Remembering Tilikum: the public impact of documentary ‘Blackfish’

Cutting Room Floor

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About a week ago, in the early hours of Jan. 6, Tilikum — Seaworld’s best-known orca and the star of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary “Blackfish” — died at age 36. Captured wild in Icelandic waters, Tilikum was long known as the notorious perpetrator of three homicides over a period of 20 years, beginning in 1991 with the death of Keltie Byrne, a trainer at British Columbia’s Sealand of the Pacific. Eight years later, after Tilikum had been moved to Seaworld Orlando, he was found with the corpse of Daniel Dukes, a guest who had managed to enter the orca pool after hours, draped across his back. Tilikum gained the most notoriety, however, after experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau’s tragic death in 2010.

The first orca recorded to have killed a person, Tilikum thus was widely perceived as a hostile animal most deserving of the title “killer whale” — an image that persisted until “Blackfish” hit theaters three years later. Almost immediately after the documentary’s debut, his image transformed drastically. “Blackfish” was notable in that it focused less on Tilikum’s murders than on his background. Presented with powerful footage of his captor repenting tearfully, his current and former trainers describing their unconditional bond with him and he himself floating listlessly in his solitary pool, Tilikum became the symbol at the emotional core of a growing movement against orca captivity. Soon, many contended that he didn’t kill in cold blood, but rather did so as an emotional release to cope with the many traumas he faced, beginning with his distressing capture as a 2-year-old calf and including the physical assaults he experienced as a juvenile at the hands of his two older tankmates at Sealand.

From its incipient stages, “Blackfish” has been the focus of a media circus, as is the case when anything threatens such a powerful corporation as Seaworld. Almost as soon as talks of Cowperthwaite’s project began, Seaworld started taking preemptive measures against the inevitable critique they knew would come. A vague but nonetheless barbed open letter written by the company’s higher-ups circulated early on, asserting that “the men and women of Seaworld are true animal advocates.” Thus began a penned battle of back-and-forth between Cowperthwaite’s team and Seaworld.

By the time “Blackfish” was released and publically received, Seaworld had come out with another piece, this time targeted at “Blackfish” specifically, as it addressed accusations point-by-point. This post found a fiercer response both in favor of and against it from seasoned activists and rookie campaigners alike, who had by now organized themselves into “pro-cap” and “anti-cap” camps — in favor of and against captivity, respectively.

Within weeks of the film’s premiere, Tilikum the murderer became Tilikum the victim. Within months, Seaworld’s stock tanked and several of Seaworld’s partners, such as Southwest Airlines and the Beach Boys, withdrew their support. Within years, policymakers began enacting changes. In 2016 alone, California governor Jerry Brown banned orca captivity and breeding programs, and Seaworld itself pledged to fundamentally alter its flamboyant orca shows to focus more on education.

Today, especially in the face of scrutiny following Tilikum’s passing, “Blackfish” is still discussed and hotly debated. Many consider it a world-changing piece of activism; many consider it irreverent propaganda. Without a doubt, it has changed how people view animals in captivity compared to their wild counterparts. It has also brought to light longstanding efforts to relocate the orcas living in less-than-ideal conditions to sea pens, which would allow them to swim greater distances freely but still allow them to survive given their blunted hunting skills.

One of these whales whose situation has earned a considerable following in the fervor spawned by “Blackfish” is Lolita, famously the oldest orca in captivity. Now 50 years old, Lolita, a member of the meticulously-researched resident orca population of the Salish Sea, was captured off the coast of Puget Sound during a harrowing hunt in 1970. She was moved to the Miami Seaquarium, where she had one tankmate and breeding partner, Hugo, who also happened to be from the same region. Because resident orca populations form distinctive dialects in their communications, Hugo and Lolita could essentially speak the same language and grew close without the violent conflict that often accompanies cohabiting orcas of different clans. A decade after their meeting, Hugo died of a brain aneurysm after ramming his head habitually into the wall of their pool. Lolita has been alone ever since.

Remarkably, Lolita’s mother, now nearly 90 years old, still lives. Perhaps even more remarkably, Lolita, although she was only four when captured, still remembers her native dialect. By these two facts alone, the petitions to retire her to a sea pen in the Pacific Northwest with her family have grown stronger than ever.

Only three years have passed since “Blackfish” was released, but a world of change has occurred since then. This isn’t the only time a documentary has had concrete impacts on public opinions, but it is a turning point in humanity’s serious examination of the consciousness and rights of other species. Regardless of its integrity as an accurate primary source, “Blackfish” served its purpose in bringing these questions to the forefront of popular discourse. Just by existing, it dented the orca performance industry in the United States and, more generally, made the case that we are not the only species with emotional capacity and thus inherent birthrights.

During a talking head interview in “Blackfish,” former Seaworld trainer John Jett poignantly expressed his answer to the question of orcas’ depth of sentience: “When you look into their eyes, you know somebody is home.” Proving once again the potency of media and activism’s combination, a considerable international audience would soon come to agree.

“Cutting Room Floor” columns are one-off, arts-oriented pieces written by Daily Cal staff members.

Contact Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].