The Tragic Tale Of A Killer Whale

Tilikum is a top-perfrming killer whale at Sea World. And he's responsible for the deaths of three trainers. Blackfish, a Sundance Official Documentary Selection by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, looks at the danger of keeping orcas in captivity. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with filmmaker Cowperthwaite and former Sea World trainer John Jett about the project.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

"Blackfish" is a documentary that has a lot of people talking.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, ladies and gentlemen, the next few behaviors you're going to be seeing, you can only see right here at Sea World.

MARTIN: That's a clip from the film. It tells the story of killer whales living in captivity, working in Sea World parks around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BLACKFISH")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Orange County Fire Rescue.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Sixty-six Hundred Sea Harbor Drive, Sea World Stadium.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: She actually has a trainer in the water with...

MARTIN: The movie looks at one whale named Tilikum, and alleges that he is responsible for the deaths of at lease three different people, including Sea World head trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSCLIPS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: First tonight, a six-ton killer whale has lived up to its name, killing an experienced trainer at Sea world, Orlando today.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: A tourist at an earlier show said the animal seemed agitated.

MARTIN: Sea World turned down interviews for the movie and with this program. But in an email said, quote, "To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about Sea World." The statement goes on to say that the film, quote, "fails to mention Sea World's commitment to the safety of its team members and guests and to the care and welfare of its animals."

Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite used amateur video from park visitors, former trainers and other sources, video that showed the whales at Sea world being aggressive, sometimes pulling trainers underwater. The film "Blackfish" came out in theaters this past Friday. I spoke with former Sea World trainer John Jet, who's featured in the film, and Cowperthwaite who says she didn't come to the topic as in animal rights activist.

GABRIELA COWPERTHWAITE: I am the, you know, a documentary filmmaker by trade. But I'm also a mother who took her kids to Sea World. So I became just kind of confounded by the story. I couldn't stop reading about it just because it was a so tragically odd to me. I thought that killer whales were our friends and they didn't kill human beings.

MARTIN: The story was all over in the papers and on TV for weeks and weeks. I wonder, John, if you could give us a sense of how her death reverberated through your own community of current and former trainers.

JOHN JETT: Unfortunately her death came as no surprise. We knew a little bit about Tilikum's history. And so, I think we had all been sort of predicting that this type of thing would occur eventually. And, you know, I was of course very upset that it happened to somebody that I knew. For me, personally it was - it struck a chord.

MARTIN: Gabriela, you also lay out a very specific case against Sea World. You essentially say that Sea World knew that this particular whale, Tilikum, was dangerous; had been connected to two deaths and yet still used him in performances - had him in the water with trainers. Sea World has issued a response to your film, taking it point-by-point, and most significantly saying that the trainers were indeed warned not to get in the water with Tilikum.

COWPERTHWAITE: The film asserts that the trainers were not told the details. Trainers do attest to having had the "Tili-talk," quote-unquote. They were told, you know, if you fall into the water with Tilikum, you may not get out alive. It was not discussed that if you were potentially near him on land, let's say, or in a slide-out, you know, or in six inches of water like Dawn was, that he would actually be able to come out and pull you in.

MARTIN: John, don't you though as a trainer have a choice? I mean, you know going into this line of work that you're working with killer whales; that there's always - I would imagine in the back of your mind - a fear that this could happen, that you could be attacked.

JETT: Well, there's no doubt. But you have kind of understand the Sea World culture. It's a very competitive environment, as you can imagine, and so there's a really long line of people that are willing and ready to take your job at any minute. So when I was there, management made that very known. So yeah, I was fearful and I was intimidated but I didn't want to give up my job. So I sucked it up and I dove in the water - even when I was in a comfortable - and I worked with injuries, as did a lot of trainers because there's a lot to lose.

In fact, you could lose your job or you get moved to a different part of the park which, you know, demonstrates to your colleagues that you're basically a failure.

MARTIN: You show in the film that Tilikum is victimized by the other whales, who he is held in captivity with; that he is raked which is essentially when other whales use their teeth and dig into his skin. Sea World responded to this and says that this is normal social behavior, even in the wild. Do you have a response to that, Gabrielle?

COWPERTHWAITE: Yeah, it is true that social animals, like killer whales, they have dominant hierarchies and that they have behavioral interactions in the wild. But what the film asserts is that in the wild they can flee, right? The subdominant animal can actually say: Touche, you win, I'm out of here. In the wild no serious injury inflicted on one or wild orca by another orca has ever been recorded. And, in fact, there have been deaths from whale-on-whale aggression in captivity.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that Sea World now requires that trainers be separated from all whales by a kind of barrier. I imagine having that separation also changes the relationship between a trainer and an animal, as you illustrated in the film. This is a close relationship.

JETT: It is a close relationship and its close in part because he spent so much time with the animals. And so, you know, you spend that much time with your dog at home you get very close, and the dog begins to be able to predict your behavior and can anticipate what you're looking for. But I used to think that the relationship part was a really large part of the environment. And now I'm less convinced of it.

The animals eat a great deal of food and that's how they're reinforced primarily. And I think that's, at the end of the day, what the relationship really boils down to is. I'm less convinced that there is this emotional bond.

MARTIN: But this was something you talk about in the film, that trainers like to believe that they had an emotional connection to the animal; that maybe it was making their life better while in captivity.

Gabriela, this is something you saw with other trainers?

COWPERTHWAITE: Yeah, I did. I still hear that, you know. I don't actively dispute one way or the other. I think that we are primates and that we learn by touching, by being up close to other animals, and yet all we really know is that we fell in love with killer whales - over this 40 years of having them in captivity. But for the other side of the equation, it's opaque, right? What you're essentially left with is making up a story about their side of the equation.

Sea World has created a master 40-year kind of fairytale based on the happy, Shamu iconic image. I think that's what we have to ultimately look at.

MARTIN: The film is called "Blackfish." Gabrielle Cowperthwaite directed it. John Jett also joined us, he is a former Sea World trainer. Thanks to you both.

COWPERTHWAITE: Thank you so much.

JETT: Thank you very much.

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MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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