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Documentary makes case for freeing ‘killer whales’

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Magnolia Pictures presents a documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Cowperthwaite and Eli Despres. Running time: 83 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images). Opening Friday at Landmark Century Centre Cinema.

Updated: August 27, 2013 6:08AM

‘A whale ate one of the trainers?” an emergency operator asks a tearful caller in the opening of “Blackfish.” Incredulity and outrage mark this investigative report by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. The ironic tragedy is that orcas kill their kind trainers, not the captors who put these 8,000-pound ocean travelers in metal pens that make them “psychotic.”

“Killer whales” are not named for killing people. Marine biologists claim Orcinus orcas, popularly known as orcas, never kill us in the wild. For her title, Cowperthwaite chooses the name used by the original inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest. “Blackfish” indicts operators of orca parks for moral crimes of inter-species injustice.

Cowperthwaite interviews trainers who display empathy for the majestic mammals. Many knew the victims of orca attacks. Few testify to former employers looking out for the best interests of creatures or their caretakers. Court records — including the case of Occupational Safety & Health Administration versus SeaWorld of Florida, LLC — supply background. Whistleblowers outnumber animal rights activists in the documentary.

Especially revealing are videos of incidents shot by visitors. “A Horrified Crowd Watches” is how Fox News hyped one clip. The problem is that people like to see whales. Tourists buy tickets to watch them perform. Cowperthwaite inserts clips from the 1977 film “Orca” that sensationalized a monster of the deep, and from “Free Willy” that went overboard to sentimentalize its title star in 1993. “Just seeing a killer whale is breathtaking,” relates one trainer.

“When you look into their eyes you know somebody is home, someone is looking back,” states former trainer John Jett. Lori Marino, who teaches courses in animal intelligence and human-nonhuman ethics, adds, “The orca brain just screams out intelligence.” Dispiriting as “Blackfish” is at times, it offers beautiful advocacy for orca freedom. Anecdotes and data indicate these mammals are highly sensitive and social. Treating them as we do for our entertainment and profit is unconscionable.

Cowperthwaite’s documentary style befits her cable background as a contributor to ESPN, National Geographic, Animal Planet, Discovery and History. This is not Werner Herzog mystifying nature.

“We don’t speak whale, we don’t speak tiger, we don’t speak monkey,” noted Whoopi Goldberg when an orca incident made national news. There are corporate obstacles to communication, too. No one from SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment agreed to appear in the film, although a spokesman issued a letter listing “egregious and untrue allegations” in the film. David Kirby, author of “Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity,” then posted a persuasive rebuttal. SeaWorld as much as self-indicts its orca practices as indefensible.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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