Keeping whales in captivity is insane. Here's why.

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A new documentary called Blackfish chronicles the captivity of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca whale involved in the deaths of three individuals. The film reveals the consequences of keeping whales in captivity, the effects it has on their psyches — and the ways in which these animals are lashing out.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, and has since been picked up by Magnolia Pictures for wider release. It's about to make a run in several cities at select theatres.

Brian Johnson of Macleans offers a quick synopsis — and fair warning, as it's a bit graphic:

Her story traces Tilikum’s sad life from his 1983 capture off the coast of Iceland, torn from his mother at two. He spent almost a year in a concrete holding tank before being shipped to Sealand of the Pacific, a shabby little marine park on Vancouver Island. There, he would spend 14 hours a day virtually immobile, locked in a dark, eight-metre-wide enclosure with the park’s two female killer whales, who viciously bullied him. (Females are dominant in orca society, and in the wild, males spend their lives with their mothers.) In 1991, during a Sealand performance, Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old trainer, fell halfway into the pool and a whale pulled her in. Treating her like a toy, the three orcas stripped off her clothes, mauled and drowned her. It took hours to recover the body. Eyewitnesses interviewed in the film say Tilikum was the instigator. There was no inquiry, no lawsuit. Sealand closed and its owner sold Tilikum to SeaWorld, where he was put to work as a performer and a breeder. Trainers weren’t told about his past.

One morning in 1999, a SeaWorld employee found Tilikum parading around his pool with a nude corpse draped over his back. Daniel Dukes, 27, had snuck in after hours and taken a fatal swim. “The public relations spin was that he died of hypothermia,” says Jeffrey Ventre, one of several former SeaWorld trainers interviewed in the film. “The medical examiner reports were more graphic. Tilikum stripped him, bit off his genitals, and there were bite marks all over his body.”

Tilikum’s most recent kill came in 2010, when he pulled one of SeaWorld’s senior trainers, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, into the water. SeaWorld first reported she slipped and fell, then claimed the whale had yanked her long ponytail, calling it her fault. Former trainer John Jett disputes that. “Tilikum grabbed her left forearm and started to drag her, and eventually did a barrel roll and pulled her in,” he says. “He completely mutilated that poor girl.” Brancheau had to be pried from his jaws; part of her arm got left behind.


Admittedly, I haven't seen the film yet, but it's definitely on my list. I'm sure it'll work to further reinforce my conviction that dolphin and whale slavery is a crime, and that aquatic mammals should never be forced to perform at aquatic theme parks.

You can learn more about the film at the official website, which also contains information about screenings.


If this subject interests you, please check out the IEET's Rights of Non-Human Persons Program and the upcoming Personhood Beyond the Human conference to be held at Yale this coming December 6th-8th.