start your educational show with a lie, it doesn’t bode well.
What’s your take on Tilikum’s death?
After the movie came out, SeaWorld knew they couldn’t afford to have trainers anywhere near Tilikum. They knew he was really bad publicity for them. So they confined him to a really small pen. He was hopped up on antipsychotic meds and antibiotics. They knew he’d been sick for years and couldn’t afford him dying, but they also would not be able to handle him being front and center. He was a conundrum for them. The best they could do was to fill him up with a bunch of meds and let him swim around in a vat, basically in a comatose state. A couple of times he’d come out and do a jump or something, but for the most part, they didn’t even do that. They just sat around controlling when they’d be prepared for him to die.
Why didn’t anyone intervene?
I don’t know that the trainers would ever stop taking care of him. They care about the animals. I tend to think of them as victims of the same system. I certainly think that they did everything they could to try to keep him alive without allowing him to come near anybody. But if you think about that, for a killer whale who needs so much stimulus on a daily basis, that’s a death sentence – to keep him alone in a small, confined area without any interaction.
What could have been done to avoid this?
It is conventional wisdom that these animals can’t be dumped out in the ocean. They’ve never hunted. And they’re susceptible to bacteria. The idea is to release them into an ocean sanctuary. Everyone pretends that’s really novel. SeaWorld says they can never do that. But there are tons of sanctuaries for animals retiring from the circus. So this is a very successful, humane business model. Basically, it would be a cordoned-off part of the ocean, just a net around a cove. Then you’re retiring these animals to the ocean so that, for the last part of their lives, they can sense the current of the ocean, swim after fish, react to the stimulus of the ocean.
How do you pay for that?
The upkeep isn’t anywhere near what SeaWorld would be spending when they put in a new rollercoaster or try to put in a new pool. They’d be the ideal people to spearhead something like an ocean sanctuary.
The water in the ocean sanctuary is cared for by humans. They would continue to have their meds, get fed by humans, and their health would be monitored. How do you pay for it? One of the biggest costs would be buying the whale from SeaWorld. Once you show this model to be successful, there would be no whales in SeaWorld again. They can’t afford to have something like this succeed.
Much of the footage in “Blackfish” was captured by amateur videographers attending the park. Is there enough material now for a sequel?
SeaWorld has been more careful about what they show and what could possibly be filmed at one of their shows. Since the documentary came out, laws have been passed, corporate partners have ditched them, and now we have a a generation of kids I call the “I-can’t-believe-we-used-to-do-that” generation. They can’t believe their parents bought this charade hook, line, and sinker. All of that would be fodder for a book, film, anything, without question. Part of that is because SeaWorld keeps doing things. They keep themselves in the news as an attempt to make themselves relevant. I believe that business model is a relic from another time.
Do you talk to trainers still working at SeaWorld?
I’ve been in touch with multiple trainers from the inside who have told me that they need to make sure when they quit that they’ll be able to get jobs. They’re afraid of not having work, because once you’ve been a killer whale trainer, it’s a niche market. They tell me that the attitudes at SeaWorld haven’t changed much. Life is not meaningful for the whales at all.
Has anything changed at all?
There is one meaningful thing they have done since the backlash, which is stopping their breeding program. It was one of the more inhumane practices happening at SeaWorld. The amount of miscarriages, the moms being killed — you can’t even imagine some of these stories of overbreeding. Then they separate the calves from the moms. That came with their new management. Their new CEO decided to do that under great duress. People were saying, “We can’t kowtow to this movie and this movement; he was like, “We have to.” That was the most reasonable thing they’ve done since the movie came out. By and large, they still have whales in there; they still could have 40 more years of shows. Some of them are young. Apparently there’s a pregnant whale.
How do you remain involved?
I continue to speak at schools and hear the concerns, talking to kids about what I’ve learned. I didn’t come from animal activism. I used to take my kids to SeaWorld. I’m also trying very hard to get the powers that be in the Pacific Northwest and Seattle to pay attention to the situation there with dams. The same group of whales that SeaWorld plucked for their parks went almost extinct because they took out so many breeding females. Those herds were built back up and now they’re starving because of the dams that prevent them from getting to salmon. It’s sad.
Is there a bigger picture here?
Look, this is such a big problem. Captivity is one kind of obvious and crass thing human beings are doing. Everybody has a pit in their stomachs when they see an animal in a confined space. It’s instinctive to feel that something’s not right about it. That message is such an important one. But there is this whole other thing happening in the wild, with the toxicity of the ocean and climate change. Some of the talks I give to kids are just about thinking big and trying to walk more softly on the planet, building compassion for other species. Once you get there, you’re going to start caring a little about things like factory farming, or buying plastic and polluting the ocean. The message is, “Take the compassion you feel for the animal and make that part of your everyday life.”
The feelings that kids got from “Blackfish” were so visceral, it wound up being a great portal for the movement. I want the movie to activate them to do more. You can be an activist by not going to SeaWorld. You can do the right thing by not doing something.