This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: I hope you'll pardon me for taking this movie personally, but perhaps it's time for human beings to stop thinking it is a good idea to keep large mammals with large brains in captivity -- even if the human beings actually think the intelligent mammals are enjoying themselves performing tricks for people. The keepers can say that they don't mistreat the creatures all they want, but the point is that, for an animal born to be wild, captivity itself is a form of mistreatment.
That point is made emphatically in the new book "Topsy," about a circus elephant who was electrocuted in 1903 for occasionally acting like a wild animal. And it is made strongly once again, with riveting film clips, in the shocking new documentary called "Blackfish," about the treatment of killer whales at water parks. At the center of the true story is a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum who killed three people over a span of more than two decades. The latter two deaths occurred at SeaWorld in Orlando.
Tilikum continues to perform at SeaWorld, although the place is under investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since the killing in 2010 of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau. Stunning footage of the killing of Brancheau was obtained by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite through the OSHA investigation.
It is a fact that killer whales -- which are not really whales but the largest of the dolphins -- sometimes attack human beings in water parks. According to the film, there is no record of killer whales intentionally harming humans in the wild. SeaWorld argues that Tilikum didn't really attack Brancheau maliciously, but became "interested in the novelty of Dawn's ponytail in his environment, and, as a result, grabbed it and pulled her into the water." The stark footage of the event shows that Tilikum pulled Dawn underwater long enough to drown her, and not just by her ponytail.
The film is, in part, a piece of investigative journalism, and it traces Tilikum back to her capture as a baby in the 1980s off the coast of Iceland. The film shows how groups of killer whales -- orcas -- are stampeded into narrow ocean canyons and then the babies are netted and captured. At several points in the film, we hear the painful cries of mother orcas as their babies are taken away.
Family ties are crucial to orcas, and Tilikum is separated from his family and placed with an antagonistic group of orcas in a somewhat sleazy water park in Canada. Orcas routinely swim up to 100 miles a day and are accustomed to the open ocean, but Tilikum spends most of his time in a small, dark cell. The film suggests that he never really recovers from this early trauma of being torn from his mother and placed in confinement.
After Tilikum kills a trainer at the Canadian park, he is sold to SeaWorld. Much of the footage from SeaWorld is spectacular, as orcas eat from the hands of trainers and soar through the air in tandem. You understand why people would crowd into the park to see the sleek black-and-white creatures. Then disaster strikes -- a young man sneaks into the park at night, and is found the next morning dead, his mangled body draped over the body of Tilikum. It is not the last time Tilikum will kill.
"Blackfish" is powerful advocacy film-making, with a dramatic narrative running strongly from beginning to end. SeaWorld has called the film "shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading and scientifically inaccurate," but has not offered specifics. SeaWorld executives refused to be interviewed for "Blackfish," but the film features a number of former trainers and scientists who have come to the conclusion that to keep orcas in captivity in close quarters and routinely treat them like pets is both cruel to the orcas and potentially deadly to the people who work with them.