Hot Docs: Blackfish – Gabriela Cowperthwaite


I had a couple of concerns going into my screening of Blackfish last night.  Part of me was really looking forward to seeing it, but another part of me was a little worried.  Would I be confronted with graphic images of a veteran trainer being suddenly killed by the orca whale she’d been working with for years?  That was the event that set the documentary in motion, so I was worried I’d have to see it happen in order for the film’s message to sink in for every viewer possible.  I was also worried that the film would be very one-sided in presenting its case against animals in captivity in general, which would thus have to include my beloved Toronto Zoo – and Hudson the polar bear cub, specifically.  I need not have worried, however.  Gabriela Cowperthwaite has done a masterful job at presenting as many facts and points of view as possible, without going the exploitation route and hitting the viewer over the head with her opinion.


In fact, Cowperthwaite does something completely different that I was not expecting.  She goes back a good 40 years to the relative beginning of orcas being taken from the wild and trained to do tricks for human entertainment, and attempts to give a voice not only to the trainers, audience members and animal rights activists – but also to the animals themselves.  There’s no way to know what’s going on in an orca’s amazing and well-developed brain (another surprise of the film is just how much we don’t understand, in fact), but given the chance to express themselves, there is no doubt that these majestic creatures are trying to do just that.  And we need to start listening.


At the heart of Blackfish is Tilikum, an orca whale trained over the course of almost his entire life to perform at sea parks.  Taken from the wild when he was young, Tilikum was raised in captivity and – over the past couple of decades – has killed three people.  The how’s and why’s an animal would turn on a human, especially a human that it is quite familiar with and works with regularly, can be discussed and debated endlessly.  What this film seeks to do, without being able to ask Tilikum directly, is to take a long, hard, and honest look at his life in captivity, and see if there could be any reason behind two seemingly unrelated attacks on his trainers, 20 years apart.  The fact that neither instance actually appeared to bethe attack of an enraged, 4000lb animal, so much as a frustrated reaction to his situation, could also come into play.  One gets the sense that, looking at these creatures, not only are they sentient and highly intelligent, but they are also freaking huge.  If Tilikum has had enough of something, there is little the all-powerful human being can do to make him perform.  When he wants to put his proverbial foot down and assert himself, there is very little that can stop him.  That’s something the smoke and mirrors of parks like SeaWorld would like very much for its audience to forget, and what this film shows us, among other things, is that forgetting such a simple fact can cost a life.


The question is, how many lives have to be lost before we learn that lesson?  What does a whale – or any animal, for that matter – have to do before human beings learn that yanking them from the wild and forcing them to do tricks for our entertainment is wrong, in every way that something can be wrong?

Like anyone else, I admit to being fascinated with animals, and I’d give anything to be able to interact with them the way I see trainers doing at parks and zoos all over the world.  Are you kidding?  I was so jealous watching clips of trainers in the water with the orcas, hugging them and kissing them and swimming with them – that sort of experience is invaluable and life-changing to anyone.  I was jealous of the people watching orcas in the wild and having them swim right up to the boat to say hello.  I’d give anything to be able to have experiences like that, let alone have those kinds of interactions actually be my job!  I’d never want to leave work!  I want to touch them and pet them and talk to them and snuggle them – I want to interact closely with animals so badly it’s become a physical ache inside me sometimes.  But they are not for us.  Animals exist here with us, but they are not here for us.  There is a difference.  Watching a grizzled old seadog talk about capturing wild orcas and listening to him speak about how the adults wouldn’t leave even after their young had been loaded onto a boat and taken away – seeing that man moved to tears at the memory of realizing what he’d done…that ruined me.  Listening to captive female orcas scream in grief and agony when their babies had been taken from them – watching them sit still in their tank and cry out for their young ones who they’d never see again…that devastated me.  I’ve never heard anything like it, and I never want to again.  But I will.  We all will.  Until we make it stop.


When I was a little kid – 7 or 8 years old, maybe – I got a hold of some baby birds.  Took them right out of their nest when the mother wasn’t close enough to stop me, and kept them in an empty Kleenex box in my room.  Their frail featherless bodies lay almost motionless on the bottom of the box; their eyes not even open yet, they were so young.  I don’t remember actually taking them – I don’t remember the thought process behind that.  I remember wanting them, and loving them, and being determined to take care of them.  I wanted to raise them to love me; to be my birds.  They died, naturally.  Every single one.  I couldn’t get them to eat, I didn’t keep them warm enough.  They all died, because of me.  Because I didn’t understand that they weren’t for me.  They weren’t mine.   All I could think of was the poor mother, unable to protect her babies, losing them forever and having to live with that – because of me.  I’ve never forgotten how terrible I felt when I realized what I’d done.  I’ve never stopped feeling terrible for it.  And I’ve done my best to make sure that I never do anything like that again.  Even when playing with a pet and I accidentally hurt or scare it, I do my best to correct the situation ASAP and make sure they feel loved and safe again.  Because I don’t ever again want to feel responsible for the torture and/or death of another animal.  Not by my hand will they know fear nor aggression nor pain.  My heart can’t take it, and knows how very very wrong it is.  So, if an 8 year old can learn that one fundamental lesson in life, why can’t grown adults with decades of research, evidence and experience figure it out?


Blackfish has two more screenings at Hot Docs in Toronto, and it is an absolute must-see.  It’s a film that will change the way you see the world, and stay with you forever.  Look into Tilikum’s eyes, and let him tell you himself:

Thursday, May 2nd at 2:00pm

Friday, May 3rd at 9:15pm

Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Additional Note:  This is just my opinion, but I think SeaWorld brass should spend some time in the pool with Tilikum, and when that slate has been wiped clean, start the whole company over as a sort of ocean preserve, where the animals who can’t be released into the wild (and those who are sick or injured can be brought) are protected and cared for in a wild-like environment, and where they can be observed in something resembling a natural habitat, without having to do tricks for the masses.  It could be a win-win, really.  I’d pay to see THAT.

I would also encourage you to please go to the links below, follow the film, and connect with the former trainers who have banded together to form Voice Of The Orcas.  We need to help.  For what I suspect may be our very souls, we need to help.

Blackfish Official Site

Blackfish Facebook

Blackfish Twitter

VOTO Twitter




7 Comments Add yours

  1. readanddogood says:

    By inviting the reader into your personal world of loving animals and reminding us of how we can love them to death, you reveal “Blackfish” to be the important documentary that it is in terms of our ethical response to our fellow creatures. The animal entertainment industry spends tons of money to convince its customers that their captives are like family pets when they’re actually tormented slaves. Your insights on this topic are masterfully presented. Thank you for such a thoughtful reflective review.

    1. marajade29sm says:

      Thank you so much! I cried more through the writing of it, but wanted to do the best I could – for Tilikum, of nothing else. Thank you.

      1. readanddogood says:

        Thank you; this is a template on how to discuss the disconnect of loving animals and seeing them in captivity. Entertainment facilities use this love to exploit animals and their customers. It’s time to part this public relations fog. As I said on twitter when I shared your link, people pay admission, but blackfish pay the price. Again, many thanks for this heartfelt and reality based piece.

      2. marajade29sm says:

        It’s so true – and yet I also worry that, if we don’t pay the admission, the lack of funding would be taken out on the animals, and their lives would get even worse.

        I really think that focus needs to be re-directed and organizations need to…re-organize themselves into something more positive. What’s beneficial for the animals really can be beneficial for us. There are species of animal who were on the planet thousands of years before mankind hit the scene, and to think that we don’t have generations-worth of things to learn from them is ridiculous. We have little to no true understanding of other animals, and yet THEY are the dumb ones?

        We learn nothing from watching a whale jump out of the water on command – but we are forever changed by watching them play in the wild.

        We learn zero by making a whale speak on command – yet we’re forever mesmerized by listening to them communicate with one another.

        We’ve been going about it all wrong, which is why we’ve learned nothing, and continue to make all of the same mistakes.

        If one SeaWorld park decided to completely re-invent itself and become more of an ocean/sealife preserve – and had to raise funds in order to do it properly – who WOULDN’T want to contribute to that? Who wouldn’t want to go to that preserve after and see these magnificent creatures in something resembling their natural habitat? I would pay to go sit in a boat for hours at a time just…existing there. Breathing.

        Then, the animals who can be returned to the wild are free to go, while those who would not be safe or able to fend for themselves are cared for with enough food and space and other animals around to be happy and healthy and grow.

        We need to stop taking them out of the wild, and start bringing the wild to them.

  2. readanddogood says:

    The admission price sustains the abuse not the animals. If no one buys a ticket, the industry will fold or reinvent itself without captivity. Money not only sustains these “entertainment” businesses, it also drives the slaughter of thousands of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. The Cove, which won the oscar for best documentary in 2010, describes the incestuous nature of captivity and killing.

    1. marajade29sm says:

      Oh, of course. I’m not saying that people are paying for the animals to be taken care of properly, because they clearly are not. All I meant was that I worry about making their situation worse. Unless we can close the whole industry down – including all the people who hunt for parts, etc – I worry about what happens to the animals in the meantime, that’s all. They are already in hell – but it can still get worse for them. Not saying it WILL, just worried because it can.

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