If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?
Two years ago a horrific accident occurred at SeaWorld Orlando.
Dawn Brancheau was the perfect example of what it meant to be a SeaWorld trainer – athletic, beautiful, experienced and passionate. She was working with Tilikum, a 12,000 pound bull orca who was captured near Iceland in the 1980s, and was now performing shows in SeaWorld to thousands of people every day. One day in February 2010, visitors watched in awe as Dawn lay by the side of the pool next to Tilikum at the ‘Dine with Shamu’ attraction; smiling away, it was clear that she loved working with such a magnificent animal. But today was different, something happened that was not part of the show; Dawn was grabbed by the ponytail and dragged into the pool by the massive cetacean. Suffering appalling injuries, Dawn died in the jaws of the animal she admired so much. The exact reason for the attack is still contested, Seaworld claim ‘trainer error’… but it was not the first death Tilikum had been involved with.
In the early nineties a trainer fell into a pool containing three orcas at ‘Sealand of the Pacific’. One of the orcas was Tilikum, and none of the whales had experienced having a trainer in the water before. To them perhaps, it was like having a toy to play with. They tossed the woman between each other in their mouths. Ominous or not, Keltie Byrne died from drowning.
One morning In the late 90s, after Tilikum had been transferred to SeaWorld, a naked body was found in the orcas mouth and draped around his back. Daniel P. Dukes had stayed at the park after hours and gotten into the tank, a few hours later he was found with multiple bodily injuries, an autopsy ruled death from hypothermia and drowning.
Various other incidents have been noted with other whales in captivity, but none so high profile as Tilikum – and despite the controversy, he still performs (though no trainers enter the water with him). There have been no recorded cases of human fatalities by any orca in the wild, so what makes this case so different?
FIlm maker Gabriela Cowperthwaite has set out to tell this story in Blackfish, a powerful documentary highlighting Tilikum’s life and the terrifying events surrounding him. Ripped from his home and family in the wild, he was forced into a small dark pen with two aggressive females. Along with all other captive marine mammals, he lives and performs in tanks so minuscule compared the the freedom of the ocean. Every day he leaps into the air, turns on his belly, waves with his fluke and swims in circles with a flopped over fin, subservient to those who are so much smaller than he is, providing him with fish which have already been killed. Twenty five years of this torture, and something bad is sure to happen. And it has.
Focusing on this one story, it is hoped that this film shows what happens when we attempt dominance over nature. These are magnificent and intellectual animals who in the wild show complex social structures, but take out traumatised young whales and that is all disrupted. Artificial insemination in parks has led to inbreeding, suffering and calf deaths. Places like SeaWorld and Lorro Park have made it seem okay for many people to treat these animals this way, claiming they are using them as an entertaining tool is important in teaching and inspiring people about nature and the environment. But there is nothing natural about what is happening.
In Orlando last year, we were driving past SeaWorld and saw there was a statue of jumping orcas, an almost ominous mist surrounding them. It has become a standard place to visit on many people’s Florida holiday agendas, pumping more money into SeaWorld’s pocket. It isn’t a place which is going to go away any time soon, but hopefully with a little push, it is a place that can change. All it takes is for the public who frequent these parks to alter their perceptions, to rip the wool away from their eyes and see what is actually happening under all the ‘glamour’. What happened to Dawn was not trainer error, but a psychologically traumatised animal expressing it’s power. We don’t know what goes on in these animals heads, but I am sure there is a cry for freedom. Hopefully soon we can repay them that.
Blackfish is coming to certain cinemas this July. http://blackfishmovie.com/