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'Inside Blackfish: Killers in Captivity' Examined

Aired October 24, 2013 - 23:00   ET


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to the Anderson Cooper Special Report, "Inside Blackfish: Killers in Captivity." I'm Martin Savidge in New York. Thanks for being with us.

We want to continue the conversation about the fascinating film that you just saw. So, tonight we are going to tackle some of the provocative questions that have been raised by this movie, whether killer whales should ever be kept in captivity, and whether people are ever really safe working with them.

With me tonight in the studio, "Blackfish" Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Whale and dolphin experts Billy Hurley, former president at the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. Orca biologist Naomi Rose, the Animal Welfare Institute. And then Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and host of "Jack Hanna's Into the Wild" and "Jack Hanna's Wild Countdown."

Welcome to all of you. Jack, you know, what? I'm going to start with you. Because I know that for the last hour and a half, we have been listening to a specific perspective. Let me get your thoughts on what you think of this film.

JACK HANNA, DIRECTOR EMERITUS, COLUMBUS ZOO: Well, obviously the film is emotional. Having had the honor, I guess you could say, to lead Dawn to memorial at SeaWorld shortly after her death, I knew her very well. I've been going to SeaWorld since 1973. And, you know, you talk about the term we use at other water parks and places like SeaWorld, aquariums and zoos. It touches the heart to teach the minds. And I live by that. I've always lived by that since I was a young boy at our farm in Tennessee. So, did this documentary touch our hearts? Of course it did. It teaches the mind, I don't think it did.

What is on the video there in the past 30 or 40 years obviously was on the video there. But the people I can tell you now that work at SeaWorld from the CEOs down to the trainers, down to the people that serve the food are all people that love these animals probably just as much as they love their families. When I go around these parks, which I've done, I'm not an employee of SeaWorld. Have I charged for speeches right before? Yes, I have. I went to SeaWorld in 1973. I was one of the first visitors there. And I continue to take my kids, their kids now and hopefully their kids' kids, grandkids' kids, that's three or four generations going there.

If I thought one animal there that was being mistreated or wasn't so to speak happy, whatever happy is, and of course some of these guys who know about whales will tell you what happy is and what happy isn't. But that's what I see when I visit these parks. And you know, something? Out of sight is out of mind which means that killer whales back in 40 years ago were out there in the oceans of the world, knowing what they were, what they were, they are out of sight. So that's out of mind.

SAVIDGE: All right, jack. We'll get to this.

HANNA: But if you love something, you have to save something.

SAVIDGE: Let me just say this. We want to make this a conversation. So, let's keep it moving back and forth. Billy Hurley, I know that you said that you were just disappointed in what you saw. What do you mean by that and how so?

BILLY HURLEY, WHALE AND DOLPHIN EXPERT: I think it's a very moving, you know, piece of media. I think it's a piece of art. For me there's a personal side to it which is Dawn is a friend of mine. And it's hard to watch that scab be picked emotionally over and over. That was difficult. But professionally I have a hard time with it as well. Because I felt like the film distracted people from what is really important about whales and dolphins, and that's the challenges they face in the wild and the responsibility that we have to conserve them. And part of the conservation is have the animals in the care to learn from. It's critical. It's critical for us to learn as scientists. It's also critical for the inspiration of kids and other generations without the -- I don't think we can do that.

SAVIDGE: Gabriela, let me ask you this, when you took on this project, initially this was to be a focus on just how could a trainer be killed by an animal that they cared so much for, right?


SAVIDGE: But it clearly progressed. I mean, you can see this now by the film. You obviously had a change of mind or you found a different focus.

COWPERTHWAITE: Yes, you know, I didn't come from animal activism. I was a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld. So, you know, when I found out about this tragic event, I thought to myself it didn't square with anything that I knew. I know killer whales don't kill us in the wild. I didn't understand why the story kept changing. It was kind of confounding event. I started peeling back the onion. You know, the first thing I learned was of course Tilikum had killed twice before. Then I learned about the social strife within the tanks. I just couldn't believe it. It was so shocking. Just sort of fact after fact was pretty shocking to me.

SAVIDGE: We should point out and be very upfront with this that SeaWorld was invited to participate and be a part of this program tonight. Also in all the reporting I did, we asked over and over. Each time SeaWorld declined. But they clearly have said that they believe that this film is inaccurate and that they believe in many ways, it is inappropriately taking the death of this trainer. How do you respond to that one? Because it is a charge that people bring out the emotions of her death.

COWPERTHWAITE: It is really the thing I probably grapple with the most. I was early on in touch with some of her family members. I interviewed both of her sisters. But you know, they're not going to focus on her death and that one day. Their energies are put towards remembering Dawn as a person and how she led her life. And you know, I can only sort of say that, you know, I didn't know Dawn. In some ways where she was more represented in the film and some sort of way. But I also sort of can only hope that if Dawn knew of this movie she might be OK with something that protects the whales she loved and dedicated her life to and protects and keeps her, her fellow trainers safe.

SAVIDGE: Let me bring in Naomi Rose. This is an issue that goes far beyond just the death of a trainer clearly for a person like you.

NAOMI ROSE, ORCA BIOLOGIST, ANIMAL WELFARE INSTITUTE: Right. I'm a killer whale biologist and orca biologist. I care about the animals. I appreciate the concern that Billy expressed about picking the scab of the wound. I believe it was a tragedy, but if any good can come out of it for the animals, then that's what I'm hopeful of. And I don't think that reporting about this incident, which was a culmination of a number of other incidents is inappropriate. I think it's very newsworthy. Clearly the public is concerned about it. It's completely appropriate to address this issue in this format.

SAVIDGE: Jack, I'm going to ask you real quick here and we're going to run out of time before our break. But the benefits of captivity so that people understand. There are clear benefits for the public. Summarize if you would.

HANNA: Sure, there are benefits for the public. Again, out of sight, out of mind. If they don't ever see a killer whale, how they want to know to love something? To save something? By the way, at the end of that show, it was very incredible how you saw the five or six characters that are in the show out there, I think toward -- in Northern Alaska there, whatever it might be, seeing the killer whales in the wild or smiling. That was great for them, wasn't it? If they got to see that. Guess how many people get to see that? One-tenth of maybe 100 percent of people in this country and throughout the world. Have you ever get to see a killer whale? But they got to see that.

The ending of that show really says it all right there to me. Those folks are on that show, they weren't forced to be killer whale trainers. You chose that. Indy car drivers chose that. So, don't sit there and tell me that these folks are put in harm's way. SeaWorld, these folks would never put anyone knowingly in harm's way. That's ludicrous. And that's what the show represents as far as I'm concerned.

SAVIDGE: All right. The conversation is going to continue in a moment. Nearly three years after the death of Brancheau, we will talk about whether trainers should be allowed into the water with orcas and if they ever can return in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) SAVIDGE: Welcome back to this Anderson Cooper Special Report, "Inside Blackfish: Killers in Captivity." I'm Martin Savidge. I'm with guests tonight. "Blackfish" filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Whale and dolphin expert Billy Hurley. Orca biologist Naomi Rose and Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo. Thanks for all of us coming back.

Naomi, let me ask you this. The question here is captivity. You say captivity kills orcas. You're very up front with that, right?

ROSE: Right. I've studied them for 25 years. I feel very strongly that in captivity their lives are shortened. We have done some analysis of the mortality rates. We are going to presenting this information at a scientific conference in December. And what it indicates is the mortality rates on an annual basis are three times as high in captivity than they are in a well studied population in British Columbia. Some people will say, not all orcas live as long as they do in British Columbia. But that is an indication of how long they can live when they are out in the wild, and they don't come even close to that in captivity.

And to me, that sort of the metric that we should be looking at. If all of the benefits that Billy or Jack will be talking about are in fact something that we can get out of seeing these animals in captivity, are those benefits worth the cost to the animals, and given how much we know about them now, that science has taught us about them? I argue no.

SAVIDGE: OK. Well, this is a debate obviously that has evolved over time. Over decades, actually. And Billy, let me ask you this. It used to be back in the '60s, '50s, these creatures that were virtually unknown. And in many cases, I know they were used as target practices by certain navies, I mean, because they were considered monsters. We have learned as a result of having them in captivity.

HURLEY: Well, there's no doubt about that. There's a couple of ways of looking at this as well. You know, on my own personal experience, I too have spent 25 years working with marine mammals and human care. As a whale and dolphins biologist myself, I've had the opportunity to study them in the wild. But I've also had the opportunity to use the relationship and the positive reinforcement training that we have with these animals to find out the secrets of how they do what they do. Whether it is physiology or hearing, or the productive needs, nutritional issues. These are very important things.

And so to Naomi's point, is there a cost? Is there an exchange? Well, we spend a lot of time talking about statistics, we spend a lot of time talking about analysis and whether SeaWorld or other killer whale holders have done a better job as years have progressed, we could talk probably for hours and hours and we don't have that time. But the fact of the matter is we could not learn how these animals do what they do and then turn that into conservation and turned that into protection of animals without any similar terminology of what their biology and physiology is like. And so, it's incredibly important that you study them in the wild to know what they're doing and how they're doing it.

SAVIDGE: Let me bring up this point. And we say SeaWorld. There are many marine parks. It should be pointed out. It's not just SeaWorld here at all. But Gabriela in this particular discussion, when we talk about the value of keeping these creatures in captivity, the lessons that have been learned have reached a point where some scientists say, all right, we've learned. No, it's time to let them go. Because what we've learned is telling us that these are creatures we really shouldn't have. Is that what you think?

COWPERTHWAITE: I think that's the strange little ironic thing about it, right? That, you know, yes, I almost to Jack Hanna's point, you know, yes, we did sort of learn to grow to love them by maybe seeing them up close and then obviously the data that we were able to gather for the, you know, the scientific community and learning about them. Obviously there was some about it as well that came from the captive population there. But it seems that the most important thing that we learned from having whales in captivity is ironically that they should not be in captivity.

SAVIDGE: Jack, what about this point that you know, SeaWorld, of course, really introduced us to these creatures, to these animals, almost where we fell in love, and I think many people would say, they did fall in love, but they are now faced with this horrible dilemma that once people have fallen in love they really care. And then they suddenly say, if I care, how could it be possible that we keep these animals in a cement pool? How do you answer that, Jack?

HANNA: Again, I'm not a whale researcher or whale expert. All I see is what I see at SeaWorld. Animals that seem happy, they're breathing, they're eating. I'm not sure about the life spans. I know they do research in the wild. But is the research in the wild 100 percent? Absolutely not. I've been doing this for 42 years. I've interviewed researchers all over the world about the whale. You know, and I still say that you have to love something to save something. We use the word captivity, by the way.

What is captivity, by the way? The entire world or the national parks -- the North Pole and parts of the Amazon, having been to all these places. The whole world is a national park. They're smaller when you come to SeaWorld or maybe the Columbus Zoo is the largest in the country. But I can tell you know, there are new African belt is not captivity. Our new polar bear exhibit for $26 million is not captivity. I can tell you that the zoos last year in this country -- gave over $150 million to the animals in the wild in one year. The Columbus Zoo has given $12 million in the last ten years.

SAVIDGE: All right. I get it.


COWPERTHWAITE: That's not what we're coming from what Jack is saying.

May I say something? I mean, I really do hear what Jack is saying. And I'm going to let Billy and Naomi talk a bit more about the science and the conservation aspect. But, you know, the most heartening thing I would say that came from my experience with making "Blackfish" is really the young people. Right? The teenagers and young kids that have e-mailed since and, it's sort of like there's this whole younger generation that knows that just because it's magnificent and awe inspiring and beautiful doesn't mean it's yours.

SAVIDGE: But I get Jack's point. I mean, what he's saying is that, if we don't get to see these creatures right up close and really get to look them, they're going to be lost to us. And if they're lost to us, we don't really care. In other words, we're building up this appreciation of an environment, of an ocean that may be threatened. Of an animal that is really part of a much bigger world.

ROSE: But I think that one of the things that Jack said that is really relevant is that in certain situations, you can provide a habitat or an environment that is very similar to the wild. And the animal may in fact not be aware that it's in confinement because you give it a large enclosure or the African belt, as it were in the Safari Park. But you can't do that for killer whales. You can't do that for orcas.

SAVIDGE: We have to take a break. Billy, I'll let you respond to that after we get done. As you saw in tonight's film, Tilikum's story is of course not a fairy tale. Captured from the wild, he was two-years-old then. He was punished and deprived of food the first water park where he lived which was up in Canada. Should everyone have seen it coming that he would be rather involved in the deaths of three people? We'll talk about that as well coming up.


SAVIDGE: Welcome back to an Anderson Cooper Special Report "Inside Blackfish: Killers in Captivity." Blackfish follows the story of Tilikum, an orca that was captured in the North Atlantic in 1983, 27 years before he killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. But it was those years in captivity themselves that turned Tilikum into a killer? I mean, that's really the question that's being debated here. Here's a clip from "Blackfish."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He's not killing because he's just crazy. He's not killing because he doesn't know what he's doing. He's killing because he's frustrated, and he's got aggravations, and he doesn't know how to -- he has no outlet for it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now Tilikum is spending a great deal of time by himself and basically floating lifeless in a spool.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Three hours now and he hasn't moved.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SAVIDGE: Naomi, that's a very strong contention, because we're almost implying there's a motive, there's a reason here. Tilikum is a murderer. He's a killer because he's driven to this. Do you buy into that?

ROSE: No, I think actually what was said was that, you know, he is not actually a murderer. You know, he's just acting out. We're very fragile compared to them. And, you know, unfortunately when they act out like that out of frustration, somebody is injured or dies. You know, the problem here is the way they interact with these animals, the trainers are put at risk. They come to understanding with elephants, the protected contact is the only way to keep the handler's safe.

SAVIDGE: Do you think there is a way for these handlers to interact in the water with these --

ROSE: The only way to keep the trainer's safe is through protected contact which means, don't get in the water. Do not touch them. Stay a safe distance back. It think that's bad for the whale's welfare. I think it's important for them to have the only bond that's left with them is with their trainers. And therefore, it's the only way you can guarantee your trainer's safety is through harming the welfare of the animal, you shouldn't have them in captivity in the first place.

SAVIDGE: Do you think it's possible, Billy, that these trainers, once again, they are not allowed to go in the water right now due to a government edict that came down. Do you think it's possible they could go back in the water? Do what they were doing? The high flying stunts, those gymnastics? All of that?

HURLEY: Absolutely. You know, I'm fortunately be the only person on the panel who is an animal trainer and the only person who spent his career working with these animals and dedicated his life to that part of Marine Mammals Science and Conservation. So, I do think so. But much like a horse that maybe doesn't like his ear tickled but rather his mane come out, you need to know the individual personalities of these animals. And I think that SeaWorld has many, many years, many decades and thousands of hours and so many interactions to show they are very, very safe. So, I think you're isolating one or two incidents and trying to -- generalization and something that I'm just going to have to disagree with. And these oppositions, opinions of those in this movie, I just don't agree with.

SAVIDGE: Gabriela, you're shaking you head. I can see it.

COWPERTHWAITE: I think, you know, just speaking, no, I'm not an animal trainer or whatever. But I've, you know, spoken a lot to them. And there are many trainers who were working now at SeaWorld who are getting a hold of me and talking about aggressive incidents. And, you know, there were I don't know how many documented. Almost 100 documented incidents of aggression between trainers and whales, and you know, that could be 1,000 undocumented ones. I mean, you know, these are animals, obviously incredibly frustrated, incredibly bored, who are all prone or, you know, can kill or definitely attack trainers. And do.

ROSE: And that came out in the Osha hearing here in which I attended. You know? And it was an eye opening experience to hear from the SeaWorld employees who were on the stand who were there not voluntarily and being questioned by the Osha attorneys and having to acknowledge the number of incidents that were not, in fact, recorded. You know, they have 100 incidents on record. And some that were never recorded.

SAVIDGE: I'll put up real quickly that SeaWorld of course is planning to appeal that in that process. Jack, let me ask you this. Do you think it's possible that trainers at SeaWorld interacting with these creatures in the water again? And you're going to get the final word here.

HANNA: I'm not sure they'll going to be back in the water again but God forbid, SeaWorld got to get rid of all their killer whales because let's see what happens if countries change their leadership. They go back to hunting whales again. And we found out that not so many whales left. The research and education that SeaWorld is providing all of us is indescribable. And I hate to see that go. As far as going back into the water, that's yet to be seen. I wish I knew the answer to that question. But if SeaWorld trainers are contacting you guys, what they just said, then they should leave SeaWorld.

If they know there's something wrong with it, and they're dangerous, and they should -- that's like saying, oh, you know, I can't climb a building and clean windows anymore. Let's get out of here. You know, that's unbelievable that these trainers are calling them and saying that. Because SeaWorld has done a great job. Just like they took the California condor and brought it back to the wild now. Thanks to LA and the San Diego -- example after example. Plus one last thing. Did you ever thank SeaWorld for the beautiful whale they saved, the largest rehab of any whale in the world, the JJ whale that came there? They knew it was too big for the tank.

SAVIDGE: Jack, nobody is going to disagree that SeaWorld does a lot of incredible rescue work. I don't think anybody doubts that. It's just the question of captivity remains out there. And we have got to go. I am very sorry we are so quickly out of time. Jack Hanna, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Bill Hurley and also Naomi Rose, thank you very much for joining us.

This is an Anderson Cooper Special, the conversation all about Blackfish. It continues though next on "CROSSFIRE."