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Trailer: Blackfish

The true story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity.

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If modern society was cast in a Greek tragedy then our character description would be this: exhibits hubris - grotesquely arrogant, casually cruel, doomed to be clubbed to death by a winged deity. And the only proof that the audience would need of our hubris would be a few examples of the way we treat animals, or more accurately, the way we share our planet with the other animals.

From the cashed-up, drunken swill at the Melbourne cup roaring and vomiting up betting tickets while a majestic race-horse buckles, collapses and is slaughtered in front of them, to the 17,000 greyhound dogs per year in Australia that are killed for not making the grade, to keeping chickens and pigs in factory farms, to testing cosmetics and pharmaceuticals on mice, there is no doubt that we are the unfeeling unthinking tyrants of our world. Humans, it seems, are profoundly inhumane.

Of this list of everyday sadisms, there is one particularly repugnant practice that should be banned:  keeping animals in captivity for our own entertainment. I am not talking about animals kept in captivity for conservation or rescue purposes. There are certain zoos that perform good work. But if we wince at the idea that only a few decades ago you could find lions in circuses, or if we read with horror of gladiatorial combat with bears in a blood-soaked Roman empire then surely supporting any modern industry that converts animal cruelty into human amusement, makes hypocrites of us all.

Blackfish, a 2013 documentary film directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.

Blackfish, a 2013 documentary film directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Photo: Supplied

The film Blackfish, a film about the treatment of killer-whales or orcas in Sea World in America and Southern Europe released in cinemas last week, is a powerful argument in favour of keeping wild animals in the wild.  It’s been screened twice on CNN in the United States resulting in a crash in the share price of Sea World stocks and the modern equivalent of clubbing to death by a winged deity: an incendiary tweet by Stephen Fry calling for their closure and Ewan McGregor telling parents not to take their children to Sea World.

Now if you, like me, have mixed recollections of childhood holidays spent at Sea World – fantasising about riding on the dorsal fins of dolphins, vomiting up your own body-weight on the roller-coaster, wishing that you were at Dream World instead – then this film will be pretty shocking.

It begins with the death of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 who was dragged by her ponytail into the water and then mauled to death in front of horrified crowds by a 5000kg Orca whale called Tilikum with whom she had been working for years. Tilikum is the hero of the film and we follow his journey until his tragic end, drifting listless and alone in an oversized swimming pool where he remains today.

A trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, performs with a killer whale during the first show after a whale killed trainer Dawn Brancheau. Click for more photos

Deadly killer whale attack

A trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, performs with a killer whale during the first show after a whale killed trainer Dawn Brancheau. Photo: AP

We see Tilikum captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983. We see boats commissioned by Sea World hunting the mothers and their children into a cove, flinging a net over them and then kidnapping the baby whales, one of whom is Tilikum. And then we hear cries – chilling high-pitched wails from the mothers as they try to communicate with their calves who are now bound in a tangle of nets.

MRI scans have revealed that Orca whales have a large component of their brain used for processing emotions. They have a language, they move in large interconnected families and, as one hunter said, ‘they know what is going on.’ The wails are nothing more than the sounds of excruciating grief.

Tilikum is then sent to a kind of Canadian Sea World called Sealand of the Pacific where he is kept in a 20 foot by 30 foot pool until he develops psychosis (as you would if you were kept in a bathtub for a few years) and attacks a trainer called Kelty Byrne. There is no inquest into the death. In need of a breeder, Sea World bought Tilikum from Sealand and he exchanged one bathtub for another.

There is an obvious issue of workers right here: Sea World staff were never informed of Tilikum’s prior attack. When he attacked Dawn Brancheau ten years later – after a series of narrow escapes and aggressive incidents with other trainers - no-one should have been surprised. Like Kelty Byrne who was blamed for slipping and falling, Sea World blamed the attack on the fact that Dawn had a ponytail rather than a bun in her hair.

But the issue of animal rights is the main point of the film. There have been no known incidents of Orca Whales attacking humans in the wild; it is simply a product of psychological distress. Kept in small dark containers, the whales come to attack each other. They exhibit physical signs of trauma – such as the fact that Tilikum’s dorsal fin had collapsed – and they die after 25-30 years. In the wild Orca whales are known to live for the same lifespan as humans, with females sometimes dying at around 100 years of age.

 Sea World argue that they help children to learn to love sea mammals.  But as some commentators have noted, kids also love dinosaurs without ever having seen them. And surely a child would learn more from seeing a whale in its natural environment than seeing one tortured in a concrete pool.

The Australian Sea World doesn’t have orca whales, but it does have dolphins and a baby polar bear – all of whom I reckon would rather not be kept in enclosures in Queensland. Rather than going to Sea World this holidays may I recommend you book a whale-watching cruise instead, or take the kids to Wet and Wild. Trust me. Sea World has nothing on the other theme parks anyway.