Blackfish

A killer whale named Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau, one of the most experienced trainers at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 24, 2010. This was the third time the whale was involved in an incident resulting in a human death. 

“Why is SeaWorld surprised that a wild animal did this?” university studies senior Tania Rodriguez said. “You isolate them from their natural environment and put them in a tub, and then you wonder why this happened?”

Rodriguez, who is a member of the Mavs Marine Biology club, says she recently viewed an online trailer for the documentary Blackfish. It spiked her interest, because she recalled Brancheau’s incident from 2010. 

The film made its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in January and has been well received by critics, receiving a 98 percent “Certified Fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes. It has also made an impact on pop culture — after seeing the documentary, the directors of Finding Dory made the decision to modify their animated movie’s depiction of a marine animal park. CNN will broadcast Blackfish 8 p.m. Thursday. 

After hearing about Brancheau’s death, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s curiosity spurred her to start the film project called Blackfish. The documentary investigates the possible causes of Brancheau’s death, and questions the implications of keeping animals like Tilikum in captivity.

“I didn’t understand why a killer whale, who was a very highly intelligent animal, would have made a decision to kill a trainer that was actively feeding it,” Cowperthwaite said in an interview with CNN. 

Cowperthwaite obtained footage from news sources and personal archives, using the Freedom of Information Act. In the film, she also presents interviews with insights from marine animal experts, former SeaWorld trainers, and witnesses of the incidents at SeaWorld.

“I think the film turned out to be a lot bigger than anyone really expected, even the most optimistic among us,” said Brian Lochlaer, UTA alumnus and the director of local marine conservation group Friends of George and Gracie.

When Lochlaer first started asking local independent theaters in North Texas about the film, he said he found that none of the theaters had even heard of it and there were no plans to show it.

“I called theaters, and a few other people in the area called, and sure enough, it started popping up on The Angelika Dallas theater’s website, and the Plano location decided to show it, too.” Lochlaer said.

Initially, The Angelika Film Center’s screening of Blackfish in Dallas was just going to be Aug. 23, Lochlaer said, but the theater moved it up the schedule by three weeks.

“By that time, there had been so much buzz about it in the country,” Lochlaer said. “All of a sudden, we didn’t have any time to help them promote it.”

Lochlaer first viewed the film in April this year, at the USA Film Festival at the Angelika. At that time, there were only eight or nine people in the theater, and they were all marine animal activists, Lochlaer said. The second time he went to see the movie in August, Lochlaer says he found that the theater was almost completely full, and the activists were in the minority. People Lochlaer spoke to after the screening said they were largely unfamiliar with the issue at the time. Lochlaer said that the theater extended the run of the documentary to six weeks, which is unusually long for a documentary film.

“I think it has reached people way beyond the usual activists like myself,” Lochlaer said. “For me and others I spoke to at the screenings, the film really brought home the degree of suffering that these animals experience, and it really shows the danger that places like SeaWorld put their employees and trainers in for the sake of entertainment.”

University studies senior Vicki Tran said she has mixed feelings on the subject.

“There is simply no clear-cut answer. From what I have learned, it is usually the case of animals being nurtured back to health and then being released back into their natural environment,” Tran said. “I would like to believe that it works every time.”

Animal are kept in captivity for many reasons, but they should be taken care of properly and not be neglected or abused, Tran said. Captivity should be based on the benefits for the animal and good intentions from the captor, otherwise, the animal should be in a natural environment. After reading about the background of the film, Tran said she would like to see the film to see the director’s view of the issue.

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