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'Blackfish' makes for quite a disturbing whale tale

| Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

“Blackfish” is a disturbing movie, one that will make you rethink parks like SeaWorld and their value.

In less-capable hands this might have come off as strident, the kind of thing that would make you raise your eyebrows, mutter something unkind about animal-rights activists and move on. But director Gabriela Cowperthwaite makes the story of killer whales kept in captivity intriguing and heartbreaking, both for the handlers who have been killed and injured, and for the whales themselves.

It's an ugly story (and one that SeaWorld has fought back against). But however the details are hashed out, one thing rings clear in the film: Killer whales almost certainly shouldn't be kept in captivity and used as trained performers. The dangers involved spell that out.

The focus of the film is Tilikum, the largest male orca in captivity. He has killed as many as three humans (the cause of one death, that of a mentally disturbed man, is in question).

Cowperthwaite talks to former trainers, cutting back and forth between their emotional stories and footage of them working with whales. They obviously love the animals and don't blame them for the attacks. Instead, they blame the circumstances, of keeping these animals confined.

Tilikum comes in for harsh treatment at SeaWorld. When he first arrived, taken from his mother, the female orcas would “rake” him, or scratch him with their teeth. He swam in a small area. After the last attack, he is now kept by himself and appears depressed, sometimes going hours without moving.

The highest-profile attack occurred in 2010, when SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum. The other trainers give a step-by-step account of what went wrong.

It's creepy, and sad, to see the dead trainers happily romping with the whales. (The film doesn't show the actual fatal attacks, but does include footage leading up to them, as well as violent and scary non-fatal incidents.) It's also frustrating. In the world of avoidable tragedies, these would seem to be near the top.

Tilikum remains, astonishingly, at SeaWorld, where he is still trotted out to splash the crowd (though he no longer performs tricks). Yes, it is exciting to see the whales, and entertaining to watch them perform. But is it worth it?

Bill Goodykoontz is the chief film critic for Gannett.

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