Blackfish

August 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Samantha Berg, John Hargrove, Dave Duffus
Directed by: 
Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story”)
Written by:  Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story”) and Eli B. Despres (“City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story”)

Like many who were born and raised in San Antonio, I spent a large portion of my childhood at SeaWorld. Its charm was always irresistible. Everywhere you looked there was a form of sea life that was completely unique and special – the humor of the sea lion shows; the highflying acrobatics of the dolphins; and, of course, the lovable penguins. The true spectacle, however, are the killer whales. The sight of an animal so large, yet so graceful is truly something to behold as it flies through the air and close enough to splash water on those patrons brave enough to sit in the “Splash Zone.”

Ah, yes, the pageantry of SeaWorld is so immense and captivating, it’s easy to forget how truly defiant of nature it really is. How many of SeaWorld’s visitors stop to think about how incredible it is to be in the 100 degree heat in a landlocked South Texas theme park, watching an enormous mammal far from its home, doing tricks for adoring crowds day after day?  Surely these whales didn’t take a wrong turn only to wind up at SeaWorld via the River Walk, so how did this majestic show come to be? In “Blackfish,” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite implores viewers to take a closer look at the park that has entertained millions for years and give viewers the full story of how these creatures became reluctant performers.

A key element of the film is the story of how the whales came into SeaWorld’s possession.  Cowperthwaite makes use of an impressive amount of footage dating back to 1970 of the capture and transportation of whales to show how the park was able to find the stars of its shows. What makes the footage really hit home is interviews with one of the remorseful captors as well as with experts in the field who explain the natural habitat and how orcas embrace the family unit. While the current conditions at SeaWorld are vastly improved over the initial SeaLand of the Pacific Park in Canada, “Blackfish” effectively shows that the space is still confined compared to the vast seas these animals are plucked from.

“Blackfish” is also largely about Tilikum, the stud of the SeaWorld whale population and the largest orca in captivity. While known for his gargantuan size, he is perhaps best known as the whale responsible for the deaths of three people over the span of 22 years. Showing his prison-like holding space in his younger days and his isolated, yet more open space currently at SeaWorld, there is plenty of footage documenting Tilikum’s treatment throughout his life, including his tendency to lunge after trainers. The case of special note was the death of senior trainer (and noted safety stickler) Dawn Brancheau, who was brutally killed in an incident with Tilikum in 2010. Through old news footage, absurd court transcripts, and statements on television from SeaWorld officials themselves, Cowperthwaite shows how SeaWorld instantly blamed Brancheau for her own death with explanations that were unfounded, at best.

If there is a message that experts and ex-trainers alike try to get across in “Blackfish,” it is not only how smart, evolved and capable of feeling emotion killer whales are, but how they are relatively friendly creatures that have never been known to be aggressive towards humans in the wild. The psychological damage of being torn from their families and held in captivity, Cowperthwaite suggests, could be the reason for their attacks on trainers. While it’s a topic that Cowperthwaite could have spent a little more time on, “Blackfish,” in its finest moments, is still a stirring indictment of the practices and ethics of SeaWorld. While agenda driven, Cowperthwaite is able to sidestep manipulative emotion wringing by presenting actual recordings, educational knowledge from experts, and fantastic interviews with former SeaWorld trainers who are now speaking out against whale training practices. It might not make you cancel that trip to SeaWorld this weekend, but “Blackfish” is well-packaged, exceedingly informative, and worth watching just to get a behind the scenes look at how these whales and animals are transformed from mammals enjoying life in the open ocean to a source of entertainment for the price of admission.

John Hargrove – Blackfish

August 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Interviews

When John Hargrove started his career as a killer whale trainer at SeaWorld San Antonio in 1993, he never thought 20 years later he would be advocating against the marine park responsible for introducing him to his life’s true passion. In the controversial documentary film “Blackfish,” Hargrove and other former SeaWorld trainers speak about the dangers associated with keeping killer whales in captivity and the inhumane treatment inflicted on the species while under the care of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. During our interview, Hargrove talked about his experience working at SeaWorld off and on for the last 19 years and how he felt SeaWorld handled the deaths of two killer whale trainers, Dawn Brancheau and Alexis Martinez.

How long did you work at SeaWorld in San Antonio?

Is started in 1993 and then in 1995 I transferred to the California park. I was in California until 2001 and then I moved to France for a couple of years. Then I left the industry entirely for five years. Then I came back to Texas and started at SeaWorld in San Antonio again in 2008 until I resigned my position last August (2012).

What specifically prompted you to resign a year ago?

Well, I had issues with [SeaWorld] management for years. Like a lot of us SeaWorld killer whale trainers, we would see things happen and not agree with it. But because it’s your livelihood and your job, you think, “Well, if I leave who is going to fight for these whales and take care of them as much as I do?” That logic keeps you there for a while. But I would fight management a lot and get in trouble a lot. The joke was that I was always in a closed-door meeting. As an experienced trainer you feel like you can speak out and rattle the cage and nothing is going to happen to you because you are one of the most experienced killer whale trainers in the corporation, but even then I had very little power to stop whatever corporate’s decision was. Despite all that, I really still believed SeaWorld would protect me if something awful happened to me like it happened to Dawn [Brancheau]. The real catalyst for me leaving was how they handled Alexis Martinez being killed in Spain and how they handled Dawn being killed by Tilikum and how they testified in the OSHA hearing. They testified that they didn’t have any knowledge that we had a dangerous job. I was already unhappy about a lot of things. Work became unbearable and miserable because we weren’t swimming with the whale anymore. The politics of it had really ramped up. The combination of all those things really made me face reality. This was a corporation not even willing to acknowledge I have a dangerous job. Do I really think they are going to support or protect me? They’re not. It was right in front of my face how they handled Alexis and Dawn being killed. They shifted the blame on both of them. It just became unsustainable for me at the end.

Were you having the same problems with management at the San Antonio location as you were with the SeaWorld in California? Does management have the same kind of mentality at both parks?

Yeah, I would actually say most of my problems were at the San Antonio park. I had the most experience when I worked in San Antonio at the end of my career, so I spoke out even more. The more I spoke out, the more I got in trouble. I didn’t want the whales to be treated like baby machines. All we were doing was artificially inseminating them over and over. As soon as the whales gave birth and would cycle, we would artificially inseminate them again. We had up to seven shows a day and were keeping these whales in what was basically a backyard swimming pool. It was a big issue for me and I would fight about it. I thought that was really wrong. I even emailed the general manager of the park and questioned the legality of doing that based on the Animal Welfare Act [of 1966]. You can imagine what happened then. Not only did he not respond to me because they didn’t want any electronic trail, I was quickly pulled off to the side and asked, “What the hell are you doing? Do not send email like that.” It accomplished my goal. I knew I was going to get in trouble for it, but I wanted to get their attention. But it still didn’t stop it.

You’ve explained about a lot of the problems you had with SeaWorld over the years, but you also mentioned that this was your livelihood, too, which is one of the reasons you couldn’t give it up. Did you ever feel guilty because you stayed there for so long and – in a sense – enabled these things to happen?

Yeah, I did. The way I and other trainers would rationalize it in our heads was that we truly loved those whales. Of course you think it’s a cool job, but we loved them and that in some way made it OK. We loved them and we wanted the best life for them. But when you’re fighting against this machine at some point you just think, “Well, I’ve done everything I can do and no one is listening, so the best thing I can do for them right now is love them.” But, yes, there is guilt.

One of the most emotional scenes of the film is when you see a calf get taken away from its mother and you witness something happen that is almost humanlike. There’s no doubt in my mind the mother knows her baby has just been taken away. How does SeaWorld defend that practice?

They try to defend themselves by saying that they only separate moms from calves after they are weaned and if it serves the best interest of the calf, but that is total bullshit. To give you a perfect example, Takara (a whale John worked with at SeaWorld) was separated from her mother Kasatka when she was 13. There was nothing medically necessary to separate those two. They were inseparable, so it was very traumatic for both of them. Then when Takara gave birth to Kohana, they separated them when Kohana was only three years old because they needed a female [whale] in Spain. Then they bred Kohana unnaturally young in Spain when she was only eight years old. She rejected both of her calves. It’s because she didn’t have a mother to learn from or any adult female to learn from. Then Takara had Trua and that’s when they moved Takara to Texas. So, she lost Trua when she was only three years old. The reason we moved Takara was because we needed a dominate female at the San Antonio park, which is part of their natural hierarchy. Basically, when SeaWorld says they move these whales because it in their best long-term interest, that is absolutely, blatantly false. They move these whales because it fits the needs of a park.

SeaWorld appealed the decision by OSHA to keep trainers separate from whales. Is that decision still in place?

Well, that’s where things get complicated. The federal judge ruled and sided with OSHA, but SeaWorld didn’t follow [the ruling]. Because SeaWorld didn’t follow it, OSHA came back in about six weeks ago and cited SeaWorld again for repeat violations. They were still allowing trainers in close proximity to killer whales without barriers. It’s crazy because OSHA came in and cited them. SeaWorld sued them to try to overturn the ruling and lost.

So, wait, if I go to SeaWorld tomorrow, am I going to see trainers in violation of a ruling by a federal judge?

Yes, you are. Now, you won’t see waterworks. We haven’t done waterworks since Dawn was killed in 2010. Now, they have started resuming waterworks in those smaller pools I was talking about. How they are doing that with OSHA on them, I don’t even know. They’re looking for loopholes. There is no reason to be in the water with a killer whale for husbandry reasons. The ruling was that trainers couldn’t be with whale in the water during shows. It should’ve been all interaction. Why would you say it was too dangerous for a show but OK to do it in other sessions? But the originally court ruling was that it was specific for performances.

How do you let something go like whale training that has defined who you are for so many years?

I don’t think I’ve let go of it even now. Especially doing this film, it’s still my identity. Some people say they’re work doesn’t define them, but that wasn’t true for me. It’s always been my passion and my dream ever since I was a little kid. It was brutal leaving the whales behind. Even talking about Takara and Kasatka is still hard for me. All the other parts of SeaWorld, I’m totally fine with leaving behind – all the political bullshit, the labor, the low pay. But I have to accept that I’m never going to see those whales again.