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Beyond 'Blackfish'

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite talks about her new film 'Megan Leavey' and the lifesaving work of military dogs

All Animals magazine, July/August 2017

by Michael Sharp

The film Megan Leavey is the first feature film for director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who hopes it highlights the strong bond between humans and animals. Photo by Michael Tacket/Bleecker Street.

Four years after the release of her game-changing documentary Blackfish, about the plight of killer whales at SeaWorld, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite is now shining a light on military service dogs: their harrowing work, and the incredible bonds they can form with their human comrades.

Cowperthwaite’s first feature film, Megan Leavey, opens Friday, June 9, and stars Kate Mara as a young Marine who is assigned to clean the K9 unit at Camp Pendleton in California. Soon, she finds herself training an aggressive German shepherd named Rex. The movie, which is based on a true story, follows their growing bond and, after a deployment to Iraq, their struggle to reunite.

Cowperthwaite spoke with All Animals contributor Michael Sharp for this edited interview.

Kate Mara plays the title role in Megan Leavey, a film about a Marine and her canine partner, Rex. Photo by Jacob Yakob/Bleecker Street.

What stood out to you about the script for Megan Leavey, and about taking on this project?

I didn’t have to do a lot of soul-searching. This kind of cause is important, not only really the animal cause, but also I’ve worked in the past on some Marine stories---I’ve worked on documentaries for The History Channel on the Iraq war. And so, this was relevant to me on a number of different fronts. But I think in terms of telling a story about our relationship to an animal, and our relationship with animals, and what it is that they do for us---and hopefully what it is that we owe to them in return---that theme strikes a chord with me.

What were the main things you wanted to capture about Megan and Rex?

I guess I wanted everybody to come away understanding what it really means to bond. That’s something we just throw around; you know, you have a bond with a dog. I don’t know that anybody realizes in Megan’s case—and in both of their cases, to a large extent—they couldn’t do life without each other. They almost died together. He saved her life. And so when you separate them, and you sever that bond, it’s huge. And I wanted to portray that neither of them can move on in a good way without the other.

  • Megan Leavey and Rex. Photo by Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press.

Do you have a favorite scene?

I love when Megan and Rex are first out clearing the field in Iraq, searching for explosives. I think that is very scary to me; it puts everything in perspective to me. You’ve got miles of land that you’re supposed to be clearing, and suddenly he finds an IED. It’s so overwhelming how much work they have to do and how much ground they have to cover to just make a passage safe for not only other military, but for civilians.

That was one of the things that really stood out to me: just how valuable these dogs are, in terms of sweeping cars and sweeping houses and sweeping fields.

Absolutely. The K9s and their dog handlers—their sacrifice is unfathomable. They are in front of the front lines in so many of these cases. So, yeah, they’re clearing fields. They’re finding weapons caches. They’re finding drugs. So they’re in the heat, in the hot spots, before a lot of the Marines and soldiers even come close, before a lot of other military even can approach. And so, really, it’s kind of the very meaning of sacrifice, what these canines and then their handlers are all about.

The defense spending bill in 2015 included an HSUS-backed measure to ensure these dogs return to the U.S. after their service and that their handlers get priority for adoption. Is there more we can do?

Absolutely. Just like any other veteran, these dogs are suffering from PTSD, we’ve just kind of come to learn. And so, by whatever means available, to be able to treat that dog and keep that dog safe, and away from a stimulus that might trigger things. It is a bigger job than just giving them their one walk a day. These are animals who have been training for something so specific and so intense that they require a lot of attention. So I think it would be amazing to have programs that monitor their health and help them acclimate to a calmer life. I think that could be an amazing thing to give a dog veteran.

Switching gears for a moment: Tilikum, the killer whale who was a central figure in Blackfish, died in January. Where were you when you learned the news?

I was out of town in Jackson, Wyoming, and felt an overwhelming sense of sadness, coupled with relief. It’s the end of an era. This is an animal who was just living a very miserable life, day in and day out, and still being forced to perform. And I think it’s just a profoundly sad existence. And he caused a lot of pain; he lived in constant pain. I think some important change came as a result of his life.

Read more about The HSUS's work with SeaWorld.

How did you approach, and how do you continue to approach, tough topics in a way that’s engaging to a general audience—in a way that’s not going to turn them off, but in a way that still conveys the urgency or the importance of the issue?

That’s the beauty of film. I don’t have to tell anybody anything. I can show them. And I think that’s the biggest challenge with any kind of advocacy is that the person you’re talking to is going to roll their eyes and be annoyed, because I think people in general don’t want to be told what to think or how to feel. I think that’s a challenge with teaching in classrooms; I think that’s a challenge with parenting. You have to show them. You have to use whatever tools and means at your disposal to let people come to their own conclusions.

In the Blackfish case, it’s pulling back the curtain. In the Megan Leavey case, it’s telling a Marine’s story and helping you understand how she came to her realizations. And so, you have to see yourself in that story somewhere. You have to see yourself as a mother, what it would be like to lose your killer whale calf. You have to imagine what it would be like to be a Marine, who has been saved by this dog, and are now forced to go home and let him go back out in the field, and maybe lose that comrade. So, to me, film is such a powerful tool. And that’s the beauty of it; we don’t have to preach. We have the benefit of being able to show.

In 2016, SeaWorld announced in partnership with The HSUS that it would no longer breed orcas in captivity. Photo by CMeder/IStockPhoto.

As you look back on the legacy of Blackfish, and some of the changes it set in motion, what is your reaction?

I feel like it will be 10 years from now when I look back and really understand everything that happened, because it was so fast. But I think one of the most important things it did was to ignite empathy. It’s done all these things politically—like SeaWorld has agreed to stop their breeding, and they’re not going to be transporting them to other places. So, I think this killer-whale-in-captivity thing is going to be gone. That said, we’re pushing for sea sanctuaries so that the killer whales still in captivity can live out their lives away from these concrete pools.

But again, I think one of the most important things it did was teach us how to understand what it would be like to be a sentient, intelligent animal who bonds with their kids, needs a lot of room to move, and imagine what it is that we’re doing to that animal.

And I think that spurs change. I think we do our best work when we empathize. And my hope is that, with this movie too, a dog is the portal of entry into understanding what it is that these canines have done for thousands of years—defending us, standing alongside us, protecting us. And just kind of putting into perspective what it is that we owe them.

Are there any other issues that you’d love to shine a light on, either documentary-wise or storytelling-wise?

Oh my gosh. How much time do you have? There’s so many issues that are very important to me, and for me, the challenge is to find a way in. That’s everything. Again, I try to … you can’t preach. You have to find a unique way in that’s accessible to people, that captivates them. And I think stories are the most powerful vehicles of change. And I think that that’s always what I’m looking for.

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