SeaWorld wants you to think that Orcas, or Killer Whales, are cute and cuddly. They’re far more complex and deadly than that. Sure, they’re highly intelligent mammals whose sense of family is stronger than ours, but they’re also deadly predators, capable of jumping fifteen feet into the air to catch its prey. SeaWorld has built its empire on ignoring their complex biology, which might explain why whales in captivity behave erratically. Documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite heard about the death of Dawn Brancheau, a seasoned whale trainer, who was dragged into a pool by an orca. By digging deeper into the story of her death, Cowperthwaite uncovered SeaWorld’s disquieting history. All her interviews and research culminates with Blackfish, a searing documentary that’s effective because of how it holds back. Instead of pummeling the viewer with emotionally manipulative material, it invites them to make their own conclusions. When Blackfish had its local premiere at the AFI DOCS festival, I had a chance to chat with Cowperthwaite and Samantha Berg, a former SeaWorld trainer who now works as an anti-captivity advocate.
What sparked your interest in this story?
GC: I started the documentary after the death of Dawn Brancheau, a top SeaWorld trainer who died in 2010. She was killed by a whale called Tilikum, and when I heard about it on the news I became obsessed with the story because I couldn’t understand why a highly intelligent sentient animal would have made this decision. Why would he attack a trainer whom, I thought, he might have a bond? I thought killer whales had bonds with their trainers at SeaWorld. Then, I also didn’t understand why he would actively bite the hand that feeds him. Everything about the story confused me. So that was sort of my portal into making the documentary.
SeaWorld doesn’t really have much of a voice in this film, except for courtroom transcripts. Do you have any sense of what they think about this whole endeavor? [ed. Note: since this interview, SeaWorld has released an official comment on the film. Here is the filmmakers’ response.]
GC: They declined to be interviewed in the film, so we didn’t have access to them. This was a really hard one for me, just because I was still entertaining the thought that I would be interviewing SeaWorld. So during the court case, I was watching these witnesses from SeaWorld thinking, “These are going to be people who will say yes to my interview.” So there was almost a chance to be pre-interviewed, just listening to them and how they respond to questions. It was a really difficult undertaking because I just watched their spin work. I’ve never seen anything like it. Their answers are polished. Their answers come out in half truths. They redirect questions. I knew there was a person in there somewhere who felt authentic things about the whales and about their former colleagues who had died, but I didn’t feel like I was seeing that person. It was hard for me to imagine, in a film that I was trying to make, which was based completely on the truth and authenticity. It was hard for me to think, “How in the world are these people going to fit inside this documentary when we can all hear the PR spin through their words?” They’re going to be really out of place.
Samantha, you talked a little bit about this in one of your interviews. You said that you kind of have to drink the Kool-Aid. Do you think that’s what’s going on here? When did your mind start to change?
SB: You have to understand the mindset of somebody who still works at SeaWorld and who stays there for 5, 10, 15, 20 years. You really want to do the job, because you start out at $7.50 an hour, they’re not paying you a lot of money to do the job. It was in the ‘90’s, but still it might be like $12.50 an hour now, even if it’s $15 an hour it’s not a lot if you have a college degree. When I got hired I was one of the few people who had an undergraduate degree. Most of the people have worked their way up and the mindset is, “This is all I want to do.” Now it’s so competitive, there are hundreds of people who are going to take your place. So you want that job really badly and once you get it and you start in the company and you start working your way up there’s a certain point where, after 5 or 10 or 15 years, what else have you been trained to do? So there is a cognitive dissonance that happens.
I mean, I saw stuff while I was there in my three and a half years that were upsetting to me, yet I still didn’t look at it from the perspective that “captivity is wrong.” I just saw things that I questioned. I saw animals die. I saw animals being treated in ways that didn’t make sense to me. I saw decisions being made that didn’t make sense to me. Ultimately, I had the feeling that if I was going to be a whale in captivity, that SeaWorld would be the best place to be. They call themselves the foremost facility for killer whale research, and when you’re working there you start to believe it. I even felt like they took better care of the animals than they took care of the people, in some ways. And they do because the animals are priceless. As you walk through your experience in the company, if you’re going to be a “lifer” you have to ignore a lot of things that you’re seeing along the way. By the time you get in 15 and 20 years, you’re invested. I describe it as sort of a cult-like atmosphere. There’s not a lot of people doing this work, so if you were to quit SeaWorld, where else would you go? There’s not very many other places where you can get a job doing this. I think there’s some very smart people who are in the upper management level and I think they are, to some extent, deluding themselves. They have to believe that they’re doing good. Ultimately, you couldn’t stay there if you didn’t think that you were doing a good job. I think the upper management people honestly believe that the killer whales at SeaWorld are protected. They’re in a pristine environment compared to the nasty wild, where all sorts of things could happen to them.
You started sort of from a journalistic approach, but the film ends on with some advocacy. To what extent are you successful, or not, in this campaign against captivity?
GC: I get my feet held to the fire, but the film is not at all advocating for anything. That’s what some people have a hard time with. [They ask], “Where’s the 1-800 number at the end of the film?” You know, where you need to prescribe something we can do. I deliberately chose not to do that. What I did choose to do was to tell the story, and that’s all I was really equipped to do. Starting from Tilikum’s capture and obviously paralleling the plight of the trainers, and the fact that they thought SeaWorld was a glorious place, and ending with the trainers who have come forward and spoken out after Dawn’s death. We’re in a weird place now where they’ve changed and Tilikum has stayed the same. So I really truly believe that I err on the side of the journalistic approach, not the advocacy approach. I think that for me, I had to come to my conclusions by really reviewing the facts I kept everybody at bay because didn’t want to be influence by any kind of agenda and I just kind of stuck with the story. I held back on a lot of information that would actually make the audience the audience feel something, whether it’s disgust or feel great pain. I actually deliberately stopped myself from putting stuff in the film.
A lot of what the audience sees is visually shocking. What footage did you not include? Was anything too violent or disturbing?
GC: I chose my sort of litmus on whether it helped tell the story. Is it properly in the narrative? If it wasn’t, it didn’t make it in. Your jaw would drop to the floor if you knew what I left out. So that’s a risk I took. Oh, maybe the film won’t be powerful enough? Maybe people need to know this and let me just find a place in act three to shove this little fact in there because people are going to scream if they hear this. So I just thought, “No.” If this story had that impact on me, being a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld, and if you just arm people with the truth and they don’t smell you trying to manipulate them then you’ve got a much better chance of them being authentically owning how they feel about the issue. Once they own it and make it theirs, that’s when we do our best work.
That’s a really good answer.
SB: I wanted to respond to what you asked earlier. What woke me up was Dawn’s death. Up until the point when she died, I still spoke about my experience at SeaWorld as something that I was proud of. I was proud of being a SeaWorld trainer, it was something that I looked back on with fondness, I had a really wonderful time being there. I thought it was fun. So I think, in a lot of ways it’s this watershed event along with the OSHA trial that came after it with. All of this information came out that Gabriella was able to use in the film, due to the Freedom of Information Act, but it’s galvanizing something out there in terms of peoples ability to see that we’re doing something with these animals because we can, but it doesn’t make us morally right. For me, it was that moment of seeing Dawn lying in the slide out next to Tilikum and then hearing the company blaming her for her own death. Basically they said that she let her ponytail drift into his mouth and she slipped and fell into the pool… Seeing those pictures, I knew that was not true and I realized that it could have been me or it could have been anybody that I knew, if I had still been there.
In some ways I feel like her death has presented the opportunity that in the next 20 years we could see marine mammal captivity, in a circus like environment, phase out. I don’t know if you could have said that before her death. And there had been three prior deaths from killer whales. Something about Dawn and her experience level causes you to look back on the history of this animal and the decisions that SeaWorld was making considering this was a 20 year train wreck waiting to happen. I think that something is happening in our culture right now around killer whales and captivity. I just feel like we’re on the front of this wave and we’re watching it and the movie has people saying, ”I’m not going to SeaWorld anymore.” If that changes and everybody stops going to SeaWorld and they tell their friends, then they’re going to have to change their business model. It’s inevitable.
The film kind of gives you a sense of whale biology. To what extent you knew about all that and what you wish you would have known?
SB: It’s hilarious what I didn’t know about whales. It’s funny because SeaWorld characterizes themselves as the experts in killer whales, and they really discount anyone that knows anything them. A lot of people that were considered experts in the scientific world like Dr. Lori Marino, who’s in the movie, are all characterized as “whale activists” [by SeaWorld]. SeaWorld made it out like they knew more about whales because they could observe them 24/7 versus scientists in the wild who can only see them for a short period of time. But SeaWorld only knew everything about what they knew because of their captive breeding program. They learned that the gestation period for a killer whale was 17 and a half months, and prior to that they thought it was 12 months. That’s, like, SeaWorld’s one factoid in 30 years.
When we would do educational show, we would teach people basic anatomy. Like, “that’s a pectoral flipper, that’s a rostrum, which is their nose, that’s a blowhole, that’s where they breath from.” We feed them 200 pounds of “restaurant quality fish,” which, by the way, doesn’t mean anything. It’s frozen fish that basically has 50% water content and not enough nutrients in it so we have to put vitamins in their food. The whales weren’t getting the correct nutrients they needed, and they would be getting sick all the time and were on antibiotics and antifungals and antivirals and all sorts of stuff. So, what I was telling the public about these animals had really nothing to do with wild whales. I knew nothing about their natural history. I didn’t even understand that SeaWorld could group permanent resident animals with transient animals, and putting Icelandic whales in with animals from the Pacific Northwest. These are animals that would never interact in the wild – they speak a different dialect – and [SeaWorld] would call them a family or a pod. It’s like putting people from different countries in a bathroom together and saying, “Okay, let’s get along.” They even had one transient and a resident whale breed, which created a true hybrid that would have never had existed in the wild. Genetic analysis shows that transients and residents have not interbred for tens of thousands of years. I didn’t understand that when I was working there. So the level of science that I saw basically boiled down to knowing enough to take care of these animals so that they could keep using them in the shows, keeping them alive and breeding them, but I wouldn’t call it true science.
Is there anything that you can look back on, now that you know more of the science, and say, “Oh, I get why that was happening now.”
SB: In terms of the whale on whale aggression, for example, whales raking each other. I didn’t understand why Tilikum was so abused by the female whales. I didn’t understand that relationship dynamic, nor did I understand that killer whales are a matriarchal society. Male killer whales spend their entire lives with their mothers. The male southern resident population spends 70% of their time within a couple body lengths of their moms. So Tilikum was so low on the dominance scale that all of the females would rake him. They would run their teeth on his body and beat the crap out of him. They only wanted him around for breeding purposes. I basically didn’t understand that dynamic. It makes sense now when you look at what they’re like in the wild.
The other thing is that dorsal fin collapse is a big issue. SeaWorld claims that 25% of wild killer whales have a collapsed dorsal fin, but every single male in SeaWorld’s collection has a collapsed dorsal fin. So you can see when these animals are swimming straight lines, 80 to 100 miles a day, and they’ve got pressure on either side of their fins, they’re eating their normal diet. [Wild whales] are not subject to gravity the same way they are in the pools, they’re not swimming these tight little circles, just doing logging behavior [surface resting], so it makes sense that the dorsal fin would collapse in captivity. Scientists haven’t proven why that’s happening in captivity, but clearly it doesn’t actually happen in the wild. I just said whatever the company told me to say about them. I didn’t have access to the internet and it didn’t occur to me to go look it up. This is funny because I was an animal science major at an Ivy League school. You’d think that I would question it, but it didn’t occur to me. I really felt like the message was that we were doing conservation. These animals are ambassadors for their kind. We’re teaching people about these animals so these people can appreciate them and then they can go out in the world and do something good with that information. Now I don’t see it that way, but that was my mindset when I was there.
What is your opinion about captivity for other non-whale animals?
GC: I do feel, personally, strongly about intelligent sentient animals in captivity. I think there’s no place for that. That includes elephants and primates and killer whales, obviously, and dolphins. The thing I feel most strongly about is animals in captivity for entertainment. I keep describing it as the lowest rung on the ethical totem pole. For me that’s clearly the one thing that could be phased out.
When you say “entertainment,” do you mean something different from a zoo or an aquarium?
GC: I’m not the best person to talk about zoo’s. I wish I knew more because I keep getting this question, but I haven’t gone down that path yet. But what I do know about zoos is that there are good zoos and bad zoos. There are some that are dedicated to the conservation of the species and they’re far more geared toward education. To the point that sometimes, you’re watching a lion in its habitat and all you see is a tail and you’re just bored and thinking, “Can they just put some meat out there so the lion will come out and just attack it?” But zoos won’t do that because that would be trying to alter the animals behavior to make a spectacle for us. What they’re allowing the lion to do, in this situation, is whatever it wants to be doing. That’s the litmus. That’s certainly better to me than an animal being asked to do a backflip.
Was there an active effort on your part to deconstruct the idea that whales are cute? I feel like the cuteness factor is what brings people to it.
SB: The big story, the 40 year marine park story, is that killer whales are cuddly teddy bears. And that that’s the kind of thing that will bring in, not only parents, but their kids. What’s so fascinating about it is that they have another side. They feel frustration, they exact revenge, they are a predator that takes down great white sharks, and they are incredibly bored and can make decisions to go after novel, exciting stimulus. That they are both is really hard for us to reconcile. The fact that they are actually more like us, capable of great good and great bad, or natural bad, whatever you want to call it, but they are capable of both. And SeaWorld only wants to put forth one side of that story. The other one is kind of inconvenient. We don’t want your five year old to see that. It’s part of the Shamu thing. The way every single whale is named Shamu, so when Shamu dies, there’s another one to take his place. So you even have that appearance of the whales being iconic. Kids will leave the park and refer to the killer whales as “Shamus” because every single killer whale is Shamu. It becomes a character or a caricature of the whale. I describe captive killer whales as facsimiles of whales. They’re living profoundly limited that they would never live in the ocean.
I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.
GC, SB: No problem!