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Interview: Gabriela Cowperthwaite exposes the ugly side of using killer whales for entertainment in 'Blackfish'

Get ready to cancel your annual pass to SeaWorld

By DannyMiller Jul 19, 2013 3:51PM

Many of us have experienced the excitement and awe of watching 8,000-pound orcas, or “killer whales,” soar out of the water and fly through the air at sea parks, as if in perfect harmony with their trainers. These black-and-white mammals seem like majestic, friendly giants, eager to take trainers for a ride around the pool, yet shockingly, there have been more and more incidents of such orcas turning on their trainers at a moment’s notice. In Gabriela Cowpwerthwaite’s powerful new documentary, “Blackfish,” we see rare footage and riveting interviews with trainers and experts who recount the species’ cruel treatment in captivity over the past four decades. We learn about the growing disillusionment of workers who were misled and endangered by the highly profitable sea-park industry. This is a gut-wrenching, beautifully made film that may forever change your feelings about how we treat certain animals in so-called entertainment settings. I sat down with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite in Los Angeles.


MSN Movies: I’ve seen many great documentaries over the years that stay with me for a long time but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that so immediately and permanently changed my view about something. For starters, I can’t imagine ever stepping foot in SeaWorld again. And we were like a SeaWorld family.


Gabriela Cowperthwaite: That’s exactly how I responded when I learned about this stuff. In my previous life I used to take my kids there all the time. Sometimes I’d feel that something was a bit off, especially when a trainer would stand on the rostrum or nose of a whale and then jump off it. I thought to myself, nobody would ever want anybody standing on their face. It just seemed undignified.


Right. I used to wonder about that, too, even though as a visual image, even in your film, it’s absolutely stunning to see these trainers zoom out of the water standing on the whale’s rostrum. It’s beautiful even if it’s really all about showing our power over these fantastic animals.


Yes. I used to look around when they were doing that trick and see that everybody was smiling and I’d think to myself, “Oh, just get over yourself and enjoy this because it’s obviously making a lot of people happy. Stop being such a wet blanket!” And I would get over it. But now when I see it, it completely speaks of mastery. Once you see the gimmicks behind the tricks, and you see that a whale nodding “yes” is really a whale looking at a fish that’s moving up and down, you start to get a different perspective.

Bing: More on Gabriela Cowperthwaite


The trainers clearly care for these whales but, as some of them say in the film, it’s hard not to project our own human emotions onto the animals and see what we want to see.  


Exactly. I know the trainers are the ones who love the animals, the ones who care for them, and they’re also the ones who are putting themselves at risk on a daily basis for them, but you know, it kind of brings up that uncomfortable philosophical question. All we can ever know about these whales is how we feel about them but as far as the reverse goes, we’re just making up a story. We can hope that they’re feeling the same in return, but we never really know if food is the only thing that’s driving them to do everything they do at the park.


Even if we could talk to them and they said, “Yeah, I’m used to it, it’s not so bad,” when you see the beautiful images of them free in the ocean, it’s hard to imagine that this is in any way a good life for these animals. There’s just no contest.


I know.


Hearing about the people being killed by the whales at the park is obviously horrific, but it’s easy to say that we don’t really understand exactly what happened, we don’t know whose fault it was, but then when you see the footage of the mothers being separated from their calves, there’s just nothing that’s open to interpretation—it’s agonizing to see their reaction to this separation and realize that we humans are doing something so cruel and inhumane.


Yeah, I’m happy that you bring that up because in that regard it doesn’t really matter whether you’re an animal person, whether or not you love SeaWorld and want to take your family there, whether you have your own rationale for accepting what goes on there—nobody can feel comfortable watching the separation of the calves. Nobody would be okay with that.


Forgive me for saying this, but it almost reminds me of those scenes from the Holocaust when children were pried away from the hands of their hysterical, grieving parents.


That’s exactly it. You know, whales start emitting long-range vocals when the mom knows that her calf is not in the park anymore. She’s screaming for her calf beyond the park. You just can’t imagine what she’s saying, it’s heartbreaking.


We get to meet a group of ex-trainers in the film who now disavow many of the things they had to do in the parks. Are they involved in trying to change these practices?


Yes, there’s been an activist community trying to change these practices for four decades.


Do you think the situation is as bad with some of the other animals at parks like SeaWorld?


I know that none of the highly intelligent animals including dolphins fare well in captivity. The documentary “The Cove” gets into that. I think this film is a good companion piece to that one. It’s important to get at the issue from every side. Walruses, for example, and sea lions and otters are highly intelligent and have strong memories—they can remember people years later. And they’re forced to do these tricks even though the killer whales are the real stars of the place. We hear that the shows at Shamu Stadium account for about 70 percent of SeaWorld’s income. Which probably means animals like sea lions and otters are subjected to even lower standards.


I used to roll my eyes at the people who thought places like that shouldn’t exist—my children certainly love seeing these animals in person—but now I’m thinking that it would be far better to just watch movies that are made in the wild, why do we have to have them in captivity at all? Maybe that shouldn’t be extended to zoos, too, at least not completely, since at least there’s some help there with breeding and endangered animals?


I think it’s good to make that distinction even though I certainly haven’t done extensive research on zoos. But I think there are zoos out there that are completely dedicated to education and are not about having animals performing for us and working for their food. As far as going to places like SeaWorld to see killer whales, the truth is you’re not really seeing killer whales in action at all. They’re surface resting, they’re incredibly bored. How is that educational?

Bing: More on orcas or "killer whales"


Is there anything places like SeaWorld could do to transform into something more productive?


I think there are ways that SeaWorld could still profit from allowing killer whales to be the animals they were meant to be. They can retire them into sea pens where you net off a part of an ocean cove. They can’t be released into the actual ocean because they are no longer used to eating live fish, they don’t know how, and a lot of them would die if they were released. But in these ocean pens you could still keep an eye on them and allow them to be a lot more like killer whales. This would be a sort of dignified retirement for them.

But that would take a major paradigm shift on the part of the parks.


Right. But even forgetting about the ethics of it for a minute, it’s clear that their business model is no longer sustainable. There are going to be bigger tragedies involving these animals.


Have you heard from SeaWorld or any of their lawyers about this film?


No, we haven’t. Not yet, anyway.


It must be tricky because certainly the trainers meant well but were just misinformed. I’m sure the people in higher positions at SeaWorld are not evil people.


You know, I feel that same way. Some people disagree with me, but I really don’t believe the decision makers at SeaWorld are evil people who are trying to hurt these animals. I think what happens is that you begin to tell yourself a story and you begin to make up a fairy tale about what it is that you do and you think, okay, it’s not perfect, we have some mishaps here and there, but ultimately, we’re doing a marvelous thing for the world.


And then the more invested you become, the more you tend to believe the propaganda.


That’s right and remember, this is now forty years of polished storytelling, the fairy tale of the happy Shamu icon. They will do anything they can to reinforce that belief system and to ignore anything that challenges it, whether it is a grieving whale or a trainer who dies.

“Blackfish” is in theaters in select cities. 

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