IMAGINE being trapped in a small room all your life, and being forced to perform when you’re told to. Sounds like the life of a sex slave, yet, this is the kind of thing animals in captivity endure.
Many people who visit zoos and marine parks do not think twice about what life is like for the animals in the cages and aquariums. But surely a magnificent creature like, for example, a six-tonne, 22-foot killer whale does not belong in a tank.
Orcas or killer whales do not belong in swimming pool-type enclosures. These animals were once living in the wild with their families only to be have been captured and kept for our entertainment.
Blackfish is a documentary that looks at how the confinement of an animal affects the creature. The documentary follows the story of SeaWorld’s greatest performer - a killer whale named Tilikum - and how he has been involved in three human deaths throughout his career at marine parks.
The documentary focuses on the most recent death, in particular of senior SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
The film traces how and why violent behaviour occurs in creatures which were never known to have harmed humans in the wild.
We are taken back to the beginnings of whale catching for marine parks and how it became a profitable business. Several were captured and sent to marine parks all over the world and despite the accidental casualties, the killer whale business has proved to be hugely profitable.
Throughout the film, we hear from people who knew Tilly (short for Tilikum). We also hear from trainers, SeaWorld visitors, experts, and family members of the deceased victim.
Viewers are also able to hear the side of Goldsberry, SeaWorld’s lead “collector” of whales until he retired in the late 1980s. He caught 252 killer whales, sold 29, and accidentally killed nine with his nets.
Goldsberry expresses his feelings of guilt in the documentary. He tells of how when he separated young orcas from their mothers to take away to sea parks, it felt like he was kidnapping a child. It’s heartbreaking.
Not only are orcas snatched away from their families, they are then transported to locations where they are made to perform and entertain humans for the rest of their lives.
Generally, when grouped together, orcas tend to get into fights. This, in fact, is what happened to Tilly at his first marine park Sealand, where he was bullied by the two females in the tank. (Females are the more dominant of the species.)
It did not help that the module Tilly and the two females were kept in after the park closed daily was so small that the orcas could hardly move about. As a result, Tilly would end up getting scratches and cuts.
A former trainer says that the condition of the module was so bad that sometimes the orcas would refuse to swim into the module. He admits that trainers would hold back food to force the creatures into the module.
The documentary also explains what highly intelligent and emotional creatures orcas are. Keeping them cooped up in a tank makes them bored and depressed, which may lead them “finding their own forms of entertainment”.
And that is exactly what Tilikum and the two female orcas (Haida and Nootka) did in Sealand when a part-time trainer 20-year-old Keltie Byrne accidentally fell into the pool. As she struggled to get out, one of the killer whales grabbed her and dragged her down into the water, drowning her.
Tilikum was also involved in the death of a man who sneaked into his tank after hours.
So what happened in the Dawn Brancheau incident?
It seems that Brancheau lay down in the water next to Tilly after a Dine with Shamu show, stroking and talking to him when Tilly pulled Brancheau down into the pool by her blond hair.
Not only did Tilly kill her, he brutalised her. The autopsy noted that her spinal cord was severed and she had several fractures. Even after SeaWorld personnel lifted Tilly up, he refused to give up Brancheau’s lifeless body, which resulted in him tearing off her arm.
So what did they do with Tilly the killer whale? He’s still at SeaWorld but now he has minimal human contact and will probably live in isolation for the rest of his life.
Tilly is too valuable to SeaWorld to be put down because he is used for mating, and has sired several orcas with different females. His semen is also collected for artificial insemination.
It’s a sad life for poor Tilly, and he is visibly depressed as seen by his collapsed dorsal fin.
I highly recommend watching Blackfish. It’s very thought-provoking.> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.