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Tales about killer whales no fun day at park

Some of the video of SeaWorld accidents is disturbing, and a lot of the footage of orcas -- killer whales -- being herded so their young can be grabbed for use in theme parks is heartbreaking.

But the most chilling moments in Blackfish, the CNN Films expos© of SeaWorld's long, ugly history with Shamu and his "big splash" kind, come from a 911 call and the transcription of a police interrogation.

From the 911 call: "A whale has eaten one of the trainers." This happened in Orlando in 2010, an accident witnessed by thousands and thus too big for SeaWorld to cover up. And from the sheriff's department transcripts, which reveal the early stages of the theme park company's spin on the event, a few blunt lines.

Question: "The arm?"

Answer: "He swallowed it."

The gist of this documentary, which is built around scores of interviews with ex-SeaWorld trainers, eyewitnesses to tragedies and near-tragedies, and whale experts, is this "didn't just happen," and it wasn't a one-time incident. For decades, the film points out, huge, social and roaming killer whales, confined to tiny pens and taught to perform in tank shows at amusement parks, have been involved in incidents and tragedies.

Tilikum, the male who killed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010, was a breeding male who had killed before, and yet was still in the show at SeaWorld Orlando. Many of the trainers were unaware of the whale's deadly past, but they suspected something by the way some company folks acted around him.

"Clearly (management) knew more than they were telling us," ex-trainer Samantha Berg declares.

Trainers acknowledge that only the most experienced of their ranks are actual "trainers," that the majority of the wetsuit-clad staff are basically smiling performers taking part in activities with animals they don't fully understand.

A veteran diver recalls, with regret, the whale roundups SeaWorld used to run in Washington's Puget Sound before they were banned from doing so. To a one, the witnesses talk of the personalities, intelligence and empathy of the whales, which never have human "accidents" in the wild. They're curious about us, even there, though, and they cry when their young are taken from them. We see it and hear it.

The film is a little monochromatic in its use of trainers. Some have survived "accidents," yet none of those people were interviewed. But otherwise, this is as thorough a takedown of a business and its practices as you're likely to ever see.

SeaWorld seemed to collectively bristle at the very idea of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, a film that first pointed the finger at the company's practices and how it encouraged dolphin roundups (and slaughters), but its corporate heads are going to explode at Blackfish, a damning documentary that shows the lies in "the party line" -- that orcas' fins curl naturally (which almost never happens in the wild), that they "live longer" in captivity (25 to 30 years in captivity, a "human lifespan" of 60 years-plus in the wild) and that these "accidents" are always the fault of "the trainers."

As one tearful ex-trainer says in utter outrage -- remembering her friend Brancheau, who was one of the smartest trainers out there -- "How dare they?"


-- McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 G9

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