Saturday, July 20, 2013

Go See 'Blackfish' Before Sea World Stops You

There's an amazing and gripping new documentary out this week that -- like The Cove -- may prove to be at least a small turning point in how humans treat our fellow animals, wild and otherwise. It's titled Blackfish, and it's well worth your time.

And if the noises coming from Sea World -- the chief target of the documentary -- prove substantive, you may want to see it before it gets pulled from theaters under threat of lawsuit. The New York Times has the story:
In an unusual pre-emptive strike on the documentary “Blackfish,” set for release on Friday in New York and Los Angeles by Magnolia Pictures, SeaWorld Entertainment startled the film world last weekend by sending a detailed critique of the movie to about 50 critics who were presumably about to review it. It was among the first steps in an aggressive public pushback against the film, which makes the case, sometimes with disturbing film, that orca whales in captivity suffer physical and mental distress because of confinement. ...

... It was also deliberating possible further moves, which might conceivably include informational advertising, a Web-based countercampaign or perhaps a request for some sort of access to CNN, which picked up television rights to “Blackfish” through its CNN Films unit and plans to broadcast the movie on Oct. 24.

... Asked whether SeaWorld was contemplating legal action against the film, G. Anthony Taylor, the general counsel, said decisions about any such step would have to wait until executives were able to more closely assess the movie. “Blackfish” made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has since screened at other festivals in the United States and abroad.
Here are the eight points Sea World raises -- along with the filmmakers' responses. As you can see, Sea World's arguments are made out of some pretty thin gruel. For example, they try to pretend that orcas live as long or longer in captivity than they do in the wild -- an outrageously laughable claim:
SeaWorld Assertion 2
The assertion that killer whales in the wild live more than twice as long as those living at SeaWorld. While research suggests that some wild killer whales can live as long as 60 or 70 years, their average lifespan is nowhere near that. Nor is it true that killer whales in captivity live only 25 to 35 years. Because we’ve been studying killer whales at places like SeaWorld for only 40 years or so, we don’t know what their lifespans might be—though we do know that SeaWorld currently has one killer whale in her late 40s and a number of others in their late 30s. 

Film Response
In the wild, average lifespan is 30 for males, 50 for females. Their estimated maximum life span is 60-70 years for males and 80-90 years for females. In captivity, most orcas die in their teens and 20s and only a handful have made it past 35.The annual mortality or death rate for orcas is 2.5 times higher in captivity than it is in the wild. These are not controversial data. In the film, we depict what seems to be a deliberate attempt by SeaWorld to misrepresent these well documented data to their visitors.
The film's director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, observed in an interview with Salon that the facts just aren't on Sea World's side, so it is trying the usual right-wing tactic of creating an alternative reality in which they are:
And yet it did surprise us that they would want to take on the facts. Anyone who knows anything about SeaWorld knows that this has always been a losing battle for them; the facts are indisputable. Their intention is to cast a shadow of doubt right before the film goes nationwide. We expected it. But I didn’t know they would’ve taken this tactic. It’s not one they tend to win.
But they have been good at shutting down and mucking up investigations of their operations, including those by local and federal animal-welfare authorities, and they've been expert at throwing up lots of fog about what they do and the nature of their "zoological facilities" -- which are, as Cowperthwaite observes, really entertainment venues that generate multibillon-dollar revenues for their ownership.

And let's not forget just who those owners are: None other than our right-wing friends at the Blackstone Group, well noted for their attempts in cahoots with the Koch Brothers to astroturf such campaigns as "Social Security reform", and whose CEO notably compared President Obama to Hitler for having the audacity to raise taxes on him and his fellow 1 percenters.

But more important, as the Times review observes, the film's power is driven by the immense charisma of the animals themselves -- and the growing realization on our part that tiny concrete tanks are no place for six-ton giants with powerful brains:
Calmly and methodically countering SeaWorld’s contention that whales benefit from captivity — the Web site “Orcas in Captivity” places the current total at 45 — Ms. Cowperthwaite questions the advisability of exploiting mammals whose brains, the neuroscientist Lori Marino suggests, may be more complex than our own.

“When you look into their eyes, you know somebody is home,” one of the trainers says. Perhaps that’s why SeaWorld’s most well-known show was called “Believe.”
Blackfish isn't showing everywhere this weekend; it's coming out in staggered releases nationally. Check the film's screen schedule for a complete rundown.

UPDATE: Andrew O'Hehir has a great piece about Blackfish at Salon.