07/18/2013 02:58 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

ReThink Review: Blackfish -- The Dark, Wild Side of Free Willy

I'm a lifelong animal lover, but I don't like going to zoos. They feel like animal jails to me, and even if the animals were rescued from circuses or the black market, I feel sad seeing them confined to a small area away from the freedom of their natural habitat. However, their saving grace is that zoos are a great way for kids to learn about animals and the environment, hopefully sparking an interest in and affection for the natural world that could last a lifetime. Hopefully this will help a child understand why animals and their homes should be protected. For this reason, I can understand why zoos exist and can imagine taking my nephew there, despite my reservations.

The same can arguably be said of sea parks like SeaWorld, which families flock to so they can see seals, dolphins, and the main attraction, killer whales (orcas) like Shamu. But there's a big difference -- cetaceans like dolphins and orcas are used to having the entire open ocean to range. And unlike their zoo counterparts, many sea park animals are made to perform for audiences, doing tricks (known as "behaviors") that they would never do in the wild, decreasing the educational value for kids who may see these animals as friendly, trainable pets, not wild animals.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite's riveting documentary Blackfish is about orcas in captivity at sea parks and, in particular, an orca named Tilikum who has killed three people but has continued to perform and sire dozens of offspring through artificial insemination. By examining orcas in the wild, their lives in sea parks, and the gripping tale of an orca whose life in captivity may have driven him over the edge, Blackfish makes a compelling argument that not only is it immoral to imprison orcas, but that they are too powerful, smart, and unpredictable for us to do it safely. Watch my ReThink Review of Blackfish below (transcript following).


If you ask most Americans what they know about orcas (or killer whales), they'll probably mention Shamu, the world's most famous orca and the mascot of the SeaWorld sea park chain. While there was an original Shamu, that name has been given to several orcas who've performed in the very popular killer whale shows that have attracted millions of spectators and billions of dollars to SeaWorld's parks in San Diego, Orlando, San Antonio, and until 2001, Ohio. With their ability to perform on command, their seemingly loving relationships with their trainers, and sometimes through outright propaganda, it's very easy to think that these 3-6 ton cetaceans are like big friendly dogs who actually enjoy their lives as performers. But by examining the sea park industry and following the life of an orca named Tilikum who has attacked or killed multiple trainers, Gabriela Cowperthwaite's riveting documentary Blackfish makes a compelling argument that orcas should not be held in captivity at all.

In order to examine the conditions of orcas in captivity, Blackfish first introduces us to the lives of orcas in the wild, where these highly intelligent animals spend their whole lives in close-knit family groups and are believed to communicate feelings and emotions using their complex brains in ways humans can't imagine. That makes it even more heartbreaking to hear about the capture -- or as a repentant hunter calls it, the kidnapping -- of baby orcas from their frantic parents.

That begins a history of orcas in captivity, where orcas, who can easily swim 100 miles a day, must perform to receive food and are confined to cramped pools in conditions that drastically decrease their life spans. The frustration and boredom this generates is believed to lead to orcas attacking their trainers, which is where Blackfish focuses, specifically on a male orca named Tilikum who has been involved in the deaths of two trainers and one man who snuck into Tilikum's pool after closing hours. Each time, the deaths were attributed to hypothermia, drowning, or trainer error, despite evidence to the contrary. And in the case of Tilikum, not only was he transferred to another sea park and his violent history kept under wraps, but his sperm has been used to sire dozens of orcas in other parks.

Most of the interviews in Blackfish are with former SeaWorld orca trainers, who are neither marine biologists nor orca experts, but are primarily just physically-fit animal enthusiasts. While the former trainers clearly love the orcas and treasure their time with them, they all harbor major misgivings about their work, how sea parks are operated, whether orcas should be kept in captivity, and even if their relationships with the orcas were as mutually affectionate as they once believed. And with Tilikum's last victim being Dawn Brancheau, one of SeaWorld's most experienced and respected trainers, the question must be asked if orcas can ever be trained safely, which is driven home with harrowing footage of a trainer nearly being drowned by an orca who repeatedly dragged him to the bottom of a pool over twelve terrifying minutes.

Throughout Blackfish, the orcas are never painted as monsters or villains, but as intelligent animals who shouldn't be blamed if they become the products of the crummy lives we subject them to. When one of the trainers says, "They're not your whales," when describing his feeling of helplessness as a whale he loved was transferred, I heard that as the bigger issue of why humans feel it's our right to kidnap, imprison, and subjugate these amazing animals for our own profit and amusement. After all, they're not OUR whales. And while I understand that sea parks can help educate and excite kids, if that means abducting sentient wild animals, forcing them into servitude, and painting them as cartoon characters, maybe we should consider leaving that job to the scientists.

Follow ReThink Reviews on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.