“That speaker was tearing up,” my husband said. “Did you see?” We were exiting a talk by one of the expedition team on our voyage to Antarctica.
I missed the tears, but I did know that the speaker, Colin Baird, was carrying a great deal of emotion as he talked about his former work as an orca trainer. In his 45-minute talk, he could share only an iceberg tip of his vast knowledge. “I don’t get to tell this story very often,” he said.
Baird coordinated a team that in 1998 began the process of reintroducing an orca named Keiko to the ocean around Iceland. Keiko, who had been captured at age 3 and starred 15 years later in the 1993 hit “Free Willy,” received funding from concerned moviegoers and others to be rescued from a poorly-equipped Mexican amusement park.
Baird recounted this story, including his own heartbreak when a year after attaining freedom, Keiko died of probable pneumonia in 2003.
Although Baird is proud of his efforts for Keiko, he describes himself as a former whale trainer who will not go back. His ideas about orcas in captivity and about their use for entertainment at places like SeaWorld have changed entirely in the past 20 years.
Soft-spoken and unassuming in person, Baird is all over the web right now. This is because before he toiled on the Free Keiko project, Baird was an orca trainer in British Columbia where he worked with Tilikum, the orca who allegedly kills three people in the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.”
The thesis of the movie is that Tilikum killed because of psychological scarring caused by his captivity. His final victim was a 40-year-old trainer at SeaWorld in Florida named Dawn Brancheau.
When I watched the movie last week, I wondered why Baird, the trainer I’d met in Antarctica, wasn’t in it. Several other former trainers were interviewed and almost with one voice they deplored the capture of orcas and the behavior of SeaWorld. A typical quote was, “I was blind. I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was doing really.”
Like my page-mate Debra DeAngelo who wrote a recent column on this topic, I was shaken by the movie, particularly because I remember the first time I saw an orca perform in the 1970s. I was awed by this magnificent animal that seemed to be having a great time.
I’ve watched orca shows since, always with pleasure. I didn’t know that orcas (also called killer whales) have been taken as babies from sophisticated family tribes that have their own languages and and normally stay together for life. If one whale departs, the others show signs of great distress.
Colin Baird was one of Tilikum’s first trainers. Why wasn’t he in the movie?
After I did more research on the Web, I think I know why. Baird did not agree with the thesis that aquarium life made Tilikum into a monster. In an October 2013 interview for CNN, Baird said, “(Tilikum) was very easygoing, he learned quickly, he learned well, very responsive.”
I’ve also learned that other people had negative reactions to the movie, even if they agree that we should no longer capture killer whales.
For example, consider the open letter by the parents of the woman who died in Tilikum’s tank in 2010. This letter was published just last week.
They write, “Dawn Brancheau believed in the ethical treatment of animals. Dawn thrived on introducing the whales to the audience and educating them about the animals in her care. Dawn would not have remained a trainer at SeaWorld for 15 years if she felt that the whales were not well cared for.”
Clearly, the parents feel the movie was insensitive to Dawn and unfair to SeaWorld.
When I think about Baird, I feel that perhaps I met one of the most even-handed, thoughtful people from this whole sorry saga of capture, animal misery and the deaths of unfortunate human beings.
In his CNN interview, Baird said, “(Orcas) have personalities, for the lack of a better word, individual personalities, and they have good days and bad days just as we do. There were some days, Tilikum would have a certain look in his eye — then I would just say, ‘Nope, not getting in the water with him today.’ ”
After reading Baird’s remarks, the letter by Brancheau’s parents, SeaWorld’s statements, and comments by trainers on the web, I came to realize that “Blackfish” is not an even-handed movie — not even close.
A great deal of picking and choosing went into what we saw on film, including giving maximum camera time to less-experienced trainers, rather than those who worked directly with Tilikum, knew more of the story and could have offered a nuanced account.
Because the movie tugged at my heartstrings, this angers me. I don’t like to be manipulated. Problems with orcas in captivity are real, and the producers didn’t need to exaggerate.
The flaws of “Blackfish” do not, however, change the understanding I now have of orca family life, which is destroyed when orcas are placed in captivity.
I agree with my fellow columnist, Debra DeAngelo, that we need to wake up. Orca shows were wonderful in their time and, more importantly, in our ignorance. Now that we know more, we must let the shows go.
As for the movie, watch with discerning eyes.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org